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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

William Davis, A Day in Old Athens


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Page 9

The Study of "Music"


    But the Athenian has a substitute for this omission of foreign language study: music. This is something more comprehensive than "the art of combining tones in a manner to please the ear" [Webster]. It is practically the study of whatever will develop the noble powers of the emotions, as contrasted to the mere intellect.[8] Indeed everything which comes within the ample provinces of the nine Muses, even sober history, might be included in the term. However, for special purposes, the study of "Music" may be considered as centering around playing instruments and singing. The teacher very likely resides in a house apart from the master of the school of letters. Aristophanes gives this picture of the good old customs for the teaching of music. "The boys from the same section of the town have to march thinly clad and draw up in good order—though the snow be thick as meal—to the house of the harp master. There he will teach them [some famous tune] raising a mighty melody. If any one acts silly or turns any quavers, he gets a good hard thrashing for 'banishing the Muses!'"[9]

    Learning to sing is probably the most important item, for every boy and man ought to be able to bear his part in the great chorals which are a notable element in most religious festivals; besides, a knowledge of singing is a great aid to appreciating lyric poetry, or the choruses in tragedy, and in learning to declaim. To learn to sing elaborate solo pieces is seldom necessary,—it is not quite genteel in grown-up persons, for it savors a little too much of the professional. So it is also with instrumental music. The Greeks lack the piano, the organ, the elaborate brass instruments of a later day. Their flutes and harps, although very sweet, might seem thin to a twentieth-century critic. But one can gain considerable volume by the great number of instruments, and nearly everybody in Athens can pick at the lyre after a fashion. The common type of harp is the lyre, and it has enough possibilities for the average boy. The more elaborate cithara is usually reserved for professionals. An Athenian lad is expected to be able to accompany his song upon his own lyre and to play in concert with his fellows.

    The other instrument in common use is the flute. At its simplest, this is a mere shepherd's pipe. Anybody can make one with a knife and some rushes. Then come elaborations; two pipes are fitted together into one wooden mouthpiece. Now, we really have an instrument with possibilities. But it is not in such favor in the schools as the lyre. You cannot blow day after day upon the flute and not distort your cheeks permanently. Again the gentleman's son will avoid "professionalism." There are amateur flute players moving in the best society, but the more fastidious frown upon the instrument, save for hired performers.


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