Is There Musical Continuity from Ancient Greece to Modern Times?

By Athan Karras

The history of dance is so vastly cued in to musical expressions that they have evolved together. They are so welded from time immemorial it is difficult to know which came first. Attempts to signify how dance developed al)Vays rely on musical functions for either tonal or rhythmic punctuations.

Lakis Halkias, a descendant of a long line of musicians from Epirus, has been immersed in music since childhood, learning to play various instruments. He has a profound devotion to demotic music and singing stemming from his involvement with Byzantine chants of the Eastern Orthodox Church. So it comes as no surprise that he developed an irresistible desire to become a composer, which caused him to mobilize an indepth research project on the roots of Greek music in order to create a new sound for contemporary audiences.

His research led to the creation of a book titled 2500 Years of Hellenic Music. Through his persistent digging, he discovered that both traditional music and folk dances have evolved in a continuous flow. The discreet witness of ancient writers has left evidences of this in carved and painted discs, vases, stamp seals, and bas-reliefs. We are told about how Byzantine emperors, officials, as well as clerics, danced along with common people at festivals and how these traditions were carried out in village squares, in fields, and outdoor processions dancing to the accompaniment of flutes. There was dancing within the church, and the Greek people maintained their dances by an overwhelming desire to express their joy and longing. This powerful affirmation of life has passed from generation to generation throughout history despite the fact that the official church later declared war on dancing.

Halkias's book evolved while he prepared a concert featuring a spectrum of music throughout history. This led him research early instrumentals and fragments of compositions found in ancient parchments of early ecclesiastic music. In his attempt to reconstruct the primitive origins of Greek music, Halkias laments, "Existing gaps have grown wider owing to the lack of concern by the state responsible for our national heritage. And this applies not only to music! The Greek language has suffered the same fate. Folk music of Greek antiquity has been neglected not only in the urban centers but also in its birthplace, the country­side that nurtured it." He contends that problems still remaining are due largely to a lack of knowledge about the vocal traditions of Greek antiquity. Even though much has been written about ancient Greek music, it is based on the five-line staff, which is far removed from ancient and Byzantine music as it is from Greek rhythms and melody. It is a fact that in some Byzantine ecclesiastic music and in traditional Greek folk songs that have come down to us, the "prosody" or study of the metrical measure of verse, has been partially preserved as it survives among the inhabitants of some remote Greek mountain villages.

Halkias sets our to trace a short musical history by reconstructing segments of archaeological remains of musical artifacts and has recorded some of these fragments in three CDs that accompany the book, beginning with opening music in the ancient tradition of devotedly pointing to four directions on the horizon sounded with bucolic pipes and seashells. Following is an excerpt from Homer's Iliad rhapsody, first solo, then with a chorus, a Stasimon from Euripides' Orestes, the oldest example of ancient Hellenic music existing today. He reconstructs an example of the Hymn to the Sun of Mesomidos of 117-138 A.D. as well as a Hymn to the Muse. Most important is the Epitaph of SeichyIus, a short epigram dirge from the period of Marcus Aurelius discovered in Asia Minor in 1883 along with the Hymn toApollo, a Delphic Hymn that the French School of Archaeology discovered in 1893, which appears to be a paean from 2nd Century B.C. found among the ruins of the Athenian Treasury in Delphi. In the CDs there are also perfect examples of several ancient ecclesiastical Byzantine responses.

In his book, Halkias invites other musical scholars, who offer varying views derived from their findings, evaluations, and research, to add their comments. His outreach is an ecumenical approach to such a vast topic that a single point of view could easily be prejudicial. Musicologist, Haralambos Spyrides contends that most studies have focused on a period of approximately 700 years beginning during the 7th or 6th Century B.C., since notation didn't exist, they relied largely on musical instruments that were excavated from this time period.

Kostas Georgopoulos recounts that much can be found in ancient texts of Greek tragedies especially in the choruses that declaimed musical passages of these dramatic texts. Emerging from this is the connection of movement interpreting these emotions resulting in dance becoming a formal discipline. Ancient tragic texts show that logos and movement are intertwined. In time, various invaders of Greece changed this form of musical legacy spreading it to remote communities, which leaned toward more lyrical deviations eventually resulting in basic folk music. Early church music became Byzantine music, while folk music was nurtured and celebrated at the panygyria or holy day festivals.

One of the earliest systems of musical notation was developed during the Hellenistic period. It soon adapted to the emerging Byzantine or "modal" form, which is very different from the Western style of music notation due to its rich complexity and value placed on intervals, which can not be described by modern musical staff notations. It is closer to the vocal instrument when used in response to scales heard as the counterpart of musical instruments of that time.

2500 years of Hellenic Music is a fine example of investigative study by a passionate musician well rooted in tradition. Halkias continues to sift through the evidence of a civilization that does not remain static. His work can be compared to the literary exploration of Nikos Kazantzakis, who used the study of the ancient texts of Homer as a foundation to recreate an Odyssey of his own. Lakis Halkias continues to compose modern music based on ancient traditions. For more information, contact or write to: Lakis Halkias, Center for Hellenic Music, Tirynthos 9, Athens 111-43 GREECE; Tel: 25.12.424. Email Athan Karras at

(Posting date 20 December 2006)

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