Campus & Community

Muses’ return

7 min read

Scholar gives a voice to ancient music silent for millennia

Dimitrios Yatromanolakis, a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, is studying fragments from the past in order to bring ancient music back to life. In addition to working with theoretical texts and musical scores, he examines vase paintings for clues about the place of music in Greek society. (Staff photo by Jon Chase)

Imagine a time in the remote future when all that is known of our world is what archaeologists have been able to excavate from the rubble – a handful of tantalizing puzzles with most of the pieces missing.

Suppose the scholars of that time were able to decipher the librettos of Verdi, Puccini, and Oscar Hammerstein, the lyrics of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Joni Mitchell, but could not reproduce one note of their music.

If we could communicate with those future historians, surely we would want to tell them: You are missing the best part of what we loved about these productions, the part that thrilled us, lifted our hearts, the part we tapped our feet and snapped our fingers to.

That is more or less the situation we face when we read the poetry and drama of ancient Greece. The epic verse of Homer, the love poems of Sappho, the tragedies of Sophocles, and the comedies of Aristophanes – all were accompanied by music. And yet that music – its melody, harmony, and rhythm, its very sound – has been almost completely lost to us.

Almost, but not quite. A number of clues remain, and one scholar believes that he can fit them together and resurrect a music that actually can be played and sung. His name is Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and he is conducting his research as a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows.

“Almost any ancient Greek text we read today contains a reference to music. How can we understand this culture unless we understand its music?” Yatromanolakis asks.

Despite the cultural importance of ancient Greek music, classical scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries have pronounced it dead, unrecoverable. Yatromanolakis believes this pronouncement is premature.

“There is a large corpus of theoretical writings on ancient music, and we have actual musical scores that have rarely been studied or talked about. It seemed to me that since we have all this material, the obituary can’t be true.”

The reason the puzzle of ancient Greek music has remained unsolved for so long, Yatromanolakis believes, is that the necessary interdisciplinary approach has not yet been brought to bear on it. Up until now, the few scholars who have studied ancient Greek music have either been musicologists who lacked classical training and could not adequately interpret the ancient texts, or else classical scholars whose understanding of music left something to be desired.

“The ball keeps being tossed back and forth between these two groups, and in the end no breakthroughs are made and we continue to say that ancient Greek music has died.”

Yatromanolakis may be ideally qualified to make a breakthrough in this field because he combines both types of expertise. Brought up in Herakleion on the Greek island of Crete, he earned a bachelor’s degree in classics from the University of Athens, then went on to earn a master’s and D.Phil. from Oxford University.

At the same time, he was developing his knowledge of music, concentrating not only on history and theory, but on performance as well. The instruments he has mastered include piano, guitar, sitar, tabla, and kithara, and he is equally at home with Mozart as he is with the music of Ali Akbar Khan, Caetano Veloso, or Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The kithara, a Greek stringed instrument that goes back to the time of Homer, plays an especially important role in Yatromanolakis’ efforts to find the key to the music of the ancient Greeks, for it is on this instrument that much of this music can be properly performed.

Although he stipulates that performance is only a secondary concern (his first interest is filling in the blanks of our scholarly knowledge of ancient Greek music), he and several friends from Oxford get together periodically to play these ancient pieces and are planning to produce a CD of their work.

Yatromanolakis believes that when the CD appears, it will be by far the most accurate rendition of ancient Greek music to date (there have been several attempts in the past, but he believes they rely too much on imagination and not nearly enough on knowledge). And while his own attempt may not be an exact replication, he does not consider this uncertainty a reason to abandon the project. After all, he points out, there is much controversy about how music of the 17th and 18th centuries was performed, but this does not deter modern musicians from playing it.

Yatromanolakis is full of praise for the Harvard Society of Fellows for supporting him in his research and for Harvard classicists like Gregory Nagy and Gloria Pinney for offering their expertise.

Their encouragement must seem sweet indeed since the quest, for the most part, has been a lonely one. Yatromanolakis estimates that there are only a few other people in the world seriously pursuing a similar line of research. They are far outnumbered by the skeptics and naysayers who proclaim the music’s demise. But Yatromanolakis, with a confidence that borders on the evangelical, has no use for those who declare his goal unreachable.

“To say that ancient music has died is an old-fashioned view,” he says. “This is not a healthy skepticism, in my opinion.”

According to Yatromanolakis, those who predict failure for the project may be unaware of the sources that are available, or of the progress that has been made in interpreting them.

These include:

  • the musical tables of Alypius, a Greek scholar thought to have lived in the fourth century A.D., which Yatromanolakis has used in new ways to decipher the Greeks’ notational system;
  • actual musical settings of poems by Euripides and later writers, preserved on papyri, parchment, and stone inscriptions. In these ancient scores, the notation for the singers was written above the words while that for the instrumentalists was written between them;
  • ancient works on musical theory by Euclid, Pseudo-Aristotle, Aristides Quintilianus, Boethius, and others. One of these theoretical works is by Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle. Last summer in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, Yatromanolakis discovered an unpublished work that follows Aristoxenus’ views on music and harmonics; he is now editing it for publication.Yatromanolakis has studied these and numerous other written texts, examined vase paintings for clues about the place of music in Greek society, and probed the remains of ancient instruments in the hope of constructing modern equivalents. He has also examined other ancient music systems that may throw light on the way Greek music was played and notated.”I always try to cross-examine these sources to increase my chances of coming to valid and safe conclusions,” he said.

    Yatromanolakis plans to bring together much of this material in a book he is writing with the working title of “Society in Contest: Poetic and Musical Competitions in the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Eras.” The title refers to the numerous contests held all over Greece in which poets, playwrights, singers, dancers, choral groups, and instrumentalists vied for the glory of being chosen number one. The book will provide a cultural context for his effort to reconstitute Greek music.

    He is also revising an earlier book-length study titled “Sappho in the Making,” an examination of the seventh century B.C. woman poet whose love lyrics exist only in tantalizing fragments.

    With his visionary outlook, single-minded application, and devotion to the most rigorous scholarly standards, Yatromanolakis seems likely to achieve startling breakthroughs in his discipline.

    “After such a long tradition of studying the classics, we must broaden our focus to include all possible aspects of the classical world. When we achieve an understanding of ancient Greek music, I believe it may revolutionize our field.”