Otto Steinmayer: CLASSIC GROUND

The music may be gone but the words live on.

[New Straits Times, 16 October 1991]

music Back to Greece and "lyric poetry," another classical classification. No mystery about it, "lyric" is the lyrics. Songs are the poetry that everybody---without perhaps knowing it's poetry---today knows. I am no big fan of pop tunes, but I admire the way songwriters try to express the important feelings of life.

Ancient Greek lyric poetry was the words for song. The Greeks didn't have guitars, but they did have lyres, an instrument with seven or more strings stretched across a tortoise-shell soundbox and fastened to a bar held up by two arms. An instrument like the serunai was also popular.

By the way, the word "guitar" descends from the Greek kithara, the big wooden "concert lyre."

Greek music must have been pretty good. Poets rave about it. Alas! we have nothing left but one wretched, mutilated scrap. The Greeks had a system of musical notation, but didn't bother with it very much. A Greek no more needed to know notation to be a good musician than people do today. The music was learned by ear. Even when it got written down, later editors---wretched pedants--threw out the notes and kept the words only. The result is that nobody knows much what ancient music sounded like.

With only the words left, we have at most only half the meaning of a Greek song. Thousands of years from now perhaps some bald-head will look at this and wonder how it could possibly have inspired the emotion that people said they felt when they heard it:

You know it can't be fun, sitting all alone,
If you can't come around, then please, please telephone--
Don't be cruel to a heart that's true, &c.

If we have only the words of Greek song, at least the words do say something. The beauty of the ancient metres also remain. The words of ancient Greek song cut shifting shapes in sound, unsymmetrical, organic. You cannot put a four-four drum beat to them. One example out of many, the first line of the Sappho below:

phainetai moi keinos isos theoisin
DUM-da-DUM-DUM, DUM-da-da-DUM-da-DUM-da.

There is not a lot of lyric poetry left. Apart from the grand odes of Pindar and the choruses of plays, everything we have now got could fit into one little book.

Homer gives us hints of song. Akhilles entertains himself playing the lyre and singing. A little boy plays and sings as villagers harvest grapes. In the Odyssey the bard is an honoured person at the court of kings; Homer may be giving himself a puff. Sometimes these bards sing alone. The songs of the deeds of heroes are the principal entertainments of high society. Often the singing was part of a more elaborate performance. The bard sings and plays, and to his music a "chorus" of young men or women dances. Modern Greeks still prefer to dance in groups, holding hands and stepping together in a style that is simple and graceful, often at the same time athletic.

There was music and song for every occasion in ancient Greece, for weddings, funerals, sacrifices, festivals, parties, and just simply for entertainment.

The best lyric poet of ancient Greece was a woman born in the late 7th century B.C. Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos, near the Turkish coast. She seems to have been the leader of a young ladies' poetic circle. Sappho wrote poems of great affection to her girlfriends:

He seems to me equal to the gods,
the man who sits facing you
and listens close to you speaking
    sweetly and
laughing with desire. And it
makes my heart pound in my breast,
so when I glance at you
     I cannot speak,
but my tongue breaks, a slender
fire runs under my skin,
I see nothing with my eyes, my ears roar,
cold sweat pours down me, trembling seizes me all,
I am greener than grass,
I think I lack little
of dying...

The poem breaks off here. It doesn't come to us directly, but through another author, and he didn't feel like quoting more. It seems that Sappho is saying goodbye to one of her friends who is going to be married. Sappho's emotions are direct, intense, and very personal. We hear for the first time in western literature what was lacking even in Homer, the voice of a real person speaking about herself.

Can you hear it? The words are good enough, I hope. It is more impossible to translate lyric poetry than any other. The sense is there, the music is gone forever.

Sappho sang alone. So did her friend Alkaios, a nobleman of Lesbos, who wrote songs for drinking parties, which is what "symposium" means. Then as now, the theme of much song was love. Other songs sang of the pleasures of wine and friendship.

Let's drink. Why wait the lamps? Just a finger of day's left.
Take down the big cups from their pegs!
The son of Zeus and Semele gave wine to men as
a forgetting of care. Pour it out! Mix it one to two,
full from the top of the jar, let one cup jostle the next...

Imagine yourself in ancient times. There is no entertainment other than what you make for yourself. No radio to leave on while you work---you have to hum or sing as best you can. The music that we consume rather than listen to is aural wallpaper. If you have to sing your own song, you are going to sing what means something to you. If a Greek had nothing to sing, he sat and listened to the summer cicadas. Even that, even the wind in the trees, they felt was a song.

People expected a poet both to please and to teach, rather in the same way that we nowadays enjoy a movie or novel that says something serious about the way we live. The Greeks happily were not bedeviled by divisions of "high" and "low" culture. Everything good pleased them. The poet Pindar specialized in grand songs performed with a full corps of dancers on public occasions like the return of winners in the Olympic Games. Pindar, unfortunately, is even more impossible to translate than anybody. We may get to him later.

A curious man named Athenaeus wrote a jumbled work called the "Dinnertable-Professors," a stuff bag full of the most miscellaneous information. Athenaeus preserves little drinking songs like:

Drink with me, be young with me, love and wear flowers with me;
When I'm crazy, be crazy with me, when I'm serious, be serious.

and even the songs that children sang while playing games.

---Where are my roses? where are my violets? where is my beautiful parsley?
---Here are the roses! Here are the violets! Here is your beautiful parsley!

After the end of the fifth century B.C., few lyrics remain. When Roman poets like Horace talk about singing to the lyre, they are only pretending. The music, sadly, had gone out of poetry, the speaking voice was left alone, and, what shall I call it? seriousness?---No, that's a terrible word---had gone out of popular music; much of the fun had gone out of "serious" poetry. That's a division we still suffer today.