Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient & Modern

I have been working for some time (more than a few years now!) on a book-length manuscript: a study of the history of poetry “married” to music, or “song,” from the Singing Neanderthals (see Steven Mithen’s excellent book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body) to the present day. Mine is a “book” grown so copious (I’m only at English Renaissance poet/composers such as Thomas Campion now), I may not be able to finish it within my lifetime. And I know there are other fine books on the subject (James Anderson Winn’s Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music; Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History); yet I have a friend who is interested in ancient Greek poetry set to music, and he asked if I knew anything about it—which I do. Both Ancient and Modern Greek poetry set to music in fact (there’s a definite continuum there)—so I’d like to “share” what I know by posting it on Bill’s Blog.

In Chapter Four of what I ‘ve written so far, I had the audacity to call the Greeks (both Ancient and Modern!) “my friends,” and that’s because they were, or became so, when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece (on Crete and Paros, with many side trips to other islands) for nearly a year in 1979/1980–and also because I have enjoyed reading both classical and Modern Greek poetry (in the original) and hearing it combined with music, since 1959, when I began to make a serious effort to be able to do so. In this post, I’d like to start with the near present (1979) and work my way back to “antiquity,” because this marriage of poetry and music displays amazing continuity, and longevity, and–to my mind and ears–has provided one of the most fortunate “blends” of the two forms.

When Betty and I left Greece in 1980, we gave all of the warm clothing we’d brought (wool sweaters and lumberjack shirts) to our landlord and landlady on the island of Paros, where we were living at the time, and I filled the suitcase with phonograph records: LPs that ranged from Vitzenzos Comaros’ epic poem from Crete, Erotokritos; Tragouthia tou Gamos (wedding songs from Crete, as well as Greece at large); instrumental music from Crete (tambouras [small bouzouki], laouto [lute], lyra [three-string bowed instrument]); vocal music from Crete (mostly mantinades: two fifteen syllable lines which rhyme, set to music); and Mikis Theodorakis’ handsome settings for the poetry of Giorgos Seferis (Mithistorima), Yannis Ritsos (Epitaphios), and Odysseus Elytis (Axion Esti).

Here are: the cover of a recording of Ancient Greek music (Musique de la Grece Antique: Atrium Musicae de Madrid) and a poster for a performance of To Axion Esti:

Ancient Greek Music Album Cover     Performance poster Axion Esti

When we first arrived in Greece, we took–after a short stay in Athens–a boat from Pereus, landing in the town of Chania in Crete. We thought we might find a house or apartment there; but Chania–in spite of its interesting history (the town built on the site of Cydonia, which dates back to just after the Minoan period) and an appealing waterfront–seemed too large (38,467 inhabitants at the time) and intractable. Also, we couldn’t find any music! So we got on a bus and headed east along the north coast, to the town of Rethymnon, which we fell in love with immediately–and which, throughout our four month stay there, would provide us with “live” music nearly every night. There is a saying in Crete: “Chanians for arms [at the time we were there, Souda Bay was not only the largest most secure bay in Crete, but in the entire Mediterranean]; Rethymnians for arts”–and that proved to be true. Here’s the harbor in Rethymnon, with its Fortetsa on the headland in the distance: (Photo credit: galaxie.gr)

rethimno harbor from air

While the Turkish occupation may have compromised the town’s famed artistic “flowering” (which took place during Venetian times), Rethymmon is still decidedly picturesque, with its two snowcapped mountains (Psiloritis or Mt. Ida, one of several birthplaces of baby Zeus in Greece, and Lefka Ori), red tiled roofs, narrow Venetian streets, old Venetian mansions, its Fortetsa on the headland (which harbors an abandoned mosque); three minarets (one the high point of the town, at its center), and a small, intimate, compatible harbor–even though I discovered the words “Exos Americanos” inscribed in large letters on one of its walls (“Americans, leave!”), and did not tell Betty, nor our son Steve (who was traveling with us after having just graduated from high school) this until much later. Here are: Mount Psiloritis and the Fortetsa in Rethymon (Photo credits: Fysimera.com and destinationcrete.gr)

Greece Mt. Ida         Fortetsa in Rethymnon 2

A spanking new tourist office was run, proudly, by a short, balding man named Kostos Palierakis, for whom I would soon be doing clerical work, helping to translate letters he received and responding to them. Kostos immediately found us a small house just a block from the beach, one with a heater that had to predate the Minoan civilization, a heater we would share (a blanket cast over our six knees beneath a table, to retain the heat) and a shower with a timer–hot water lasting all of about three minutes; the drain set on the high side of the floor not low, so the flood of water would rise above your ankles.

