Chronicle 12. “DO NOT MALTREAT OUR MUSIC!”
PERICLES’ “GOLDEN AGE”, THAT PERIOD of the greatest acme of ancient Hellenic civilization, coincided paradoxically with the years of “decline”, which seemed to fall upon Greece in the mid-5th century. This downward trend was a kind of omen foretelling, just like a Cassandra, the upcoming “civil” Peloponnesian War. The most dramatic reaction to “remedy the evil” was quite… anti-dramatic: the democratic polis of Athens decreed in 440 BCE the cessation of all theatrical and musical activities for four years!
Performing in Sparta those days with his modern nine-string cithara, Phrynis of Mytilene encountered the angry outcry of the ephori (ephors) who, shouting out “Do not maltreat our music!”, forcibly removed the two “extra” strings, and obliged him to play with the “classical” (in the 5th century) seven-string cithara.(a)
“Do not maltreat our music!” (Ecprepes, a Spartan ephor)
Was it indeed a clear manifestation of the ephori’s extreme conservatism, or had Phrynis, a leader of the innovative school with an exceptionally melismatic and modulative style, perhaps gone too far and actually maltreated music? We shall never know: first of all, we did not… listen to him playing. But even if we’d heard him play, we would still be unable to make up our minds judging by our ears – by our own standards, if you like, i.e. by the current criteria on music.
However, Pherecrates, a contemporary comic poet and musician, was strongly in favour of the ephori, if we consider that in his comedy, Chiron, he had presented Music as complaining to Justice for abuses committed by innovators, such as Timotheus of Miletus, Melanippides of Melos and Phrynis – whom, however, the comedian forgave because when he grew older, he came… to his senses! On the contrary, Pherecrates threw several “brickbats” at Timotheus and Melanippides, who remained impenitent until the end, playing their even more… “evil” twelve-string instruments!
Comic playwrights, however, with their innate conservatism, permit me to say, are not the most reliable sources, judging by the way Aristophanes has “taken care” of another great innovator, Euripides. The tragedian believed in the talent of Timotheus, while Aristotle, together with other philosophers, also praised the work of modernists:
“Without Timotheus”, the thinker of Stageira wrote in his Metaphysics, “we would not have so many melodic compositions, and without [his teacher, and also formidable rival] Phrynis, we would not have Timotheus either.”
“Laconism (brevity) is the soul of wit”, the ancients declared. But the Laconian ephori set out to… disprove them, hurriedly expelling Timotheus from their polis with a lengthy decree, which the Roman philosopher Boethius preserved:
“For Timotheus of Miletus came to our polis and dishonoured our ancient music by despising the seven-string lyre, and also corrupted the ears of the young people by introducing a greater variety of sounds, and gave music a feminine and sophisticated character by increasing the number of strings;
“For he depraved the melody’s simplicity and soberness, which it had thus far, instead of preserving it;
“We, the king and the ephori, declare we criticize Timotheus, and additionally compel him to remove from the nine strings those that are not necessary leaving only seven; and we banish him from our polis setting him as an example for all those who would like to introduce to Sparta some improper practice in the future”…
● Timotheus was fool enough to go to Laconia despite Phrynis’ reception there. We just hope he was spared the… adze! In our previous Chronicle we referred to the four basic modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian). There were also three genera (diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic). Each one of these modes and genera, but also the rhythms, had its own ethos. It seems that people like the Spartan ephori, or even Athenian elitists such as Plato, preferred the Dorian mode and the diatonic genus, and disliked all the rest. This might’ve been the reason for the… “ephoral” rage rather than the multi-string instruments themselves, which simply enabled the musicians to modulate through modes and genera. We have seen the same circles condemning the multi-string instruments as unmanly and effeminate. It’s not by chance that this attitude was shared by later conservatives such as the Catholic leaders. In the 11th century, they rejected the chromatic and enharmonic genera and retained only the “harder and more natural” diatonic genus, “for the diatonic is very firm and virile, the chromatic very soft and feminine, the enharmonic dissonant and moreover useless”!(b) That’s why the musicians in the Occident were left with just the diatonic genus!
