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The Ancient Greek aulos

The aulos is a double-reeded pipe, like an oboe (though it’s sometimes played with a single reed, like a clarinet) made out of bamboo and bone. This 1st century AD mosaic from the “House of the Tragic Poet” in Pompeii shows a piper playing two auli at once, surrounded by actors in goatskin dresses and theatrical masks.

Traditionally, you play two auli at once. This allows you to harmonize with yourself, and anyhow each aulos has only 1/2 of the notes in a scale, so you need two auli to play a complete scale.

While the lyre is associated with Apollo, the aulos is associated with Dionysus.

Here is a 2-minute aulos performance by Prof. Stefan Hagel.

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Fresco of Actor & Lyre Player

This 1st century AD fresco from Pompeii shows a singer/actor with his theatrical mask on the top of his head, and a lyre player playing a 9-string lyre.

Homer’s Iliad is traditionally performed by two such people. Indeed, at the time, the Iliad was the most popular show in Ancient Rome. Each line in the Iliad is played to six beats, and sung to notes on the lyre tuned to the enharmonic genus, playing notes in the ancient dorian scale.

So, we know the musical chords Homer composed for the Iliad. We know the drum beats. We know the lyrics. We just don’t know the melody.

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Ancient Greek poetry is musical theater

The oldest known Greek poet was Homer. His poetry was set to music and sung out loud in public theaters like this one, built in Epidaurus in the 4th century BC.

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What Ancient Greek music sounds like

This 16-minute video is an interesting attempt to recreate authentic Ancient Greek music.

They cover some fundamental instruments like the kithara and the aulos. They play a jazzy version of Homer. It finishes with a really cool semi-authentic performance of the actual music Euripides composed for Orestes, which was a musical, not a play.

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The death of Aeschylus

In his life, Aeschylus wrote musicals, won awards, and pioneered innovations that are now standard in today’s theater. This 15th century illustration shows his death in 456 BC.

Legend has it he died from a turtle dropped on him by an eagle.

Now, that may sound ridiculous, but in fact there are eagles in that region that eat turtles by dropping them on stones from high up to crack their shells. Apparently, the eagle mistook Aeschylus’s bald head for a hard stone.

Pliny adds an ironic twist: Aeschylus was only outside in the first place to avoid a prophecy that he’d be killed by falling object.

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Euripides wrote musicals, not plays

People perform the works of Euripides today as a play (without music) often unaware that they were written as musicals.

If you’ve ever seen the famous Orestes by Euripides, composed in 408 BC, you probably saw a stage play with no music and no singing.

But this fragment, written 125 years after Orestes was composed, actually shows the melody, and proves it was a musical.

In Euripides’s Greece, according to the “Greater Perfect System”, each octave is divided into exactly 21 notes, and each note is assigned a letter of the alphabet. You can indicate which octave the note belongs to by turning the letter on its side, inverting it, or amending it. In this way, the Ancient Greeks wrote music with letters instead of drawing music as dots. We do this today (a melody line can be written E4, A4, B4, C5) but our octave is limited to twelve notes.

This fragment shows six well-known lines from Orestes, with the musical notes above them indicating which notes to sing, and rhythm marks indicating the timing.

It’s fortunate we know all the lyrics for Orestes, but sad this is all we know of its music.