Here are: the view outside the window of the house Kostos found for us, and Kostos Palierakis himself with Betty:

Greece Crete WindowGreece Kostos and Betty

The small yard contained citron and olive trees, a grape arbor, trumpet vines, roses, Bird of Paradise, geraniums, and mandrake. We also fell in love with the town’s market area: its shops and periptera (kiosks), gypsy visitors leading a baboon through town, along with a huge bear with a ring in his nose. We found fresh fish daily (barbouni [red mullet], maritha [smelt], lithrini [sea bream], mourouna [cod], and fresh hot psomi [bread] we tucked beneath our arms for warmth (the Biblical name for “shop,” Astorieon, appropriate: “Give us this day our daily bread”). We found elies (olives) galore; giaourti (yogourt); meli (honey); turi (cheese: kasseri, kafaloteri, Cretan graviera)and britzoles from the butcher just beneath our house (when I asked for this, a lamb chop, he simply reached behind him and grabbed any piece of meat available, chopped it, and handed it to me!). We were provided with wine from the woman who ran the pool hall beneath the post office: wondrous Cretan kokkino krasi–red wine–for fifty drachmas (about $1.35) for a 1 ½ kilos jug. When I first went there I purchased the same amount of ouzo for 60 drachmas, but deciding I did not wish to die within a week, I never bought ouzo there again. Here are some streets scenes from Rethymnon: (Photo credits: synergise.com; tour-smart.co.uk; Jasmin Spiridaki)

Street scene in Rethymnon 2   Street scene in Retymnon 3Street scene in Rethymnon 3

So what does any of this have to do with the marriage of poetry and music in Greece? Well, everything! To my mind, the Greeks–in antiquity and down to the present day–were/are the first people to realize that such a union could never come about without acknowledging the full range of human experience: a complete social context in which song might evolve, even from seemingly trivial “daily round” or “day in the life” stuff, or subject matter, all of the commonplace richness of the human condition: food and drink and shelter (complete with imperfect toilet facilities) and sleep and a full palette of human aspiration that included every form of sensory activity, including sex–and then being willing and able to celebrate it all, both joyously and sadly on occasion, in song.

This came home to me, vividly, one night, lying in bed after midnight, fully content before falling asleep, having returned “home” after helping Kostos write some letters. No matter how elaborate the demands of potential American or European visitors (frequently professors, on sabbatical, like myself, but these seemed to require a plethora of rooms, toilet facilities, maid service, etc.), Kostos would command, “Vasilis [my Greek name], please, take letters; write, ‘Come to Crete!’” And that was it. He’d rewarded my efforts that evening with a couple shots of what he called “good Cretan water”: soul-bracing, throat-scouring raki. At home, attempting to fall asleep, I heard a group of university students (from a university located on the outskirts of town) coming up the hill by our house after a night at the local disco. Saturday Night Fever had come out in 1977, and John Travolta’s charismatic oscillations were still very much in vogue (not yet pronounced dead by Staying Alive), but these young men, having danced to such music all night, were not singing disco tunes. They were singing a poem from Odysseus Elitis’ epic work Axion Esti, set to music by Mikis Theodarakis:

“Tis agapis aimata me porphirosan/ Kai chares aneithotes me okiasane/ Ocheithothika mes sti votia/ ton anthropon/ Makrini Mitera, Rotho mou Amaranto.”  

“The blood of love has robed me in purple / And joys never seen before have coveredin shade. / I’ve become corroded in the south wind of humankind / Mother far away, my Everlasting Rose.” (Translation: Edmund Keely and George Savdis: The Axion Esti, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974)

I couldn’t believe my ears! These kids were singing, in fine chorus if a tad inebriate, the words of a Nobel prize laureate set to music by one of the finest composers in Greece–and doing so by choice, after an evening of ordinary fun, not coercion. It was the first time I’d heard this amazing cultural phenomenon in Greece, but it would not be the last.

