The Greeks and Classical Music

August 25, 2018
Dr. Leonidas Petrakis

Greek music, composers and performers, have come to enjoy considerable recognition outside of Greece. A non-Greek, if asked, she might mention, as an example of his or her familiarity, Melina Mercouri singing the Manos Hatzidakis hit Never on Sunday (which brought Hatzidakis an Academy Award but he refused it), or perhaps Anthony Quinn dancing syrtaki to the music of Mikis Theodorakis in Zorba the Greek, or Nana Mouskouri.

A more knowledgeable person might offer Theodorakis’ Oscar-winning score for Al Pacino’s Serpico, or Vangelis Papathanassiou’s scores for Chariots of Fire and the Carl Sagan PBS series Cosmos; opera lovers would surely bring up Maria Callas; those familiar with rembetica, the Greek “blues,” might recall Tsitsanis or Sotiria Bellou; and the Greeks of the Diaspora might mention the Sweden-born Elena Paparizou who won for Greece the 2005 Eurovision prize.

But Greek contributions to music go much further than these iconic references, and involve musical theory, sources of inspiration for compositions, instrumentation, and outstanding professionals.

Homer, in the ninth book of The Iliad, tells that when Odysseus and the other ambassadors from Agamemnon came to Achilles to sooth his wrath and convince him to rejoin the fight against the Trojans “found him there, delighting his heart now, plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre, beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm.”

Music was an essential element in the private lives and public activities of ancient Greeks-in military operations, manual labor, festivals, religious ceremonies, theater of course, and symposia devoted to philosophical discourse or mere entertainment.

Plato (The Republic, Laws) and Aristotle (Politics) pay considerable attention to the nature of music, its role from cosmology to psychology, and its importance in education. In Byzantium sacred music was a supreme achievement, and folk music (kleftika and rizitika) was a part of the struggles to establish the Modern Greek state.

Western musical development was influenced profoundly by the ancients through their advancing concepts that remain cornerstones of our music-notes, intervals, semitones, overtones, chords, scales, modes.

Pythagoras was the first to establish the mathematical basis of music. In the sixth century BC, he investigated the sound production of plucked strings of the lyre, instrument beloved by the Greeks.

He discovered that musical sounds that are pleasant to the ear and affect the human psyche have strict mathematical relationships of whole small numbers. The principles he established apply to all musical sounds, including those produced by vibrating reeds (flutes), streams of air blown across reeds (oboe, clarinet), and tunable percussive instruments (kettle drum, xylophone).

Pythagoras discovered that two strings which are identical in material, tension, thickness and length (ratio 1:1) produce, when plucked, the same note, unison, while strings identical in all respects except that one is twice as long as the other (ratio 1:2) produce sounds one octave apart.

Other string length ratios that produce pleasant sounds include the 3:2 (perfect fifth), and the 4:3 (perfect fourth). Playing these simultaneously or sequentially retains their pleasant quality, producing a chord.

The human ear, in our western musical system, can discern twelve distinct steps (semitone intervals) within an octave. But because the system is heptatonic (seven letters, A through G) the whole tone intervals are halved with flats and sharps, thereby enabling the musical notation to account for all twelve semitones. The black keys of the piano keyboard provide for playing all semitones, while other instruments use various means to achieve this result.

Scales and modes, established by the ancients but greatly expanded especially since the Renaissance, have been a critical element in creating the formidable armamentarium of musical forms (sonata allegro, theme and variations, rondo) of classical music, most of which has been based on the major and minor scales.

Modes (special scales other than these two familiar ones) were dominant before the Baroque era, but they have also been used in classical compositions (Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor op 132 in the Lydian mode) and are increasingly finding their way in modern classical music.

Beginning with the Pythagorians different modes have been credited with each evoking strong emotions, influencing mood and character development. The Roman senator Boethius tells of a striking incident:

“Pythagoras calmed a drunk adolescent of Taormina who had become incited under the influence of the Phrygian mode, and restored this boy to his rightful senses, all by means of a spondaic melody. For one night this frenzied youth was about to set fire to the house of a rival who had locked himself in the house with a whore….. When Pythagoras learned that this youth was under the influence of the Phrygian mode and would not be stopped from his crime ordered that the mode be changed, and thus… restored the frenzied mind of the boy to a state of absolute calm.”

Plato in his ideal city wanted to retain only musical modes (e.g., Dorian) that instilled in the youths courage and moderation and banish all other (Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian).

The subject of modes is not easy to present-and not just because of their unfamiliar names. Leonard Bernstein was an extraordinarily effective teacher besides being a great maestro. He devoted one of his legendary Young Peoples’ Concerts at Lincoln Center to the discussion of modes, their deep roots in Ancient Greece and their significance in musical development.

