The ancient classics of Western literature — Homer, Sophocles, Euripides — were written to be sung. But what does Greek music from 2,500 years ago actually sound like? And how could a modern reader possibly deduce those melodies with only the text for reference?
Armand D'Angour, a musician and professor at Jesus College in Oxford, England, has been researching the topic, and says he can sing you a few bars of Homer if you ask.
"It's a reconstruction, based on the fact that the ancient Greek language has a tonal nature," Dangour says, explaining that each word was composed not only of syllables, but also distinct changes in pitch.
D'Angour spoke with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about the process of matching those tonal variations to musical notes. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Hey, you know Homer's "Iliad?" Well maybe if you hummed a few bars, we could pick up the tune. The great literature of the ancient Greeks was actually written to be sung. And now we've reach a scholar who's been researching the way music sounded 2500 years ago. Dr. Armand D'Angour is a musician and he teaches classics at Jesus College at Oxford. He joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us.
ARMAND D'ANGOUR: Thank you.
SIMON: Well, let's begin by putting you on the spot a bit. Can in fact you hum a few bars of Homer?
D'ANGOUR: (Singing in a foreign language) How about that?
SIMON: That's pretty good.
D'ANGOUR: Yes, and very boring actually, isn't it?
SIMON: I was not going to point that out, but...
D'ANGOUR: Well, I think it's important that one should because, I mean, this is very early folk music from the eighth century B.C. and it would have sounded something like that we think if we can reconstruct it as such. But actually very quickly the ancient Greeks stopped singing it because they thought the stories were so good that they could do it without the melody.
SIMON: How did you figure out the melody just from the text?
D'ANGOUR: It's a reconstruction of the fact that the ancient Greek language has a tonal nature, so you could, for example, say the word for good in Greek, agothos, but they said it agatos(ph); hear the voice going up on the last syllable. Then we have to ask what were the actual notes and we know that Homer sang to a four-stringed lyre, and each string had one note. And what we wrote out is that from later scale systems we know what we think those four notes would have been to which the lyre was tuned.
SIMON: Boy, well, maybe by way of illustration we have a recording that was made by one of your colleagues, Dr. David Creese. Now, he's playing music in what we're going to hear that I gather is taken from an inscription on a marble column.
SIMON: The dates...
D'ANGOUR: From a much later stage - 900 years later.
SIMON: Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DR. DAVID CREESE: (Singing in foreign language)
SIMON: Can you translate that for us?
D'ANGOUR: Yes. It's short four-line poem, which means roughly as long as you're alive, shine. Don't let anything get you down. Life is a very short and in the end time demands its due. So it's meant to be - well, it's called an epitaph. It was found inscribed on a marble column with musical notation, ancient Greek musical notation, in which alphabetic-like symbols which are placed above the vowels.
But it is the only complete piece of music pretty well from the ancient world; comes from about 200 A.D.
SIMON: I'm struck by the fact, though, as you reconstruct the lyrics for us that it - songs are still about that. Let it shine...
D'ANGOUR: They are indeed.
SIMON: ...life is short, life is just a bowl of cherries, you know.
D'ANGOUR: Absolutely. That's, you know, certainly one of the themes for song. Another, of course, is love and love the ancient poetry of ancient Greece, the love poetry of Anacreon or Sappho or Alcaeus. You know, that very much chimes with today's sentiments.
SIMON: I wonder, does this help us delve more into the character of ancient Greece, do you think?
D'ANGOUR: I think that's a terribly important question and it's exactly why I'm embarking no a two-year project at the moment to try and reconstruct this music so that we can try and perhaps make some assessment of what the significance of the music is to the words. And I use the comparison with the Beatles. If we just have the lyrics of "The Long and Winding Road," or of "Hey Jude," we wouldn't really be able to say very much about how it affects people.
But we have stories from the ancient world, for example, of a performer, that his gyrations and the expressions on his face sent the audience wild, so you're talking about a kind of Elvis Presley performer in a theater which would have taken say 12,000 spectators going wild.
SIMON: Was he the singer that did "Don't Step on my Blue Suede Sandals?"
D'ANGOUR: That's the one, yes. I'll have to remember what the Greek for blue suede is, but everything else is translatable.
SIMON: Dr. Armand D'Angour is tutor in classics at Jesus College in Oxford, and joins us from the studios of the BBC. Thanks so much for being with us.
D'ANGOUR: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIMON: Come on everyone, sing along. You know the tune. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.