L.C. Elson, Curiosities of Music: The Public Games of Greece

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Chapter V. The Public Games of Greece

The public games of Greece in which music and musical contests were a feature, gave to the art a decided impetus, for when competition began, musical study must have preceded.

The Olympic games were celebrated at Olympia every fifth year, in July, and lasted five days. They were dedicated to Zeus (Jupiter), and were established (according to some re-established, having existed in Mythical ages) by Iphitos, king of Elis, in the ninth century before the Christian era.

For a long time none but Grecians were allowed to compete in them. If there existed internal war in Greece at the time, an armistice was effected during the games. The contestants were trained for ten months previous to the contest. The prizes awarded to the victors were wreaths of wild olive twigs, cut from a sacred tree which grew in the consecrated grove of Olympia, and the victors were presented to the spectators, while a herald proclaimed the name of each, his father, and his country.

The first day opened with a sacrifice to Zeus, after which a contest of trumpeters took place. This contest was not regularly instituted until 396 B. C., but after that period it was not interrupted. There are still annals left of the most celebrated contestants; Archias of Hybla, gained the prize for three successive Olympiads; and Athenæus says that Herodorus of Megara, a most famous trumpeter, gained the prize ten times in succession. Pollux says he gained seventeen victories, which is well-nigh incredible, but both agree in saying that this remarkable performer was in one year crowned in the four great sacred games, the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian. His music was so loud that the audience were sometimes stunned by the concussion. Other anecdotes of this wonderful trumpeter remain. He was of giant stature, and slept upon a bear skin, in imitation of Hercules and the lion skin. He could play upon two trumpets at the same time, and when he did so, the audience had to sit farther away than usual, on account of the immense sound. His performances were of great use in military affairs. Once at the siege of Argos, the troops were giving way when Herodorus began to sound his two trumpets, which so inspired the warriors of Demetrius, that they returned to the fight and won the victory.

The trumpet cannot really be classed among Grecian musical instruments, as it was rather a signal than any thing else. It was blown when heralds made any proclamation, in military movements, etc., and seems to have been appreciated only by the loudness with which it was blown.

It was also frequently played at the Olympic games during the horse-races, to inspirit the animals.1

In fact at the public games the music had a most noisy character, and trumpeters were proud of bursting a blood vessel, or otherwise injuring themselves by excess of zeal.

The contest of trumpeters was the only musical (?) one of these games, though flute-playing took place on the fourth day, when according to Krause,2 the pentathlon took place. This was a set of five athletic games; leaping, running, throwing spear, throwing discus, and wrestling. Here flute-playing also served to animate the contestants. The flutes too, considering the purpose for which they were used, must have been played in a violent manner.

Harmonides, a young flute-player, on his first appearance at the games wishing to astonish the audience, began by giving such a tremendous blast on his instrument, that he expired on the spot, probably having burst a blood vessel, and having literally blown himself out with his first note. The audience was probably astonished.

The sacred games next in importance, were the Pythian. These games were at first celebrated by the Delphians, every ninth year, but about 590 B. C., the Amphyctions (another Grecian tribe) obtained the control of them, and instituted them every fifth year. They took place on a plain near Delphi, and were in honor of Apollo, commemorating his victory over the serpent Python; the good principle defeating the evil principle, as in Egyptian, and most other mythologies. Pindar’s odes have celebrated the victories at some of these games. Being dedicated to Apollo, it was but natural that music, (under this head, the Greeks understood most of the accomplishments of the muses,) should play the most important part.

Religious poems were chanted, with an accompaniment upon the lyre or phorminx. The first poet-musicians who gained the prize were Chrysothemis,3 Philammon, an earlier poet-musician than Homer, and Thamyris. According to Pausanius, all these singers were probably priests of Apollo. The Amphyctions first established prizes for songs with flute accompaniment, and for flute solos. Cephallon obtained a prize for songs accompanied by Kithara, a small lyre, and Echembrotus one for songs with flute, while Sacadas of Argos took the prize three consecutive times for his flute solos. After him came Pythocritus of Sicyon, who won the prize at these games six consecutive times, which covers an interval of thirty years of triumphs.