Classical music (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionist and Modern) in its many genres (opera, ballet, sonata, concerto, symphony), being an exploration of the human condition, has often used Greek mythology as a source of inspiration.

This is not surprising given the fact that Greek mythology abounds in profound examinations of the human condition, especially its heroic and tragic dimensions, and its relationship to the divine. Even in contemporary pop music references to Greek mythology are found in the work of successful artists-Kanye West (Gorgeous), Katy Perry (Dark Horse), Bastille (Icarus). But it is in classical music where the influence has been the greatest.

The tragic story of Orpheus, the mythical master musician, and his beloved Euridice, has been a rich source of inspiration. On the day of their planned marriage, Euridice was accosted by a satyr, and she, attempting to avoid his lewd embrace, fell in a field with poisonous snakes, was bitten and died. Orpheus gained her release from Hades by charming with his lyre the chthonic god, but unable to control his eagerness looked at Euridice before she emerged fully from the Underworld.

This violated the condition set by the god for her release. Orpheus was punished for breaking his pact with the divine, and Euridice was forced to return to the Underworld. The myth has been especially attractive to opera composers from the beginnings of the genre to the present, from Claudio Monteverdi (early 17th century), to the ”Father of the Symphony” Franz Joseph Hayden, Christoph Gluck, Jacques Offenbach, Igor Stravinsky, Camille Saint–Saens. The contemporary American composer Philip Glass adapted Orphee, the second of Jean Cocteau’s film Orphic trilogy, into a chamber opera.

Many other composers have turned to Greek mythology for inspiration: Ludwig van Beethoven (The Creatures of Prometheus), the Russian Stravinsky (Persephone), the American Samuel Barber (Medea), the German Richard Strauss (Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos), the British Benjamin Britten (Young Apollo) and Gustav Holst (The Planets Suite), the Danish Carl Nielsen (Pan & Syrinx), the Hungarian-born Franz Liszt (Orpheus, Prometheus), the Finish Jean Sibelius (Pan and Echo), the German Franz Schubert (many lieder using the poetry of Schiller, Goethe, and Mayrhofer on Greek mythological subjects), the Armenian-American Alan Hovhaness (Odysseus), and the contemporary Japanese, famous for his score for Akira Kurosawa’s film Ran, Toru Takemitsu (Orion and the Pleiades.) The German Richard Wagner not only wrote music that explicitly referred to Greek mythology (Venus in Tannhauser) but he patterned his music dramas after ancient Greek drama.

French composers have been particularly fond of using Greek mythological motifs-Rameau, Delibes, Berlioz, Ravel, Claude Debussy (his celebration of Romanticism’s “Arcadia” ideal, Prelude a l’ apres-midi d’un faune (satyr) inspired by Stephane Mallarme’s poetry, famously choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for Ballets Russes, and its 1912 Paris performance proving an event that played a catalytic role in the development of the 20th Century Modernism in Art), Milhaud, and Erik Satie (his famous piano Gymnopedies aim to capture the beauty, strength and precision of the military training displayed by young Spartan youths, both men and women, as they performed naked in the festival dedicated to Apollo and praised by Plato as an outstanding educational vehicle).

In instrumentation the most noteworthy contribution is the pipe organ, invention of Ctesibius in the third century BC in Alexandria, “the first key board instrument”, in the words of the American archaeologist Richard Pettigrew. In 757 Byzantine Emperor Constantine V gifted a pipe organ to Charlemagne, the Catholic Church incorporated it in its rituals, and it has become a mainstay of the West’s musical heritage.

Finally there is a significant Greek presence in performance and composition. The violinist and conductor Leonidas Kavakos, widely recognized as a superstar, recently joined Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma to form a trio that is performing (Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, Boston Symphony Hall, 2018) to great acclaim. Maria Callas reigned supreme on the world opera stages; Dimitri Mitropoulos had a towering presence as conductor-the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and other major symphony and opera orchestras; Gina Bachauer dazzled as the leading pianist of her age; and Iannis Xenakis was at the forefront of mathematically-based contemporary compositions.

Mikis Theodorakis’s impressive repertory in many classical genres has found its way to world stages despite efforts to impede its presentation by besmirching his humanity (of the composer of Mauthausen, of all people!) Arguably the most significant Greek composer of classical music was Nikos Skalkotas. The distinguished Greek-American pianist Deno Gianopoulos has been advocating that Skalkotas’s major opus 36 Greek Dances deserves a serious study and complete recording by a major orchestra. Is a generous potential sponsor with musical interests listening out there?

Leonidas Petrakis, PhD in physical chemistry from the University of California-Berkeley, was Chairman and Senior Scientist of the Department of Applied Sciences at Brookhaven National Laboratory.


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