Roman Music, across the ages...
Be, as long as you live, a sunshine,
do not be sad.
Cause life is surely short,
and time demands its toll -Song of Seikilos, first century A.D.
Q: At Easter, I saw the movie "Ben Hur" on TV and trumpet players played a tune. How do we
know what Roman and Greek music sounded like? I don't think they possessed a staff notation.
--Bert, Vaals, The Netherlands
A: An eerie, plaintive, lovely song played on a woodwind-- notes rising and falling in heartbeat cadence
--drifts across the ages: the Song of Seikilos. In 1882, explorers found this song inscribed over two
thousand years ago in ancient Greek notation on a stone stele (a tombstone) in Turkey. How do we
know what it sounds like?
[David Marshall, Ancestral Instruments] The 10-foot long cornu, sounding battle music
We don't, of course, since no ancient musician lives to play or sing us her songs. However, we can
piece together a reasonable replica of the ancient song. Having the written notes, is a big help but not
the total answer. As you point out, the ancient Greeks and Romans did not use a five-line staff to
indicate pitch. Instead of placing notes higher or lower on the staff, they used letters: for example, in
English notation, "a g f c" indicated a series of four succeeding tones with the range of a quarter
note. They placed rhythm signs above the letters to indicate how long each note should be held.
"It is known as enchiriadic notation, i.e., the idea being to remind one of how a tune goes, rather than being notation as such," says
William Bolcom, recipient of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for music and composition chair at the University of Michigan.
We were able to decipher the notation code from the writings of Alypius and other ancient musical theorists. Even so, not many scores
have lasted through the eons. About 50 whole compositions and fragments survive-perhaps two hours of ancient Greek and Roman
music, in total. By the way, the Romans wrote music in Greek scores. Most of their musicians, too, were Greeks.
Images from mosaics and carvings, as well as a few surviving instruments, tell us how the music sounded and what instruments made
those sounds. The pictures also give clues about which instruments were played together and for what purposes. Moderns now recreate
these ancient instruments, learn to play them, and compose music based on the old ways.
The composer, Miklós Rózsa, of the musical score for Ben Hur (1959), did not try for the real thing. In the 50s, Hollywood insisted on a
romantic musical style and modern harmonics unknown to the ancient Greek musicians. Consequently, as Rózsa stated, "from the
musicological point of view, it might not be perfectly authentic, but by using Greco-Roman modes and a spare and primitive
harmonization, it tries to evoke in the listener the feeling and impression of antiquity."
"About as accurate as you can be, I'd guess," says Bolcom.
(Answered May 31, 2002)
Ancestral Instruments: Roman music
Stefan Hagel, Austrian Academy of Sciences: ancient Greek music
Latrobe U, Australia: history in Hollywood spectacles
Return to Home