I concluded Part One of this blog post on Greek Music & Poetry with what, I hope, was a satisfactory look at the experience my wife Betty and I had with such “song” when we lived in Greece in 1979-80, and with a solid glance at my favorite Ancient Greek poet, Archilochus–plus reflection or theories (speculation or hypotheses) on early Greek music. The question yet to be addressed (and it will be now) is: How did that music–and the contemporary poetry set to music which Betty and I heard–actually sound?
The oldest musical fragments available date back to the 3rd century BCE, but complete examples that inspire actual musical interpretation were composed in the Greco-Roman period, and one of my favorites (on the basis of level of interest and “listening pleasure”) is a “Hymn to the Muse” by Mesomedes of Crete, a court musician at the time of Hadrain (117-138 CE), written in the Lydian mode (the most popular mode of his time). I have a recording called Musique de la Grece Antique, by the Atreum Musicae de Madrid, but there are other interpretations of this valuable surviving work.
Here are: the cover of the recording I have; a woman holding a kithara (more about this instrument in a moment); a man playing a kithara; and an original manuscript by Mesomedes (Photo credits: YouTube; ancientolympic.org; forum.index.hu)
On the recording I have, a female voice offers (ancientpeoples.tumblr.com):
Άειδε Μούσά μοι φίλη, μολπής δ’ εμής κατάρχου, αύρη δε σων απ’ άλσεων εμάς φρένας δονείτω. Καλλιόπεια σοφά, Μουσών προκαθαγέτι τερπνών, και σοφέ Μυστοδότα, Λατούς γόνε, Δήλιε, Παιάν, ευμενείς πάρεστέ μοι.
Sing, Muse, dear to me— / As prelude to my own song. / Inspire my heart with breezes / from your own groves; make / my soul tremble. / O wise Calliope, / who leads the gracious muses, / and you, son of Latona, Delian Paean, / who guides the mysteries– / assist me with your favor.
The voice is light, nearly delicate; pleasant, nearly “pretty”–as much chant as song. Heartfelt enough, it is not really “emotive” in the way we think of emotion (there’s no vibrato, thank goodness, on the words “make/my soul tremble”); it is not noticeably “dramatic,” for the overall tone is one of truly classical restraint and proportion. The pitch is exact, distinct. Both Calliope and Apollo (“son of Latona, Delian Paean”) are supplicated in the sense I mentioned in the Preface (“prayer, praise, petition”), but with humility, with considerable modesty. Author Alan Shaw (whom I quoted in the last blog: his “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music”; online, 1997) mentions melodies “based as they were on an elaborate system of scales and modes, some of which engendered our own, some containing ‘microtonal’ intervals that would have sounded very exotic to us,” and how they “might have added many subtle inflections to the vocal delivery of lines,” but I don’t hear any microtones here, and while the inflection is “subtle” enough,” it is also very simple, straightforward, unpretentious.
The instrumental accompaniment–totally in unison with the voice, replicating the vocal line, the melody, pitch for pitch, note for note (with some subtle delays or hesitations in time, some “displacement,” but within the same range as the voice, not an octave higher as advocated by Archilochus)–is that of the kithara, which, according to notes that accompany my recording, is “a more perfect and elaborate stringed instrument than the lyra,” different in its sound-box, size, and sonority (larger, wooden, producing a fuller, more “sonorous” tone; possessing seven strings and employed largely by professionals–not restricted to amateurs, as the lyra was). A second instrument employed is the monochordan, which was used to determine the “instrumental relativity of musical sounds.”
Here’s Pythagoras of Samos playing a monochordan. Regarded as the first pure mathematician, his Musica Universalis or Music of the Spheres disclosed numerical ratios of pure musical intervals, creating harmony, or celestial bodies as musica – the medieval Latin name for music. Next to Pythagoras is a white-ground lekythos (a vase used for storing olive oil) showing a young woman playing a kithara: (Photo credits: thankanon.org and ask.ca):
It is not at all a large jump from this second century CE piece to one I first heard in Crete in 1979: Mikis Theodarakis’ setting for a poem from Georgos Seferis’ “Mythistorima,” sung by the exquisite Maria Farantouri: (Translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
“O hipnos se tilixa, O hipnos se tilixa, me prasina pheella anasaines; / san ena thentro, san ena thentro, me prasina pheela anasaines; / mesa sto iseecho phos, mesa sti thiaphani pigi, koitaxa ti morphi sou. / Kleismena blephara, kleismena blephara, kai ta matokltha, charazan to nero.”