Betty, our son Steve, and I began to explore the harbor area and found a small, casual, cozy restaurant (“Taverna Adelphia”) owned by a family named Koumiotis. Together, the youngest son, Tony (Andonios, who was the same age as Steve) and the oldest son, Thomas, proved to be a force when it came to attracting people of diverse national backgrounds to the place. I’d brought my guitar along on the trip (it proved to be an invaluable “passport”) and even on nights when we’d taken a stroll, sans guitar, and stopped off at the restaurant, Papa Koumiotis would reeve up his motor scooter, stash me on the back, and off we’d go to our house to fetch the instrument. Thus commenced a series of full-fledged hootenannies in which the common denominator of the French, Australians, Germans, Welsh, and Scandinavians present would be the tune “Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” or, after Thomas sang a Greek song that included animals, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” with each nationality providing its own linguistic equivalent for the “critters” called off. Another popular tune at the Koumiotis was the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

Here are photos of: the entire Kumiotis family with Betty (Mama, Tony, Papa, Thomas); Tony holding the sign I painted for the restaurant (not all that pleased, because “First born” brother, Thomas, insisted I put his own name alone on the bottom):

Greece Kumiotis Family

Greece My Sign for Kumiotis

Even better than these sessions at the restaurant were nights at the Agrelia, a tavern run by a man named Nikko, located in a whitewashed former Venetian stable with vaulted walls (the troughs lodged in the walls now held candles), the place buried amidst the narrow, winding Venetian streets. The Agrelia featured the owner on bouzoukia and an excellent guitarist named Paskalis, assisted by another guitarist named Dotheros. I began to take my guitar there, and on one occasion, that trio playing a Cretan tune with heavy Middle-Eastern overtones, I was told, “You can’t hear our rhythms,” but later, when they tried to play jazz, I got revenge—just short of saying, “You can’t hear our rhythms.” And we all got along beautifully from that point on.

I never heard Nikko speak a word of English, until, much later, on a day in March, the winter chill not having abated but he walking with a Danish girl who’d returned to Crete, I said, “Kanee kreeo” (“It’s cold out.”). Nikko replied, in perfect English, “No longer; I am quite warm now.” Up to that point, the talk and the music had been strictly Greek, which was good enough for me. Especially with regard to the music, although Paskalis refused to write down any lyrics of the songs he’d sung.

Here are: Nikko (bazoukia-player and owner of Agrelia) with Betty; Paskalis; and  Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night. The harbor wall behind him is the one that bore the words “Exos Americanos” (“Americans: Leave!”) when we arrived:

Greece Taverna owner and Betty in Crete            Greece Ponos Guitarist in Crete             Greece Plate Smasher in Crete

“You know that song you sang about ponos (pain) last night?” I would ask; “Would you write down the words for me, parakalo (please)?”

All of our songs are about pain,” he replied, a bit short. “And I’ve heard you speak Greek, good, so all you should need to do is listen. ”

None of the Greeks ever used “charts,” or written words and music, no matter what they played (I had “cheat sheets,” lyrics with the chords, for Leonard Cohen songs, which they seemed to love, Cohen having once lived in Greece). They felt, working strictly from oral tradition as they were, that I should be able to do the same. I began to excuse myself from the taverna, as soon as I heard a song I liked–such as “To Pallikari echei kai ‘mo,” a Theodorakis setting for a poem by Manou Eleutheriou, translated as “the Young Man Is Sad,” but the context of which is really “tonight, the brave young bachelor shall find more grief, because of women”–“kai’mo” being one of those wondrous Greek words which implies a grief so terrible, so unbearable, so full of unamendable sadness, it cannot even be named. I would walk up and down the beach until I had both words and tune down by heart, at which time I would return, proudly, to the taverna. The process required lots of (mental, and emotional) effort on my part, but I filled two notebooks with songs I’d learned by the time we left Greece.