Athletic sports also were introduced later. The prizes were, as at Olympia, wreaths only.

The use of the flute both as solo instrument, and as accompaniment, was however, soon abolished, it being used as funeral music, and for dirge playing among the Amphyctions, and therefore having too many melancholy associations to allow of its use in these festive games. Finally solos on the small lyre (kithara) were allowed prizes.

Extended technique — Any unusual way of producing sounds with your instruments or voice.

It is said that at one of these contests a flute player gained the prize in a singular manner. He was playing the straight flute, when the reed in the mouth-piece became closed by accident, on which he instantly changed the position of his instrument, and played it as an oblique flute; his presence of mind was rewarded, by winning the prize.

The Nemean games were commemorative of the slaying of the Nemean lion, by Hercules. There was no musical contest in the games, but flutes were used, to stimulate the athletes, and were probably allowed prizes.

The Isthmian games celebrated upon the Isthmus of Corinth, whence their name, were similar to the Nemean; music not being of any importance in them.

In Chios there has been found a stone on which the names of the victors in the musical contests are inscribed. From it we learn that prizes were given for reading music at sight, rhapsodizing, accompanying the voice with a small harp played with the hand, and accompanying with kithara played partially with the fingers of the left hand, and partially with a plectrum held in the right hand.

The lesser games of Greece were also not inconsiderable. The great festival of Athens was the Panathenæa, held in honor of Athene the patron goddess of the city. It was established according to tradition, about 1521 B. C., and was at first intended for the citizens of Athens only. It took place about the middle of July.

At the later Panathenæa, the people of all Attica used to attend. There seem to have been two divisions of this festival, a greater and lesser Panathenæa, the former being celebrated every four years, the latter every year. The lesser Panathenæa consisted of recitations, gymnastics, musical competitions, and a torch race in the evening, the whole concluding with the sacrifice of an ox. The greater, was even more extensive. The Homeric poems were sung, dramatic representation took place, magnificient processions marched to the temple of Athene Polias, and the whole city was full of mirth and gayety. The prizes were jars of oil made from the sacred tree on the Acropolis.

Pericles, (fifth century B. C.,) gave to music a greater prominence than ever before in these games, by erecting a structure especially for musical entertainments and contests, the Odeum, in the street of the Tripod; this edifice was very well adapted in its acoustical properties, for according to Plutarch’s description, the roof was dome-shaped, or nearly so, and vast audiences could hear solos distinctly.

In Sparta, in the month of August (Carneios) there were celebrated the great Carneian games, which lasted nine days. In these games musical contests also took place, and dances of men, youths, and maidens, as well as gymnastic exercises. Sparta also had a special building for musical purposes. Theodore of Samos erected the Skias, a building for musical uses, in the market place. Sparta was in fact, the cradle of Grecian music.

In the early days, songs were learned and transmitted down, from mouth to mouth. Homer’s poems were preserved in this manner for five hundred years. In Sparta however, they first began to crystallize into form and regularity. Yet strange to say, Sparta gave birth to no musicians of eminence, even though she was so long the arbiter, and director of Grecian musical taste.4

Terpander of Lesbos, one of the founders of Greek music, came early to Sparta. He is reported to have gained the prize at the first musical contest of the Carneian games, B. C. 676, and is said to have studied in Egypt, but he certainly could not have done so before his first advent in Sparta, for Egypt was at that date still closed to foreigners, and had even guards set to prevent the landing of strangers by the sea.5

Terpander gained the Pythian crown four times in succession, and was the most famous poet-musician of his time. His fame spread through all Greece, but it was especially in Sparta that he won renown, for his high, manly and earnest strains awoke a sturdy and manly response in the bosoms of the rugged Spartans. It is probable however that at the first visit to Sparta, his songs were not so powerful. At that time, (676 B. C.) he probably sang chiefly the poems of Homer. We say sang, but it is not even sure that they had, what we should call a tune, attached to them; they were possibly recited in a musical pitch of voice, which could not be called even a chant.

