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Ancient Greek Nomoi and Western Program Music: Some Methodological Issue

Sylvain Perrot

UMR 8546 AOROC (Paris)

Scholars of past decades writing on the Pythikos nomos often compared it to modern “program music” (Guhrauer 1875-1876; Gevaert 1881: 352; Seidenadel 1898; Grieser 1937: 70), especially Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, a famous example of program music considered the ancestor of the symphonic poem.  More recently, Bélis has used the expression “sonate à programme” (Bélis 1999: 131). Indeed, the ancient Greek nomos does tell a tale, which is the program of its music. But scholars have underestimated the methodological implications of such a rich concept. The Western concept of “program music” is very general and is insufficient to describe the specificity of all the works belonging to this genre. Furthermore, the aesthetics of “symphonic poem” have changed considerably from Liszt to Rachmaninov or Honegger. We should therefore examine more closely the modern theory of “program music” to see which specific aspects should be taken into account when we seek to describe the nomos. Calcovoressi distinguished three aspects of program music: imitative, descriptive and representative (Calvocoressi 1907-1908 and 1930). Perrot has used these categories in examining the Pythikos nomos (Perrot 2013: 373-416).  This paper demonstrates how Calcoveressi’s categories, used carefully, are relevant for the whole genre of nomos. It will use the same vocabulary while pointing out some implications of each aspect and then some methodological issues related to the Greek concept of mimesis.

First, imitative music consists in imitating sonic phenomena that exist in the daily soundscape, such as animal calls or even human music.  The Pythikos nomos was supposed to imitate the hissing of the snake (Perrot 2012). But there are other animal cries in both ancient and modern music. Much later than Aristophanes, Debussy took up the challenge of incorporating the sound of frogs into music (Chansons pour Bilitis), and Messiaen spent part of his life reproducing bird voices with musical instruments. Such animal cries can reflect on the possibilities of each instrument. Although he might have done as Rautavaara did, putting audio records of bird songs into the track (Canticus Arcticus), Messiaen preferred exploring all the possibilities of instruments, much as Pythian winners must have done. Also, the soundscape of ancient Greeks, both the sonic environment and the instruments, changed from archaic to Roman times. Therefore, composers wanted to introduce foreign elements, as Timotheus did in his Persae.  We may compare Timotheus’ innovation to David’s Le désert, which featured a muezzin call transcribed for a Western orchestra. The concept of imitative music thus opened a large field for ancient Greek musicians: the incorporation of new sounds into existing aesthetics, a kind of orientalism.

Descriptive music is based on narrative: it is a musical transposition of not exclusively sonic phenomena. Tchaikovsky described a storm (Tempest), as Timotheus did in his Nautilos. We may consider here as well the relationships between music and visual arts. Western programme music has been more and more involved in the ballet (e.g. Roussel describing a spider in his Festin de l’araignée) and in the motion picture soundtrack, what Chion called “audio-vision” (Chion 1991). We may notice the same movement in Antiquity with the development of pantomime.

Representative music is the expression of feelings, which would suit the theory of ethos. Examining Plato’s texts in this perspective allows us to address differently the problem of the New Music.

These different “levels of program music” (Chion 1993: 36-46) are very useful for understanding the abstract imagery of music in Antiquity, since some of the difficulties encountered were the same, even if techniques have evolved. Furthermore, the long evolution of Western program music opened the way for modern composers (Elias and MacDonald) to take on ancient challenges in their own versions of the Pythikos nomos (Perrot 2017).

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Ancient Music and Cross-Cultural Comparison (organized by MOISA)

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