Sleep wrapped you in green leaves like a tree; / you breathed like a tree in the quiet light, / in the limpid spring I watched your face: / eyelids closed, eyelashes brushing the water.
Here are: Theodarakis conducting; Theodarakis with Maria Farantouri: (Photo credits: YouTube and dw.com)
The piece begins with a two guitar chorus, laced with bouzouki trills, of the melody (which, as in the case of Hymn to the Muse, is quite handsome, though simple): a distinct, even, four beat rhythm beneath a liquid, floating effect, fully appropriate to the setting (“in the limpid spring”). Farantouri’s voice is quite “classical” (full of restraint and proportion), not overly “emotive,” understated, yet all the more meaningful because of that (a paradox that fits the poem!). The chordal pattern is “folk”: tonic/ dominant/sub dominant chords with aptly added minor extensions. In both pieces–the “ancient” and the “modem” (even with the richer orchestration of the latter)–the music does not attempt to interpret or “enhance” (add extra dramatic emphasis to) the poetry in the manner that pieces we will encounter later (Robert Schumann and Richard Srauss settings for the poetry of Heinrich Heine; Hector Berlioz settings for Theordore Gautier); it remains in the background, or alongside in a manner that does not call all that much attention to itself–a suitable “sidekick,” as it were: simple, elemental accompaniment.
Author Alan Shaw concluded the article “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music” (online, 1997): “The main evidence for the compositional power of Greek music, so far as we can still see it, is in its rhythm. And for all but purely instrumental music, that was given–schematically of course, but with far greater precision than in any English song–by the scansion of the verse … In terms of rhythms, Greek verse had indeed a heritage almost comparable to the heritage of melodic and harmonic motifs in Western classical music. And in a large composition like the first chorus of the Agamemnon, this heritage is played on with the same kind of allusiveness, subtle modulations and unexpected transitions that we find in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony … and it was the poet’s creation, not a creation of ‘pure’ musicians or an automatic result of the Greek language’s musical qualities … If modem poets are intrigued by the results, they have only to look to the neglected music of their own languages, and see what might be done.”
By contrast, the earlier Homeric bard, or aodoi, according to Stefan Hagel (“Homeric Singing—An Approach to the Original Performance”), sang his songs accompanied by a four-string instrument, the phorominx, “improvising his four-note melody at the same time as he improvised his text, which was unique in every performance.” Jazz?! Perhaps not, for Hagel adds, “His monotonous melody, far from interpreting the text, served only as a medium to transport the words and to catch the listeners’ attention by their intrinsic rhythms.” Sounds more like the evening news on TV–which in a very real sense it was, or at least a forerunner. Homer as the first “anchor person”?
Here are: a phorominx, and three early figures of Homeric Bards: (Photo credits: Wikipedia; millvlle.sps.edu; englishare.net)
I have commented on two “lyric” pieces of poetry set to music, but I have also listened to contemporary dramatic constructs similar to the sort Shaw compares to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Two are from Georgos Seferis’ “Mythistorima,” set to music by Theodorakis and sung, again, by Maria Farantouri–this time with her large voice (and she has one!). The first is “In my breast this wound opens again,” a piece filled with an “epic” or anthem quality: (Translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
Sto stithos mou i pligi anoigei pali / Otan kamilonoun t’astra kai seeggeneuoun me to chormi mou /Otan pephetei sigi kato apo ta peimata ton anthropon …
In my breast the wound opens again / when the stars descend and become kin to my body, /when silence falls under the footsteps of men …
Shortly after this opening segment comes powerful emphasis on the line ti thalassa, ti thalassa, polos tha boresei geera kai sto geraki (“The sea, the sea, who will be able to drain it dry.” One line Seferis borrowed, appropriately enough for our purpose, from the Agammenon; Clytemnestra justifying Agammenon’s treading on the purple carpet leading into the palace). Farantouri’s voice seems to contain all the wild majesty of the classic Greek tragic heroines–prophet and priestess and poet herself. The piece starts with guitars that complement each other, interact handsomely–one melodic, the other offering arpeggios–and the rhythmic pulse is hypnotic, heroic, offset by tympanis, an instrument Theodarakis obviously favored for a piece such as this, evoking as it does, the human heartbeat.