There was at this time, little music among the Spartans, and that of rather martial, or else of religious character; as for example we learn that the Spartans marched into battle to the sound of many kitharas, as did also the Cretans, and it was supposed to have been in honor of the Gods, that they did so; though Thucydides, more practically, says that it was only that they might move forward regularly and in time. On Terpander’s second visit to Sparta, he changed the entire mode of Spartan music, and enlarged it. The return happened in this wise:—

At the beginning of the second Messenian war Sparta was in great perplexity. Messenia by alliances with other tribes threatened destruction from without. Within all was dissension; agriculture prostrate, antagonism between those who had lost their lands through the wars and those who possessed them, a demand for a new distribution of land, and prospective anarchy. At this juncture, the Oracle of Delphi was consulted, and gave reply that “discord would be quelled in Sparta when the sound of Terpander’s harp was heard there,” and told the Spartans, also to call the counsellor from Athens. So Terpander was sent for, and also the counsellor Tyrtaeus from Athens.

The effect of Terpander’s songs upon the populace on this occasion is described as something remarkable; men burst into tears, enemies embraced each other, and all internal dissension was at an end.6

It is recorded therefore, that Terpander with his harp had quelled all dissension in Sparta, but by this anecdote we may see that in what the ancient Greeks called music, the words really played the most important part. To show this yet more clearly, we will here give an instance from later Athenian history where the same power was exerted for a similar purpose. A war between Athens and Megara, for the possession of the island of Salamis, had resulted in such continued disaster to Athens, that the Athenians had left the island to its fate, and it was forbidden upon penalty of death to broach the subject to the public again. Solon however, attired himself as a messenger from the island to the Athenians, and in this character sang a song which roused such a martial spirit, that on the instant a large body of volunteers was formed, who, under Solon, effected its reconquest.

Terpander and Tyrtæus composed most of their songs in march rhythm, and after this the Spartans sang hymns, while marching into battle to the sound of many kitharas, which were afterwards displaced by the more penetrating flute.

Terpander also composed love songs, and banquet songs as well as nomes or hymns, and his choruses were sung at all Spartan festivals and sacrifices, they were taught to Spartan youths and maidens, and all seemed to vie in doing him honor. He had really helped the music of Greece to a higher plane, for it is said that he enlarged the lyre or phorminx from four strings, to seven, and also made improvements in the scale.

Contemporary with this poet-musician was Olympus, who must not however be confounded with an Olympus who lived six hundred years previously, that is, about 1250 B. C. Plato says that the music of Olympus was especially adapted to animate the hearers. Plutarch says that it surpassed in simplicity and effect, all other music. He is said to have composed the air which caused Alexander to seize his arms, when it was sung to him; according to Aristotle his music filled all hearers with enthusiasm. Much relating to Olympus must however be relegated to the land of myths. It has even been doubted whether he ever really existed, though that is carrying scepticism too far.

Among the other characters which existed on the borderland of Greek musical history, may be mentioned Polynestos, and Alcman who brought to Sparta in its full glow, the love song, (Lydian measure). Alcman seems to have been easily aroused to sing of female beauty, and composed some choruses especially for the

“Honey-voiced, lovely singing maidens,”

which were sung by female voices only.

The fragments which remain of Alcman’s verses do not justify the immense fame which he seems to have enjoyed in Greece. Alcman was preceded by Thaletas of Crete, who was sent for by the Spartans 620 B. C. to sing to the Gods, in order that Sparta might be freed from a severe plague, which was then ravaging the state. The plague ceased, and Thaletas for a time stood at the head of all Spartan music. That country as above mentioned, either would not, or could not encourage home talent.

Sacadas of Argos came soon after with a yet more luxurious style, and introduced the flute as an accompaniment to chorus music.