The ephori could not even suspect that Terpander’s
music could not be played on a four-string lyre…
The ephori’s “puritanism” was not just a phenomenon of the years of “decline”. This mentality of “supervising everything” characterized them also in the past, bringing them into conflict – among others – with another Lesbian musician, the famous Terpander, legendary heir to Orpheus’ lyre,(c) who lived from the late 8th to the mid-7th century, i.e. in the so-called “creative” times. In fact, he spent most of his life in Sparta, where he was called in during a period of political crisis to… pour oil on troubled waters. Indeed, he was able to restore peace and tranquility in the city with his music composed specially for the occasion! But the ephori, instead of thanking him, demanded… an apology because he played – alas! – a seven-string cithara and not a “traditional” – at the time – four-string instrument! They could not even suspect that this specific peace-restoring music could not be played on a four-string lyre…
But there was a sacred intervention – as “deus ex machina” – by Apollo himself, whose cithara, by… “divine coincidence”, was also seven-string! It was confirmed by a rumour that craftily circulated those days. Later, sanctioned with the seal of the Delphic Oracle, “the Spartans honoured the Lesbian songwriter”, according to Heraclides Ponticus (from Pontic Heraclea, 4th century BCE), adding: “for god commanded them through prophesies to listen to him”. As they were accustomed to always overdo (let alone it was an Olympian command to obey to Terpander), the Spartans in the future placed everyone else “after the Lesbian songwriter”, as Aristotle wrote.
The prevalence of the art of this unparalleled (in his time) citharoedus, at the expense of the ephori’s scholasticism, benefited in many ways the Spartans, who secured not only a peacemaker in times of political turmoil, but also the founder of their musical life. Among other things, Terpander was the first to invent a kind of musical notation for the proper performance of the Homeric epics.
Unfortunately, the opposite happened millennia later with the notorious report On Literature, Music and Philosophy by the ephori’s descendant, Zhdanov, whom Stalin considered an expert also on issues of music because he could… “play the piano a little bit”!(d) The “father of socialist realism”, who in 1934 had nationalized even… culture, so as to turn it into a political tool, in his report of June 24, 1947, demanded from the great composers Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Shebalin to repent publicly, denouncing themselves! What a pity there was no Pythia anymore…
It was the nadir of a cultural policy aimed at creating… yes-men in literature and the arts – a policy that undermined the highest interests not only of culture, but also of the revolution. Note that it was not restricted within the Soviet Union: it was also imposed on all “sister” parties. The Zhdanov report was discussed by Greek party intellectuals even on the barren islands of exile: it was unanimously approved! There was only one “dissonant” voice: that of Ares Alexandrou…(d)
Well, starting from historical paradoxes, we have ended up to historical parallels that are often detrimental to historical truth. Spontaneously we are in solidarity with the musicians and confront the… “Zhdanovist” ephori with disgust. In fact, we cannot be absolutely sure – especially in such times of “decline” – which side was finally right: Phrynis and Timotheus or the ephori? Let alone that the above slogan of the “villains” fits perfectly well into the current situation concerning our music and, I believe, we should all cry out loud rhythmically and in chorus: DO NOT MAL–TREAT OUR MU–SIC!
OUR ONLY CERTAINTY is probably that these historical episodes refer to professional musicians, heirs of a long tradition starting since very old times – since prehistory. Once the humans began producing more than what was absolutely necessary, resulting in surplus product which some of them gradually appropriated, and thus constituted themselves as a ruling class, since that moment musicians emerged as a separate profession.
First-rate musicians in the Orient were closely connected with the royal courts or the clergy – if they were not courtiers or priests themselves. This situation later changed in ancient Hellas due to climatic conditions that were mild and did not necessitate strong central power. These conditions nurtured a similar attitude among the Greeks and a relaxed relationship with the gods. The development of democratic ideas took place in the same context, as I have tried to explain (see Chronicles 2 and 4).
The Hellenes have had open and inquiring minds exactly because they’ve been open to the outside world, as a result of the same conditions. Just a look at a map of Greece explains why. Thus, the oriental influence has been catalytic. The ancients, however, unlike us, did not like to… “copy and paste”. So, they adapted every recipe to their tastes by adding or removing ingredients. Having borrowed their script from the Cretans already in the 17th century BCE, with the necessary changes to meet the requirements of their language (Minoan and Mycenaean Linear A and B scripts), they received (probably from the Phoenicians around the 9th century BCE) the symbols with which they created their own alphabet – a real alphabet with letters for consonants and vowels alike, in contrast to the Semitic consonantal abjads. Then, using the same symbols (what would be more logical?), they arrived to the point to also invent musical writing (notation) as early as the 7th-6th century BCE.(e)
“The Hellenes had musical notation well before the 6th century BC”, Iégor Reznikoff said at the 2nd Musicological Symposium of Delphi in 1986. “They were very good in keeping records; that’s the reason why we know so much about ancient Greek tradition and return to it, as many other traditions had no musical writing and thus we know nothing about them.”
“Many ancient notations were invented by priests for priests and cantors, and some were even kept secret”, Curt Sachs remarked.
A culture with a script was not necessarily a culture with a musical script; and if the notation existed, it might have been… top secret! Music, with its catalytic effect on humans and magical powers, was a deadly enemy of all religions, but also a mighty weapon in the hands of priests, who made sure that knowledge around this art was a well-kept secret within the very select circle of initiates.