After he had collected names and addresses from foreign tourists his age whom he met at the Koumiotis restaurant, our son Steve left Crete to travel to thirteen different countries on his own (from Egypt to Sweden), and I became a regular at Nikko’s (Betty’s journal began to include entries such as, “Bill took guitar to taverna again last night, and retuned at 3:30 am”). There was music at all hours, night and day. When Betty went to the greengrocer just below our house for eggs, the owner played the lira for her. At the time of Epiphania (Epiphany), children came to the house to sing “Kalanda.” One of these kids, who sported the remarkable name Robogianomis Phragmismos, repeated the words of a song to me in Greek so I might copy them down to translate:

” … I am given/ the pearl, the key/ to open Paradise, to drink cool water,/ to pass into sleep/ beneath an apple tree–/ apples falling at my feet,/ roses upon my head.”

Mama Koumiotis, who had worn black from head to toe following the death of her father, years ago, never left the kitchen of the restaurant (except to shop, I suppose), but she would–from within her “station” there–sing mantinades (popular Cretan couplets, even inscribed on calendars), and I would frantically jot down the words, for she, too, thought I should just listen, and she wouldn’t repeat them:

“Departed, far away,/ the rose that I love,/ yet the fragrance is strong/and still burns me.” Or: “To Psiloritis peak/ the birds cannot go,/ but my love flies there/ and returns, freely.” To which Papa Koumiotis would respond: “Four crosses hang/ upon the neck of the priest;/ the faithful kiss them, but I would rather kiss your cheek.”

Itinerant musicians–bouzoukia, lira players–would arrive in Rethymnon, and word got around quickly (grigora) that they’d be playing at one of the taverns or restaurants. After one of these spontaneous performances at a place called Yannis, I remember watching “Charlie’s Angels” with Thomas and Tony (a very popular program with the pallikaris: “brave young bachelors”), the sentence “You’all can go ta hell in a breadbasket!” translated as “Fige parakalo” (“Please leave”) in the subtitles. While Steve had been in Crete, he and I heard vocalist Viky Moskoliou live at a local theater on which a billboard for an American film, Super Vixens, was translated into Greek as Girls Who Are Dynamite in Bed.

I had once, in my teens, worked as a real estate sign painter, so the Koumiotis asked me to paint a new sign for their restaurant, which I did. It attracted so much attention that fishermen, who were repairing and repainting their boats for spring launching, asked me to re-paint the names on the sides of their boats. I received so many requests that we decided it was time to leave Rethymnon (on sabbatical, the last thing I wanted to do there was work!), and we did, heading north to Paros, in the Cyclades Islands. We would miss the music–and other small stuff, like a guy named Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night: a privilege he took full advantage of. I also had the privilege of meeting a legendary local poet, Andreas Spanouthakis, who recited his poems for university students while he prepared souvlakia (shish-kabob) for them at the grill of the stand he owned.

He also recited–or sang!–his poems for me, and played tapes of rizitika (folk songs from the eastern mountains of Crete). Here he is—and while I’m at it, I might as well toss in a photo of a man playing a goatskin bagpipe (τσαμπούνα: tsambouna). Lots of interesting music in Crete!

Greece Souvlaki Singing Poet            Greece Man playing goatskin bagpipe

The presence of the university (the young people I met spoke pretty good English) had preventing me from using and adding to my mostly (aside from reading) “functional” Greek in Crete as often as I’d wished, so on Paros we deliberately found a place to live about two miles from the town of Pariokia, in a valley, and I had to use the language on a daily basis because our landlord, Tasos, and landlady, Helena, did not speak any English. The taverns in town had all gone strictly “disco,” so there was little cause to go to town at night anyway (no more Agrelia, and Nikko and Paskalis!)–so I settled into a pleasant routine of sitting on our comfortable small porch, which faced a field of barley and other fields being cultivated by our landlord, plus the Aegean Sea, and played and sang the songs I’d learned on Crete.

Here is the house we found on Paros (in the Valley of the “Petaloudes”: Butterflies), as seen from the fields of barley in front of it (with a small chapel just across the path that led to the house); Betty on our front porch—my guitar (a tenor guitar: four strings, tuned like a mandolin) to her left; me with our landlady Helena (right) and her daughter and her child; and our son Steve (who returned eventually from his travels and joined us on Paros), our landlords (Tasos and Helena), a neighbor and her mother.