To this foggy period of history, also belongs Tisias of Himera, who made an indelible impression on Greek music. He was the first who regulated the motions of the chorus, and who reduced chorus singing to a settled system; from the fact that at one period of the song, (the epode, or finale) he made the chorus stand quiet, instead of dancing he received the nickname of “Stesichorus.” In some of the works of Stesichorus, one can easily see the germ of the choruses of Aeschylus or Sophocles.7

If in the ancient Grecian music, the composer, poet, and performer seem to be spoken of in common, the reader must recollect that in those days, all three branches of the art were united in one individual. It will also aid some readers, if we define here what the functions of the Greek chorus were. In the earliest days, the whole chorus simply sang refrains after the solo of some cultivated singer; gradually whole compositions were entrusted to their charge. Pantomimic action probably always existed in connection with their songs, as with almost all ancient singing. Stesichorus first gave them different historical or mythological subjects to act, in a dramatic manner. At a later epoch the chorus entered in a peculiar manner into the action of the drama. They stood upon the stage as interested spectators of the various events; they advised the Protagonist or only individual character8 as to his course of action, and when some startling incident, a murder for example, had taken place, they would strongly express their feelings, horror, dismay or fear, and thereby intensify the effect upon the audience.

An imitation of the Greek chorus may be found in Schiller’s “Bride of Messina.”

Stesichorus was deservedly honored as the founder of Greek chorus music, and a statue was erected to his memory. Among those next following his era we find Ibycus, a poet-musician attached to the court of Polycrates, tyrant of Samos. This mighty sea king and despot had a considerable liking for music; for we learn also that he kept a choir of beautiful boys, whose duty it was to sing sweet Lydian melodies during his meals. About 580-70 B. C. Alcæus and Sappho became leaders in Grecian musical culture, or poetry, for the two are inseparable. The two poets seem to have formed a mutual friendship. Of Sappho we have remaining an ode to Aphrodite which makes it a matter of regret that the remains of her poetry are so fragmentary.9 At Mytilene she seems to have gathered around her a large and elegant circle, composed entirely of females to whom she taught poetry and music; in fact her house must have been a musical university for her list of scholars embraces names from all parts of Greece. Ottfried Müller10 compares her life, surrounded by all these fair followers, with that of Socrates surrounded by the flower of Athenian youth.

Sappho’s career is the more wonderful from the fact, that among the ancient Greeks, the entire mission of woman was supposed to consist in rearing her family, attending to the first education of her sons, who at an early age passed into the hands of their teachers, teaching housewife’s duties to her daughters, and attending to them herself; according to Pericles, that woman was most to be prized of whom no one spoke, either in praise or blame.

Sappho’s poetry had great effect even on the rough character of Solon, the law giver; hearing for the first time one of her songs, which his nephew sang to him, he vehemently expressed the wish that he might not die before he had committed to memory so beautiful a song.

Sappho’s name is almost the only female one in the whole realm of ancient Greek music, which was pure, noble, and uncontaminated. Latterly, even her character has been assailed, but the accusation has been refuted by Herr Welcker, of Bonn, (in the Rheinisches Museum,) Ottfried Müller and other learned writers. After her, music as practiced by the female sex, was handed over to the most degraded, (the Hetarae) and seems to have borrowed from Egypt many lowering qualities,11 including dancing girls and ribald songs.

Anacreon of Teos, introduced into Greece the light, airy songs, in praise of woman, wine, etc., “It is no great stretch of fancy,” says a thoughtful writer,12 “to imagine his songs as expressing our modern Allegretto Grazioso, Andante Scherzoso, etc.”

From precisely this point however (the lack of signs of expression in all Greek music) another writer13 deduces the opinion that Greek music must always have been in a crude state, and by no means of the beauty which some enthusiasts ascribe to it.

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This is a part of a book Curiosities of Music: A Collection of Facts not generally known, regarding the Music of Ancient and Savage Nations (1880) by Louis Charles Elson, in public domain.
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The section covers pages 39-113, originally footnotes were not numbered.
Originally, chapter numbers also include "VII." twice.

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