West, M.L. Ancient Greek Music.
(London: Oxford, 1992) [Clarendon Paperback
edition first issued 1994]. 390 pp.
Bibliography to p. 399; Index to p. 410.
Reviewed by William O. Beeman
Department of Anthropology
Box 1921 Brown Station
Providence, RI 02912
Tel. (401) 863-3251 Fax (401) 863-7588
After several attempts to write this review I finally gave up trying to do justice to this prodigious work. This volume could aptly be titled 'Everything You Ever Thought You Might Like to Know about Ancient Greek Music and Then Some.' Encyclopedic in scope and completely authoritative, it is unlikely there will be a volume to equal this soon. As if this were not enough, West's style is also readable-- even fun, and only intimidating when one is confronted with the vast amount of scholarship required to complete this book. It strikes the reader as the work of a true aficionado, whose love of the subject transcends pedantry.
Because so few actual notated musical scores--four songs and a handful of fragments--have survived from ancient times, it is common to assume that Greek musical tradition is essentially lost to modern analysts. West points out that this impression is the result of viewing Greek music from a the standpoint of 18th and 19th Century Western musicology. By viewing ancient Greek music as an ethnomusicologist would, he gets much farther in his analysis. Indeed, his accomplishment is a miracle of deduction and compilation. He assembles bits and pieces of material from literary sources, etymological reconstruction, ethnographic analogy, and historical analysis. Through these processes he is able to construct a comprehensive picture showing ancient Greek musical life to have been rich and varied.
The book is divided into five sections. The first might best be thought of as a treatise on ancient Greek organology (the study of the structure and acoustical properties of musical instruments for the uninitiated). Separate chapters treat the voice, stringed instruments (lyres and harps), and winds and percussion (flutes and drums).
The second section is deals with ancient Greek musicology. Chapters on rhythm and tempo; scales and modes; and melody and form give a remarkably complete picture of what Greek music must have been like, despite the aforementioned lack of actual musical examples. Thorough study of this material would, I believe, allow a modern composer to come quite close to writing music 'in the style of' the ancient Greeks.
West then provides us with a section on music theory and notation. This part of the book is an expository presentation of the theoretical treatises on music by Aristoxenus, as reflected in later works by Bacchius, Allypius, and Aristides Quintilianus; Euclid, Theon of Smyrna; Nicomachus of Gerasa; Ptolemy; Porphyry; and Philodemus among others. The sections on theory are quite technical, but they are presented systematically and with great care, so that a patient reader will be able to follow. Those who know little of music theory will have the added benefit of learning quite a lot about music in general through this section of the book.
In the final two sections, West presents transcriptions of all of the known fragments of notated ancient Greek music. This compendium is very welcome, especially since it is accompanied by a musicological analysis of the fragments in terms of Greek harmonic theory. The final section is a summary of Greek music history. This final section could stand by itself as a separate work. Its inclusion in this book serves to complete the comprehensive picture of music conveyed by the overall work.
In summary, this work is unique in its scope and holistic intent. I am certain that this will serve as the major reference on ancient Greek music for many years to come.
William O. Beeman
(William O. Beeman is an associate professor of anthropology and a professional opera singer.)