Music, with its catalytic effect on humans, was a deadly enemy of
all religions, but also a mighty weapon in the hands of priests, who
made sure that knowledge around this art was a well-kept secret…
This means that the Hellenes have not been the inventors of musical notation, but it was them who first used it not for religious-authoritarian reasons, but for didactic purposes, given that music was at the heart of education provided to children since they were six. This shows some differences between the cultures of the Greeks and “barbarians” – i.e. those speaking tongues incomprehensible to Hellenes. Greek culture was not theocratic (there was no reason to be), which is why knowledge was a public good and right. The initiation into the mysteries was part of the devotional process, but the role of religion was totally different, as it was anything but rigidly dogmatic – a basic feature of monotheism.
The Hellenes used the archaic alphabet for instrumentation, and Ionic letters for the song.(f) This may indicate that instrumental notation preceded the vocal one. Obviously the latter became necessary because of music’s further development, thereby varying the melodic lines of voices and instruments.
Thus we are able to play even now the extant ancient Hellenic music “remnants” – of course, approximately. That’s how – based on various indications – we also approach ancient Grecian phonology, speech, pronunciation, which was musical and not dynamic as it is now.(g) The difference is enormous. This implies that the divergence between ancient and modern music has become even greater.
THE ARGUABLE CONTINUITY of Greek civilization, through the succession of classical antiquity with the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods – and the necessary adjustments at each stage due to changing conditions – seems to have been interrupted with the Ottomans’ arrival. Thus, we tend to identify the emergence of any divergence during this period. However, such phenomena have been much older, as the rapid linguistic changes taking place already in the Hellenistic period show. As far as music is concerned, colossal differentiations emerged much later, not because of the Turkish yoke, but – how ironic! – as soon as this yoke was thrown off and the modern Greek state was established, supported on foreign “crutches”.
A rule that was then undermined from above concerned the link between folk and erudite music. The fact that Constantinople, Thessalonica and Smyrna – the great centres of Byzantine and Ottoman eras – were outside the borders of the new state made things easier for the erudite musicians (all of them educated in Europe) to impose the music they could play and compose, regardless if it had nothing to do with local tradition.
Moreover, due to the fact that the former conqueror shared this tradition, a new kind of servitude appeared since then, leading also to attempts to “harmonize” Grecian music (based on the Western conception of harmony; see Chronicle 11) – the demotic song and ecclesiastical Byzantine chant: that was the only erudite music left in Greece, as secular Byzantine music was thoughtlessly ceded to Turkey, without Hellas claiming its share of this age-old cultural heritage.
Haven’t those in power realized that the people risked turning into tabula rasa? Haven’t they wondered if among the ages thrown into the dustbin, the Golden Age of Pericles was also included? No problem! They bathed in the spotlight just the Parthenons (i.e. the dead meaning of the Golden Age), then set up “new Parthenons” on barren islands of exile,(h) and finally set out to strangle whatever little had survived from this legacy with the asphyxiating embrace of concrete. The architectural chaos they’ve created may have knocked architecture down the podium of the fine arts, but that’s what “business with pleasure” is all about – and this combination is better achieved through… defects: that’s how wallets become thick!
The Europeanization of Greek music has been going on apace all along, as long as the tutelage provided in conservatories,(i) (aka foreign music language schools) is based on European standards. The absence of “national” music education at its place of birth, while “third world” countries in the Orient boast of their higher music institutes, might be unthinkable in any country other than modern Hellas. Everything perhaps can be explained by amateurism or the absence of a cultural policy – without excluding the possibility of a conscious act. After all, isn’t this absence of policy also… a policy?
It is quite serious, indeed. Any child inclined to music, regardless of stimuli, will be obliged to attend a conservatory having no choice: he/she will necessarily be taught a foreign musical language – the erudite European. It’s another case of brainwashing – not only of this child but also of his/her future listeners, since it is impossible to “shepherd” the public to listen to occidental music, if you don’t “produce” musicians specifically trained for the role, blocking the emergence of new traditional musicians, and marginalizing those who are already active. It’s been another scheme of the ruling circles in order to eradicate local traditional music and thus mutate the collective consciousness of the people.
The ruling circles tried to eradicate local tradition and mutate the people’s collective consciousness. But some conservatives resisted.
