Music in Ancient Greece

BBC Prom, open-air concerts, various kinds of festivals and shows take place in summer in Britain. Here, we are now in ancient Greece. What kinds of musical instruments did they play, or learn, or enjoy?

 


 

Cycladic seated harpist

Cycladic figurine. Keros. 2400-2200 BC. Seated harpist. ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture

Cycladic figurine. Keros. 2400-2200 BC. Seated harpist.
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture

It would be impossible to overestimate the importance of music in Greek life from the very earliest days. Homer tells that feasts and banquets and even funeral ceremonies were accompanied by a musician, and in the later classical period music was an essential part of boys’ education. The great contests of the games sometimes included a music competition, and the Athenian drama festival of Dionysus is said to have originated in choral odes sung to the god. The long history of this musical culture is proved by the striking figure of a harpist, clearly a person of importance as he is seated in a stately chair, which dates to the mid-third millennium BC in the Cycladic island of Keros.

 


 

Flute girl, The Ludovisi Throne

Ludovisi throne, Greek. 460 BC. Woman playing aulos, double flute. Thasian marble. Found in Villa Ludovisi. Now National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Altemps, Rome ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Ludovisi throne, Greek. 460 BC. Woman playing aulos, double flute. Thasian marble. Found in Villa Ludovisi. Now National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Altemps, Rome
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

No-one knows the real purpose of the group of relief sculptures known as the Ludovisi Throne. It includes a flute-girl relaxing on the soft cushion with which the artist has been considerate enough to provide her. She is a subtle illustration of the importance to the Greeks of aesthetic considerations. Playing the flute requires the performer to distort his (or her) face, and men of good family tended to prefer the elegant display of fine hands and arms offered by playing on the lyre, often leaving the flute to paid entertainers, many of whom had more than one profession.

 


 

 The Music Lesson

Image No. GR4TA772X Lyre player and a youth with a scroll. Music Lesson. 420 BC. Greek Classical relief GREECE Lyre player and a youth with a scroll. Music Lesson. 420 BC. Greek Classical relief ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Image No. GR4TA772X
Lyre player and a youth with a scroll. Music Lesson. 420 BC. Greek Classical relief GREECE
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Seated on his elegant sabre-legged chair, the music master demonstrates technique which his pupil holds the scroll of music. Many of the Greek writers stress the importance of music, which was seen as co-ordinating movement, inducing appropriate mood and developing a fully integrated and harmonious human being; but, sad to say, we have virtually no idea how it sounded. Musical notation has survived only in miniscule quantities, and it has not yet been possible to reconstruct the performance. We can only hope that future discoveries fill this hiatus.

 


Apollo and Marsyas

Ancient Greece. Contest between Apollo and Marsyas Mantinea. 4th cent. BC. National Archaeological Museum, Athens ©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

Ancient Greece. Contest between Apollo and Marsyas Mantinea. 4th cent. BC.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
©Ronald Sheridan/Ancient Art & Architecture Collection

 

There can be no doubt that the Greeks were highly competitive. Their years were punctuated by the major athletic contests, and at the Anthesteria, the spring festival of Dionysus when last year’s vintage was opened, the great dramatists staged their wonderful plays in competition for the fiercely contested prize of a bronze tripod. If challenges were frequent, it was highly desirable to be prudent in choosing your rival, and never to involve the gods. A rash young woman challenged Athene to a spinning contest and was changed into a spider for her temerity (her name, predictably, was Arachne), and a worse fate befell the satyr Marsyas, who was flayed alive for challenging Apollo.