Greece Our house on Paros

Greece Betty our porch on Paros with guitar     Greece Me with landlady and her daughter on Paros

Greece Steve and Betty with family on Paros

Archilochus:

Paros–and it was not by accident that we had chosen to go there–was the birthplace of my favorite Greek poet of antiquity: Archilochus, born in the first half of the 7th century BCE: inventor of the iambus and a professional soldier. A mercenary with a mind of his own, he was driven out of Sparta because he wrote a poem about abandoning his shield, “beside a bush,” in favor of saving his own life; a poem mocking, in Guy Davenport’s words, “uncritical bravery” (the shield would bring “joy to some Saian,” a soldier from Thrace), and Archilochus felt he could find another just as good elsewhere. The poet was a satirist with a “nettle tongue” so effective that, when a man named Lycambes retracted his daughter’s hand after having promised it to the poet in marriage, the latter’s abusive verses were said to have driven Lycambes to suicide. The influence of Archilochus was so persuasive that both poets Sappho and Alcaeus were said to base their “measures” on his. Plutarch credited Archilochus with the invention of trimester: unique combinations of “unlike measures.” He was also the first poet to employ stanzas of long and short lines, or “epodes,” recitative or rhythmical recitation of poetry to music (and the style of music to which recitative was set); and he has been credited with reciting iambic lines to music and singing the others, a technique afterwards employed by the tragic poets (and opera: recitative!). Archilochus was thought to be the first poet to set the music of an accompanying instrument an octave higher than the voices, instead of in the same register as had been the custom of his day.

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian thought Archilochus had acquired “the highest degree of facility” as a poet, possessing the “greatest force of expression,” with phrasing “not only telling but terse and vigorous,” the “abundance of blood and muscle.” Contemporary scholar/poet Guy Davenport names him “the second poet of the West. Before him the arch-poet Homer had written the two poems of Europe,” but Archilochus, both poet and mercenary, was the first poet flexible enough to combine a host of original ingredients that range from satire (his tomb was said to read “Hasten on, Wayfarer, lest you stir up the hornets”) to pure lyricism (The Greek poet Meleager called him “a thistle with graceful leaves”—like 20th century Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who described himself as “a cloud in trousers”?).  And Archilochus could be bawdy! A long poem said to be by him (not just a fragment as too many available are) turned up in 1974. Raucous, comic, British poet Peter Green called it “The Last Tango in Paros.” The tone is that of Francois Villon (another favorite poet of mine!) and the concluding lines, as translated by Davenport, read: “I caressed the beauty of all her body/And came in a sudden white spurt/While I was stroking her hair.” On a more delicate note, he defined “music” as “My song/And a flute/Together.” Another fragment states: “Myself the choir-master/ On the chant to Apollo/ Sung to the flute in Lesbos.” Here are two sculpted homages to Archilochus: (Photo credits: aboutparos.gr)

archilochus statue 2    Archilochus statue

Unfortunately, there are no extant phonograph recordings (ho ho) of Archilochus set to  or accompanied by music, but one of my favorite poems of his is so inherently musical that it’s difficult for me to recite it without singing it (I can hear the music!).

Echousa thallon mursines eterpeto/ rodes te kalon anthos, e de oi kome/ omous katestiadze kai metaphrena.

Here’s my own translation (not half as musical, I know!): “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back.”

Archilochus is said to have been killed by a man named “Crow,” who claimed it was “a fair fight” but was banished from temples for having slain a man “sacred to the muses.” Indeed, when the poet’s father inquired about his son’s birth, Apollo himself foretold that he would beget a son who should be immortal. And Archilochus is, through his poetry. I just wish I’d been there to have heard it sung! I did manage to get as close to him, the poet ranked “second only to Homer,” as I could. Betty and I hiked to the cave, located behind Cape Aghios Fokas on a sheer rock cliff, where he was supposed to have sought inspiration. I’m not sure how he ever got down there, unless he invented rappelling by rope as well as the iamb, although the terrain may have changed (considerably) since the seventh century BCE.