Taking into account all these attempts, the continuous attacks against all local musical genres since the Hellenic state has been established, it is a miracle that this tradition has survived! It prevailed, of course, because it’s deep-rooted – but also because of a certain peculiarity: there was resistance against these attacks – mainly from conservative opponents of cosmopolitanism (such as Simon Karás, though sponsored by the Ford Foundation), and not from progressive Greeks, as it would be “proper” and “normal”. The fact that it was conservatives who mostly contributed in safeguarding Hellenic traditional music, created more confusion, obscuring the real problems.(j)
The conservatives, for sure, care about the conservation of music the way it has passed down to us. They are mainly interested in the conservation of the type (sum of typical features or clichés) of tradition, which is not seen in connection with the rest of the Mediterranean cultures, where it belongs. It is the typical attitude of the folklorists who miss the whole point. Thus they concentrate their attention on collecting songs and tunes in the form they’ve been polished to perfection by countless generations of musicians, disregarding personal creative interventions by current folk artists, ignoring that such innovations – if adopted by public taste – refined and perfected folk songs. They also reject any further similar effort as an attempt to adulterate their purity, arguing that, in the era of individualism, the practice of collective development of music is long gone.
Folk songs were created and perfected not by the people, but by musicians as exponents of society or some strata… Only a thorough understanding of traditional music will enable its development…
This may be true; but disregards the fact that the songs we so admire have been created and perfected not by the people in general, but by their musicians, as exponents of society at large, or some social strata. The composers and lyricists have been some talented persons, not society in general. In addition, we have no right to throw the inflow of new elements into traditional music in the purgatory condemning it to a standstill – which is equivalent to death: as Heraclitus said: τὰ πάντα ῥεῖ (everything flows); therefore, whatever does not flow, dies out. It goes without saying that I do not argue in favour of an uncritical acceptance of all new elements. I’m just pointing out the consequences of blind negativism: by cutting the thread of continuity, we offer the worst service to tradition. Are our folklorists under the naïve impression that barricading themselves behind the wall they are erecting, they would be supposedly safe? In the Internet era they behave like ostriches!
No objection that after the invention of the phonograph, especially since the record companies have also undertaken the promotion of their “merchandise”, the role of the people has shrank into that of a passive “receiver”-listener. So much for the famous public taste! Hence, in the era of individual creation, only a thorough understanding of traditional music will enable its further development under the new conditions – which is the hoped-for result – instead of serving as couleur locale. This development, of course, cannot come up with revivals such as the “neo-demotic”, or “neo-rebétiko”, that discredit the whole verbiage about “roots”, precisely because of the adherence of their protagonists to the past – if not to money…
● I’M AFRAID THAT THE CULTIVATION of art, of culture as a whole, is incompatible with the vulgar version of “representative democracy” – which is dominant today. Under pure, direct democracy, the citizens, who actually held power, were obliged to take all the critical decisions by themselves, either in the Heliaea, or in the Ecclesia of Demos, gaining de facto a political criterion and responsibility that today’s “subjects” do not possess. In addition, the polis obliged the wealthy to fund dramatic performances, while the citizens, instead of paying to see them, were paid (from the theorica fund). Suppose you were an ancient Athenian and, during the Dionysia festival, you were exposed to the dramatic art of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, with their high-level poetry and music in their plays. If so, your culture, your cultivation, would be far more refined than what you have today. (See Chronicle 4. On Democracy, where our “representative democracy” is defined as oligarchy).
Unfortunately, direct democracy has been a historical parenthesis. What’s happened before or after? The arts were then cultivated under the auspices of the ruling class. The kings or princes in their Courts, as well as several Maecenas – all of whom were cultivated, unlike their subjects, or today’s rude plutocrats in power – really cared for the arts and the artists, if they were not artists themselves. Unfortunately, except the ancient Hellenic miracle, born out of pure democracy, all other classical forms of art are due not only to the celebrated artists of the era, but also to those exploiters and oppressors who supported them… Now, the rude ruling plutocrats do everything to ensure that their subjects are (or will become) equally rude. It is the only way their plutocracy will not be questioned. And those plutocrats who decide to play the role of politicians, as a result, are voted in by the crowd.
According to the commercialism of the era, demand determines everything: from detergents to works of art! And if the “rude crowd” does not buy works of art? So much the worse for the artists – who once again depend on the prosperous: either those few, with artistic sensibilities, or the many, who want to satisfy their vanity, or simply to show off! What would the general public choose today? Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven? Ravi Shankar, Parisā, Munir Bashir? Or the trash passed off as music? The good thing in our time is that the economic base is not fully reflected on the superstructure. Meaning that, in addition to the majority of trash buyers, there is also a sufficient minority with artistic, ecological, social, political, economic and also other sensibilities. The bad thing is that the ebb and tide of our socio-political balance determine everything. The people are not without responsibilities, for sure, in the present circumstances, because it’s them who decide where the balance is tilted each time. Until one day the tide becomes permanent…(k)
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