The second piece I love, sung again by Farantouri, begins: (Translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
Ligo akomaltha ithoume tis ameegdalies n ‘anthizoun / ta marmara na lampoon ston ilio / ti thalassa na keematizei … Ligo akoma / nasikothoume / ligo psilotera, ligo psilotera, ligo psilotera.“
A little farther / we will see the almond trees blossoming / the marble gleaming in the sun / the sea breaking into waves /… a little farther, let us rise a little higher.”
Pure anthem! Pure assertion! Pure praise! This will happen, no doubt about it–no matter what! Farantouri’s voice is filled with total conviction, as is the music that surrounds it. Another single poem by Seferis set to music by Theodarakis is called “Denial.” I came to know this poem/song so well in Greek, and sang it so often while we were there, that I stopped thinking of its “meaning” or “being” in English, but I will include, here, a translation I did when I got home—along with the poem in Greek and “vocabulary” I jotted down in my notebook. I’ll also include the first page of that notebook (which I would fill with poems and songs throughout our journey): a page that starts with a quote from Karagozis (Καραγκιόζης in Modern Greek), a shadow-puppet theatre and fictional character from Greek folklore: “Long live freedom!”; the word “translation,” notes by Georgos Seferis for “Mythistorima,” a quote from Axion Esti” (“THIS WORLD / this small world the great!”) and a popular Greek saying (or maxim), “Long live madness!” (Photo credit: Suitcase & World: Traveler’s Diary, by Julee):
On a secret seashore / White as a dove, at noon / We felt thirst, but found / The water was brine. / There on golden sand / We wrote your name together /–How splendidly the sea breeze / Blew, but erased your name. / With such heart, with such spirit, / Such passion and such pain / We lived a life together—a mistake! / So turning away, we changed.
Here’s a photo of Georgos Seferis; a plaque in London which honors the time he served as an ambassador there; and an album I brought home (songs by Theodarakis, in which I found his absolutely perfect, beautiful setting for “Denial.”): (Photo credits: Wikipedia; Waymarking.com)
Here are: The town of Parokia, and the Byzantine Road between Lefkis and Prodromos in Paros. Because I had heavy boots in case of an encounter with unfriendly critters, such as snakes (of which Betty is not all that fond), I walked ahead of her on our across-the-island hikes, but I did see the most beautiful green and golden “serpent” (Milton’s “subtlest beast of all the field”: this one about six feet in length) curled up in a rock wall just like the one depicted here: (Photo credits: tripadvisor.com; Norbert Hohn)
Not long after we arrived in Paros, we were sitting in a restaurant in downtown Paroikia, and I saw an advertisement, tacked to the wall, announcing a performance of Axion Esti, the epic “spiritual autobiography” of Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis (with portions of the poem set to music by Mikis Theodarakis, as I’ve mentioned). The piece would be performed in the small town of Marissa, on the far side of the island. On the day of the production, Betty and I took a bus there, and we were the only non-Greeks on it. The same was true in the one-room schoolhouse–site for the show–we entered when we arrived: the place packed with Greeks ranging from age seven up to late seventies, some of the former hanging out of the windows. Up front, a high school teacher we recognized from Paroikia had outlined Elytis’ not-at-all easy poem (accessible in terms of its complex forms, and even imagery) on a blackboard, and three musicians (bouzoukia, and two guitars) were tuning up.