Here’s the view from inside the cave where Archilochus wrote his poems–and here I am (that’s not another sculpted homage to Archilochus, ho ho) at the cove (across from a beach in Paros) where Betty and I went each day–and where I wrote my own poems and translated both Classical and Modern Greek poetry: (Photo credit: paros.gr)

Archilochus cave

Greece Bill at our cove in Paros

An interesting article by poet/composer Alan Shaw, “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music” (online, 1997), is set up as a sort of debate, the author responding both “pro” and “con” to questions related to specific issues, such as, “Was ancient Greek a musical language?” Shaw states, right off the bat, that arguments for the “intrinsic musicality of a language are apt to be rather circular” (he provides the example that people may talk of Italian as being musical simply because a number of operas have been written in it–and vice versa!). The prevalence of “open vowels” is cited in favor of Italian as a musical language, but Shaw points out that one could “just as well say that English is more musical than Italian because it has a much greater variety of vowel sounds.”

In favor of the musicality of ancient Greek, he provides evidence of the “intimate relation–indeed the theoretical identity–between Greek music and poetry,” and the fact that the two most basic elements of music–“the duration of sounds and their pitch”–form two “clear and distinct systems” in Greek (whereas they tend to get “confused” in English). In Greek, poetic meter was based on “the relative duration of syllables, which permitted a fairly direct translation into musical terms.” Word accent was based solely on pitch, and “hence has often been called a ‘musical’ accent.”

Here’s a copy of the “original” of a poem by Archilochus–alongside a woodcut print I made of another poem previously cited as I translated it: “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back”:

Text of a poem by Archilochusarchilochus myrtle shoot

On the “con” side, Alan Shaw finds the notion that “ordinary spoken Greek was naturally closer to music than other languages” misleading (doing actual damage to understanding ancient poetry and its relation to music). “It may be true that certain qualities of the language made it easier for the Greek poet-musician to set words to music,” but the fact that something is done easily “does not necessarily guarantee a superior artistic result.” He refers to English, saying the language falls easily into verse measures of four beats, “which is the ‘common time’ of most Western music,” but this has rarely been used as an argument for the inherent musicality of English, and can actually serve as a “hindrance” as much as an aid for some composers (the four beat pattern is too obvious and has to be evaded–or “transcended”–somehow, I suppose).

Shaw asks if the melodies of ancient Greek music actually followed the accent of a text, and once again, he finds the evidence “confusing,” and the answer is at first “no,” then “yes.” The few available fragments (and there are just a few) from the classical era would suggest that “they did not necessarily do so” (most lyrics were in “strophic form, and a melody designed for one strophe would rarely fit the accentuation of the other”), yet Shaw cites jazz singing as an example of a form, or nomos (a “tune-making formula or family of tunes”) that allows “great freedom in this regard, mostly for purely musical reasons, but often to better express the words of different verses as well.” If there were no requirements at all that different strophes have the same melody, it “may be that the metrical identity–the identical pattern of long and short–between strophes was enough for the Greek ear to recognize them as the same” (“a particularly subtle form of strophic song, of which modem examples could be found as well”).

Here are some samples of Ancient Greek musicians playing instruments that might have accompanied such poetry: (Photo credit: iconicmusicacademy.com; Wikepedia; danaspah.top)

Ancient Greek double flute and lyre

Delphi: Apoll     Ancient Greek double flute

Ancient Greek Music

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suggested that the similar accent may sometimes have been indicated by a downward rather than an upward “jump in pitch,” and if this happened in ordinary speech, it would make a “correct” observance of accents much easier in singing, especially if “different verses were really required to follow the same melody.” Shaw states that pitch in a musical context is quite different from pitch in ordinary speech (“strange things, akin to optical illusions in painting, can happen”) and that, as song composers know, “the same sequence of pitches can accentuate a syllable in one context, and leave it unaccented in another.”

