Out of copyright. Transferred from personal archive.

Source: The herald of the star, vol. v, part i, Hudson & Kearns, Hatfield, UK, 1916, pp.126-133

A chat on ancient Greek music
by J. H Foulds

The art of music as we know it in the twentieth century is generally held to owe very little to the Greeks, whose generous legacy to the arts of sculpture, architecture, and epic poetry has been, and is even down to the present day of such incalculable value. Only a few fragments of ancient Greek music—and these apparently of the decadent Roman period—were known to be in existence until the excavations at Delphi in 1893 and later, when others were unearthed, notably a hymn recording the prowess of Apollo (dating from the third century B.C.), and none of these fragments can be considered as representing Greek music at its highest excellence.

Nevertheless, there are at the present day a few musicians in the very van of progress in their art, men belonging to the pioneers of the coming race, who, aspiring toward the Unknown in the illimitable sphere of music, and obeying the irresistable urge of evolution, yet pause a movement to glance backward over the history of their art, and, realising that progress is cyclic, endeavour to trace the links and correspondences between the music of the present and the future, and that of the mighty civilisations of the past.

From this point of view, then, the somewhat meagre records we do possess of the music of the Egyptians, Hebrews, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans are extremely suggestive. More so still in the case of India perhaps, for nowhere has the ancient tradition been more carefully preserved and kept alive than in that country, the seat and root of so many of our modern western art tendencies. We are concerned here, howeverm with the Greeks, the founders in the West of the theory of the gamut and the modes, with whom it is customary, and very natural, to commence our histories of music. But this is evidently incomplete and short-sighted. Too long have the Greeks, intelligent and artistic as they were, prevented us from seeing humanity as a whole. Before their time there existed the whole of the East, and there is much evidence in support of the view that although they were indeed the founders of music in the West, they did not originate or discover, but merely elaborated and handed on to us as it were, part of the traditions of India and Egypt. Be this as it may, the creative artists of Greece added no doubt their quota of personal invention to what they imitated from abroad, and for this period music becomes the object of increasingly clear classifications, all having for foundation the "ethos" of the different social groups in which art took re-birth and received its characteristic stamp. We shall return to this question later during a consideration of the ethnical denominations of the modes, but for the moment let us sssk for any traces of Greek influence upon modern composers.

Now the example of Greek tragedy, with the reports of its all-pervading music (in many cases, as in that of Æschylus, composed by the dramatist himself) could not fail to fire the imagination of men like Monteverde [sic.], Gluck,and Wagner, who convinced themselves that their work was amongst other things a revival of Greek tragedy. It has been said that "the Greeks made of music, philosophy." Nothing great was expected of men who were ignorant of music; women practised it assiduously—even playing the flute as did Lamia; children began their education with it; and we must not, therefore, be amazed that, in one of his comedies (The clouds) Aristophanes distinguishes the scholars of different generations by the choruses they have learned at school. The authors, Aristoxenus, Euclid, Homer, Plutarch and Xenophon tells us bow this classic race reverenced music—not only as personal accomplishment, but as a duty towards themselves and their country; and we should certainly not forget—though we are acquainted with them by name only—the popular songs. The Greeks sand while harvesting, while grinding the barley, when crushing the corn with the hand-grinder, when pressing the bunches of graoes, when spinning and weaving—all work founded on collective action and on the spirit of co-operation. They had among them the airs of the shoemaker, the dyer, the water-carrier, the shepherd, etc.

But the single outstanding figure in the evolution of music in Greece at this period is that of Pythagoras (circa B.B.600). He is often credited with the discovery of the extremely simple mathematical proportions of the intervals of the diatonic scale, but he more probably learned them either in Egypt or India, where he is said to have sojourned many years, before he returned to Greece and gathered around him the band of pupils and followers who accepted his teachings, and lived the life he taught. He utilised some of this knowledge garnered in India or Egypt, to organise the Greek musical system, and was aided in the work by such theorists as Lasos and Terpander. The mathematical precision of harmonies or sound pulsations seems mostly to have occupied these great minds, but it is not to be believed that a nation which produced such practical musicians as Olympus the Phrygian, who introduced the art of flute playing, and the soldier-musician Tyrtaeus, was not keenly alive to the aesthetic value of the art. In Book VII of his "Republic," Plato laughs at those musicians who limit themselves for the explanation of their art to arithmetic added to physics, and trouble not as to what is above this. To him the relationship of numbers, who which the grammar of music may be reduced, appears to be but the first stage of dialetics, that is so say, of a concentration of ideas, ascending ever higher and higher, the last of which is that of the Good. According o him it is this idea of the Good which radiates through all the domains of life and makes its unity.

