A recent item in the British press trumpets the research of an Oxonian (=from Oxford) “musician and tutor in Classics” who is researching the music of Ancient Greece. As must always be the case, the relevance of any musical research must be framed in terms of the Beatles. Here’s how the researcher, Armand D’Angour, frames it:
Suppose that 2,500 years from now all that survived of the Beatles songs were a few of the lyrics, and all that remained of Mozart and Verdi’s operas were the words and not the music.
Imagine if we could then reconstruct the music, rediscover the instruments that played them, and hear the words once again in their proper setting, how exciting that would be.
This is about to happen with the classic texts of ancient Greece.
The article has a link to a performance of the Epitaph of Seikilos, a Greek air preserved on a funeral stele, by David Creese of Newcastle University.
So I have no real problem with any of this, in the sense that I don’t find anything willfully misleading, and I am happy anytime anyone decides that Ancient Greek music, or any other historical music, or in fact any other music of any kind, is worth knowing something about. My question, though, is, why this counts as new research. I taught the entire undergraduate music history sequence for ten years or so, stopping c. 2005, and I always included a day or two on Ancient Greek music at the beginning of every fall semester. I was able to do this not because I was such a deeply informed Greek scholar but because (wait for it) this information is in all the modern American music history textbooks. One summary I found particularly helpful was that of Douglass Seaton, in Ideas and Styles in the Western Musical Tradition, but if I’m not mistaken the other major books (all of them quite good, I have to say) cover this material also: Bonds, Gibbs/Taruskin, Burkholder/Grout, Wright/Simms. Because I taught a big history class and had some notoriety, I had some involvement with all of those books as manuscript reviewer or reviewer for a subsequent edition. (It’s not a task one looks forward to, but you can never again complain about a text if you passed up the opportunity to have some input on it.) What’s more, the aforementioned Epitaph of Seikilos is included on almost all the anthologies, in several different versions, and they all discuss the challenges of reconstructing ancient and fragmentary music.
(I believe it was Curt Sachs, the German-Jewish organologist, who was not allowed to study Greek music as a young person. “Absolutely not,” his advisor told him. “That way madness lies.”)
Anyway: there are two basic philosophies on Ancient Greece and the Undergrad History Sequence.
1. We hardly know anything about Ancient Greek music, so we’ll just start with the chant of the Medieval Christian church. We don’t have enough time as it is. (This is how I was taught at UCSB.)
2. We hardly know anything about Ancient Greek Music, but a brief discussion of it affords opportunities to
A. Discuss music and the Greek concept of ethos (whether music actually makes us behave in a certain way, for example);
B. Introduce the idea of modes and what they really are (melodic and mood types, not merely scales with different arrangements of half and whole steps);
C. Introduce the concept of metrics, syllable rhythm etc.;
D. Get Their Attention with very foreign terminology (I always told them that if they could use the word Proslambanomenos at a party they’d win the discussion and take the pretty girl home), which ought to send a message about what was coming up and that they don’t know as much as they think they do;
E. Demonstrate how the reconstruction of fragmentary musical information can work, and sketch out the various assumptions of oral and written traditions, and what instruments can show us about how music was conceived, and how literary writings can reflect cultural understandings of music, blah blah blah;
…and so on. I was of the second camp, but the first has much to recommend it also: there is certainly a shortage of time, and if dealing with Ancient Greece means short-changing Minimalism later on, is that a defensible choice, etc. Debbie and I used to mix it up about this, even.
If, by the way, you really want to bone up on the music of Ancient Greece, go to Apollo’s Lyre by Thomas J. Mathiesen. Retired from IU-Bloomington, Mathiesen is one of the very top people in the music of the ancient world, and this 500- or 500,000-page book is a concise boildown (yes) of his life’s research. It’s way more than, y’know, here’s the Epitaph of Seikilos and the records are fragmentary. (Warm personal memory: I once wrote him out of the blue for a proper Latin translation of “without whom nothing,” as a kind of parallel to sine qua non, which was how I wanted to dedicate my writing textbook. “For Debbie and Ben, without whom nothing.” Well, it doesn’t really work like that in Latin, Tom generously told me. How about mihi vita cariores sunt, “Dearer to me than my own life”? As my throat thickened, all I could think was, “Wow; I guess he’s met them already…”)
My overarching question on this news item is: how is this news? In what ways does this Oxonian’s research improve or supersede the standard fare in American textbooks? England is not exactly a Third World nation in terms of music research (despite what I mischievously tell friends!); the Americans and Brits are basically on the cutting edge of all this. So I’m wondering how the Received Standard Narrative, well represented in all American college textbooks, published by obscure houses like Norton, Oxford, Prentice-Hall, McGraw-Hill etc., can have been overlooked. (I might have said “overlooked by the crack researchers at the BBC,” but that would not have been nice.)
What am I missing? This is just odd.