One of the great tragedies of our work as classical scholars is the demise of the availability of Ancient Greek music. In endeavours to further uncover what this music actually sounded like, research is hampered by the fact that either the musical skills of classical scholars leave a lot to be desired, or by the fact that musicians who do take an interest do not have sufficient classical knowledge to decipher the original texts still left to us. Very few individuals have this combination of skills and interests, although one man, Dimitrios Yatromanolakis, may be ideally qualified to make a breakthrough in this field, since he combines both areas of expertise.
Brought up in Herakleion on the island of Crete, he earned a BA in Classics from the University of Athens, followed by a masters and DPhil from the University of Oxford. At the same time, he continued to develop his musical knowledge, to the extent that he has not only mastered the piano and guitar but also the tabla and kithara. He is of the view that ancient music cannot possibly be ‘dead’, due to all the writings on ancient musical theory that are still accessible1. Primary sources offer us a wealth of information on this topic, and one of these lies in Plato’s utopian opus, the Republic, in which harmonic theory (inter alia) is discussed in detail, as it is in the Philebus and the Laws as well as in works by other ancient philosophers, such as Aristides Quintilianus.
However, the nature of the music education programme as set out in the Republic is a source of great interest, as it poses questions not just about the importance of Greek music and how it should be taught to the young Athenian scholars, but also about the nature of the Republic itself. What does the system entail, what does Socrates hope to achieve through the censorship of what is taught as part of music education, and (consequently) what does Plato wish to achieve in the Republic (in a more general context)?
It is acknowledged right from the start of the discussion on music education that music is deeply entwined with other disciplines, and that they must be dealt with as a whole as well as being dealt with separately. At 398d, it is observed that ‘a song is a blend of three ingredients – words, music and rhythm’. The gymnastics teacher would surely come very close to the domain of the music teacher in the teaching of rhythm as connected to dance, which in its turn is connected to music (particularly in the contexts of dithyramb); as would the teacher of poetry, in teaching the pupils about the multifarious rhythms of different metres and feet utilised by the great poets.
It is subsequently asserted that the nature of the verbal component shouldn’t differ from the nature of the musical component, and thus that suitable modes for use in the utopia should be identified. The structure of the ancient music has been most often today been compared to traditional Anglican hymns2, and thus the organisation and choice of modes within this simplistic structure would have been even more crucial. The elimination of laments and dirges earlier in the Republic means that plaintive modes must also be eliminated. However, the Locrian mode (the scale starting and ending on B) is never mentioned – although it had fallen into disuse at this time, the resurrection of this mode is not considered, even for the purposes of the utopia.
Socrates and his fellows also choose to keep the Phrygian mode (alongside the Dorian), which was much associated with the aulos3. Aristotle derides this decision in his Politics4 (1342a32-b12) as well as in his A Treatise on Government5: “But Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, is very wrong when he [1342b] permits only the Phrygian music to be used as well as the Doric, particularly as amongst other instruments he banishes the flute; for the Phrygian music has the same power in harmony as the flute has amongst the instruments; for they are both pathetic and raise the mind: and this the practice of the poets proves; for in their bacchanal songs, or whenever they describe any violent emotions of the mind, the flute is the instrument they chiefly use: and the Phrygian harmony is most suitable to these subjects.”
In saying this, he dubs this decision inconsistent with the earlier criticism of the aulos (a double-reeded instrument that would have produced a more multi-layered, multi-tonal sound, with a wider range of notes, than it was thought appropriate (399d)), proving that monophony was not always strictly maintained6.
The main purpose of choosing the ‘correct’ modes and educating the pupils in this way seems to be to prepare them to be honourable citizens, who are prepared to do battle and die for the city (399b). However, there must be more to it than this – for, as outlined already in the Republic, every citizen has a purpose to their lives, and not all of them will be placed to do battle (some will be labourers, for example). Therefore, controlling music so that it builds a suitably bellicose nature is not going to be appropriate for all, and although one mode is kept for this purpose alongside one mode “which captures [the] voice when…engaged in peaceful enterprises”, this slight predicament is not really explored.
A major part of this conditioning, that goes beyond assigning tempi to various forms of linguistic cadence (400c), can be found in the constant use of harmony as a metaphor (e.g. the soul harmonising with justice), but more crucially in the correlation of music to the Ancient Greek theory of the four humours. Plato was most concerned about music’s effect on the soul and felt it imperative that the nature of the soul was understood before attempting to understand other things (Barker 458).
Equally, Wilhelms proclaims: “Re-read Plato’s Republic, and watch how he toys speculatively with the human changes that might be wrought by poetry or music or mathematics. He saw these things so powerful that they frightened him”8 – perhaps why he bans laments and dirges and plaintive musical modes from ever being voiced. The diagram given below9 shows how the different modes relate to the humours (phlegmatic humour [P], choleric humour [C], sanguine humour [S] and melancholic humour [M]) and to the four elements.