Did ancient Greek poetry have a beat? “Beat” is quite different in English poetry (the word used as a synonym for “stress” or “accent”) than it is in Greek. “Stress” has no part in classical Greek prosody. The ancient term for “beat” is ictus, which “the testimony of the ancients said clearly existed, at least in poetry associated with the dance,” but its nature was controversial. Again, Shaw finds the issue “relative.” In one sense all music, or at least any music that involves more than one performer, has a “beat” (“otherwise the players or singers couldn’t stay in time”), but we do distinguish music that has a definite beat (such as rock n’ roll) and that which does not (such as Gregorian Chant). “The ethereal rhythms of chant have attracted many as a model for what Greek choral music must have been like.” Like Greek music, chant was monodic, and “drew its rhythms directly from the text”–yet chant was “not danced to, as Greek choral music was.”

Shaw considers other aspects of Greek poetry and music: such as tempo (What happens when you slow it down? Poems recited at a “plodding taste”–T.S. Eliot reading “Prufrock” anyone?–lose the “beat”); duple and triple meter (“Greek verse, scanning by the rule that one long syllable equals two short ones, is often neither clearly in one nor the other”); and Greek musical notation, which consisted “only of marks to indicate pitch; time values, being given by the verse itself, were not needed.” Shaw uses the jazz analogy again: music that “swings” in the sense that “adjacent notes notated with identical time values are made unequal” (my old friend “rubato” again!).

Here’s a range or “collection” of Ancient Greek instruments (Credit: Nikolaos Ioannidis):

Greek musical instruments

In conclusion, Shaw says Greek poetry, when sung, “probably did have a beat,and when it was danced as well,” in which case, “The beat could have been fairly kinetic.” Greek dance figures were identified with certain rhythms, and many steps were performed in time with the music–just as they are today. Shaw does mention another old friend, Archilochus, saying this unique, inventive poet grew weary of the “melodic mythologizing” of his colleagues and wanted “something more down to earth,” for which he devised a meter that, “apart from being regular, had little in it that was suggestive of song,” but was more akin to the dialogue in plays, which was written in iambic trimester–a type of verse “closest to ordinary speech.”

Archilochus preferred “quick iambs, for which slower spondees are unpredictably substituted,” providing a more subtle beat that would find “a successful equivalent in English” as one of the models for the blank verse of Elizabethan dramatists. Archilochus (as he was for so much else) a forerunner of both Shakespeare and William Carlos Williams? It’s quite possible; he was that flexible. I think the good doctor, if not Shakespeare, would be pleased.

One final point within our context of poetry set to music is important: describing the “amateur” or “professional” status of Greek music, Shaw claims that the Greeks made a distinction between musicians exclusively devoted to “the art of sound” (instrumentalists) and “the poet-composer who put noble words to music,” and that in their culture, “the latter had far greater prestige.” “Mere pipers and such might be virtuosos [professionals] but knew nothing of rational music, which always began with words.” Were these poet/composors the sole creators, and the rest [performers] mere interpreters, as in the recent classical tradition? Were the poets simply songwriters, like those of the thirties in America, surrounded by a crowd of creative performers who knew how to flesh out their tunes? Shaw adds, “Certainly by the classical era the poet’s words … were sacrosanct; no one would have thought of changing those. But were the poet’s tunes treated with the same reverence?” His answer is: “The invention of musical notation at about this time would seem to argue that they were, while its relative crudity, and the rarity with which it has been preserved, might lead us to think that the reverence was no greater than, say, a jazzman’s reverence for a Cole Porter tune.” Which, I might add, can by considerable on occasion: witness the highly imaginative pianist Bill Charlap’s respect for, “reverence” of, Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein tunes–and the American Songbook tradition in general.

This seems a good spot to close out on this, the first, of a two “post” look at Greek music and Poetry (both Ancient and Modern). I’ll end with another pilgrimage we made while living in Crete: to Heracleion (capitol and largest city in Crete) to see the grave site of Nikos Kazanzakis (author of Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Report to Greco, and many other fine works). The text on a stone placed next to the wooden cross on his grave reads: “I hope for nothing; I fear nothing; I am free.”

Grave of Kazantzakis2   kazantzakis grave inscription 3

Next Post: Part Two of “Greek Music and Poetry: Ancient and Modern.”

 

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Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published thirteen books: most recent Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958; also Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and six other books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities) at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for sixty years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

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