After the mayor of Marissa, and three others from adjoining towns (Marmara, Prodhromos, and Piso Livadhi), gave speeches, we were, for the next three hours, treated to not only the music, but a detailed exegesis of the poem itself (including its intricate rime scheme and elaborate structure) and its origin in Greek experience; recitations of its individual, component parts by high school students; and then–most amazing of all–after the musicians introduced a song (and a repeat performance of that night on which I couldn’t believe my ears in Crete, when the university students came up our street singing a poem from Axion Esti after a full evening of disco dancing), every single Greek person in that one-room schoolhouse, from age seven up to late seventies, joined in to sing it! I was stunned and thrilled by what I heard.
Here are: Odysseus Elitis; the Athens State Opera performing To Axion Esti; the cover of the recording I brought home, and a performance poster: (Photo credits: Nobelprize.org; insider-publications.com)
The only American equivalent I could think of, dream of, might be to attend a performance in some small Kansas farm community of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” (not an easy poem at all itself!) set to music by Charles Ives, and have each person present, knowing both words and music by heart, join in the singing, as if they were in church singing hymns long familiar—an occasion which, in many ways, I couldn’t begin to imagine taking place.
In Marpissa, I couldn’t hold back tears when I heard those voices sing, in unison, from the Thoxastikon (“Gloria”) section of Axion Esti: “Axion esti to phos kai i proti charagmeni stin petra euchi tou anthropou” (“Praise be: the light and man’s first rock-carved prayer”), the piece ending with “Kai Aien 0 chosmos 0 mikos, 0 Megas!” (“And Forever this small world the Great!”). Later, when we were back in Athens just before returning to the States, I told our friend Evangelos Pappas about what we had witnessed on Paros, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “We learn those songs when we are in kindergarten. They teach poetry and music quite early in our schools; those songs define us as a people.”
I thought those words would serve well as the last for this two part account of Greek poetry set to music: past and present, but I remembered a post card Betty and I brought home after visiting the Byzantine Church of the Virgin, at Lindos in Rhodes: the interior a perfect “metaphor” for the inclusive nature (everything from secular “sensual strife” and Χαρά—joy–to sacred ascent) of Greek poetry married to music, for every square inch of the Εκκλησία (church) was covered with another extraordinary art form: εικονίδια (icons).
I also just finished reading Ali Smith’s amazing book, Artful, in which she brilliantly combines fiction (the return of a deceased husband) with fact (four very insightful lectures on art and literature). At one point in the book, the husband describes a Greek actress, Aliki Vougiouklaki, who played Antigone, Evita, Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music), Sally Bowles—as well as “Shirley Valentine and Shaw’s Pygmalion and Aristophane’s Lysistrata and the leads in My Fair Lady and in Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth … she was the Greek Monroe, Bardot, Loren, Hepburn (both Katherine and Audrey) … all of them rolled into one … she had an eager spirit. One mentioned a possibility and she met it, like the next line of a song.”
Reading this, I wasn’t certain whether Aliki Vougiouklaki was a fictional character (just “made up”) or real, so I checked her out on Google, and up she came, singing a song I myself first heard and learned in Greece, a song I sang often: “Ypomoni.” I realized I had discovered another perfect ending to this blog piece. And you can find a delightful YouTube video of Aliki Vougiouklaki singing “ὑπομονή” (which means “Patience”) at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0HfuqtKbPA.
Here are: the interior of the Byzantine Church of the Virgin in Lindos; Aliki Vougiouklaki; the song “Ypomoni” as I jotted the words in Greek in my notebook; and, as a last entry for this blog on Greek Poetry and Music: Ancient and Modern, I will include the lyrics (somewhat similar to Georgos Seferis’ “A little farther / we will see the almond tree blossoming …”) as translated by Ali Smith in Artful: (Photo credit: Illyria Forums)
“Neighborhood, your streets are narrow / Frost and gray skies / Life is dark, day and night / For company, cloudy skies /… Patience … / Have patience and the sky will become more blue / Have patience: a lemon tree will bloom in the neighborhood.”