This is not the place for a dissertation upon the musical system of the Greeks, such as may be found in any book upon the subject; it will perhaps be more helpful to the reader in his undertstanding and enjoyment of the musical illustrations which follow, if we give a very brief glance at:-

(a) The Greek modes and their ethnical designations
(b) The three genera
(c) Harmony in Greek music

(a) The Greek modes and their ethnical designations
The first place it is necessary to remember that in the West at the present day almost all our music is built upon two modes, and we give them abstract names no longer recalling the idea of a living reality; they are the mode minus (minor) and the mode plus (major). But the process of abstraction and drastic simplification which has brought us to this poverty stricken state and to this dry-as-dust mathematicians' language, should not make us forget either the richness or the significant nomenclature of the past. These two modes are the points in which end by concentration, the eight modes which the Middle Ages practised and which they derived from the Greeks; and probably in a return to and a freer use of many more than our present two modes lies part of the progress of music in the future. The writer is convinced that a "fertilisation" (to use Wagner's term) of Western by Eastern music will shortly take place, and among the technical devices worth borrowing from the East, the use of each and all of the modes according to the mood to be expressed, is perhaps the chief and the most valuable.

Now, among the Greeks the modes had ethnical designations which clearly recalled their origin: the Dorian, the Phrygian, the Lydian, The Æolian, the Iolian, and all their corresponding plagal modes; and, according to Combarieu, we should see by these appellatives that the modes had been constituted by two social groups; the Greeks of the Peloponnesus and the people of Asia Minor. To each of these modes there was attributed a particular "ethos"; that is to say, a particular emotional state; and this musical ethos as it is designatd in the Greek writers, principally in Plato (Republic) and Aristotle (Politics), agrees exactly for each mode, with that of the nation whose name the mode bears. The Ionian and Lydian, for example, were considered as lascivious, suitable for banquets and dances; the Phrygian and Dorian were regarded as virile, energetic, and proper for the perfect citizen.

(b) The three genera
The interval of a fourth (e.g., C to G, downwards) is believed to be the earliest melodic relationship which the ear learnt to fix, and the Greeks divided this downward fourth into four notes, called a tetrachord. They also had three arrangements of the notes contained in the tetrachord, resulting in the three genera—enharmonic, chromatic,and diatonic: C, B flat, A flat, G*[*This sign is used by the writer to indicate that the succeeding note is to be sharpened a quarter of a tone.], G. This last has become the foundation of modern music, and the Greeks soon preferred it to the other genera and found a scientific basis for it. Its notes could be connected by a series of those intervals which they recognised as concordant: the fourth, its converse the fifth, and the octave. And for more than ten centuries the theory of music has been dominated, and even rather tyrannised over, by the part attributed to these two intervals.

(c) Harmony in Greek music
Whether the Greeks were acquainted with harmony—in the modern sense of the word—is a question that has been much discussed,and may now be regarded as settled. It is clear that they were acquainted with the pheonomena on which harmony depends, viz., the effect produced by sounding certain notes together. It appears also that they made some use of harmony,—and of dissonant as well as consonant intervals,—in instrumental music. Their preference for the diatonic scale, as mentioned above, indicates a latent harmonic sense, and also that temerance, which is at the foundation of the general Greek sense of beauty. Non-harmonic music is a world of two dimensions—rhythm, and melody,—and the Greeks certainly came to rise from this "flatland" to the solid world of sound—rhythm, melody, and harmony. The first two are obviously as ancient as human conciousness itself, but with harmony, music assumes the existence of a kind of space in three dimensions, none of which can subsist without at least implying the others, and this is the world in which Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven and Wagner live.

* * *

The examples which follow were not composed so as to conform slavishly with what we know of the rules followed in those ancient days. This would result in a more academic exercise, an archaic exhumation more likely to lead to the closing of doors than the opening of them. The composer has preferred to trust his intuition,—has "dreamed into the mood,"—of Ancient Greece, and these are quotations from some of the results of such dreams; one dating from 1910, the remainder written at one sitting during the summer of 1915.

Example 1. In the Dorian Mode, might be a Dirge for some Hero in a Greek Tragedy. (Played upon Harps and Cymbals) Audio (midi)
Example 2. In the Lydian Mode, is a Processional. (Played upon Low Stringed Instruments with Drums and Gong) Audio (midi)
Example 3. In the Hypo-Lydian Mode, is a Solemn Dance. (Played upon Low Stringed Instruments with Harp) Audio (midi)
Example 4. In the Phrygian Mode, is a Temple Chant. (Men's chorus) Audio (midi)
Example 5. In the Mixo-Lydian Mode, I call the Song of Argive Helen. (Sung by a Female Voice) Audio (midi)

[The examples above have been reproduced in as close to Foulds' written notation as possible. Please be prepared for longer download times on slower modems, with a maximum of 35Kb on one file.]