Music from the Classical Antiquity

Music from Classical Antiquity

Classical Antiquity is the period of history between the 8th century BC and the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the year 476 AD.

It was centered on the Mediterranean Sea, in the Greco-Roman world.

The history of Western music thus finds its main sources in the ancient Greek civilization, in Ancient Rome and in the early Christian Church

Political Context

At the apogee of its greatness, Rome provided peace and (relative) unity and security to most of western Europe, as well as to important parts of Africa and Asia.

The Roman civilization saw the rise of the earliest Christian communities who, in spite of persecution, grew steadily and spread to all parts of the Roman Empire.

In 312 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted a policy of toleration towards the new Christian communities, and he made Christianity the religion of the imperial family.

However, in 395, the political unity of the Roman Empire was formally broken up by the division into Eastern and Western Empires, with capitals at Byzantium and Rome. 

In 476, the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustus, stepped down, marking the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages.

By this time, the Church was ready to take over the civilizing and unifying mission that had been Rome's for almost a thousand years. 

Music in Ancient Greece

According to Greek mythology, music has a divine origin. It is thus believed to have great powers, such as purifying and healing the body and the mind.

In Greek civilization, music is a vital part of religious ceremonies. The lyre was characteristically used for the cult of Apollo, and the aulos for that of Dionysus.

The music of Ancient Greece was, so far as we know, primarily monophonic, and mostly improvised. It was almost always associated with poetry and/or dancing.

The Greeks' doctrine of ethos stated that music affects our souls and characters, and that different kinds of music affect our character in different ways.

Along with gymnastics, music was one of the two pillars of the Greeks' public system of education.

However, more than the actual music, it is rather the Greek's music theory that greatly affected the music of western Europe in the Middle Ages.

Music and Creativity in Ancient Greece - Tim Hansen

Ancient Greek music

Rediscovering Ancient Greek Music

Music in the Roman Empire

The Romans took their art music from Greece.

They also developed brass instruments (such as trumpets and horns) primary for military purposes.

Ancient Roman Music

Extended Roman Marching Song (Ben Hur)

The early Christian Church

Music of the Early Christian Church

The Music of the First Christians

The Jewish Heritage

Hebrew and Jewish Psalmody

Responsorial Psalmody

Antiphonal Psalmody

Reciting of passages from the Scripture using common melodic formulas

Influence of the monasteries and churches of Syria

Antiphonal Psalmody

Use of hymns

The oldest surviving example of Christian church music

The Oxyrhynchus hymn (or P. Oxy. XV 1786) is the earliest known manuscript of a Christian Greek hymn to contain both lyrics and musical notation.

It was found on a papyrus at the site of the ancient Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchos and published in 1922. The date of the papyrus is toward the end of the third century.

Byzantium (or Constantinople, now Istanbul)

In the absence of a strong central authority, the churches of the East developed different liturgies in the different regions.

From the year 330 AD until its capture by the Turks in 1453, Byzantium remained the capital of the Eastern Empire. It was the seat of the most powerful government in Europe and a flourishing cultural center which blended Hellenistic and Oriental elements.

Byzantine chant is the ancestor of the music of the modern Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Church, and other Eastern churches.

Early Byzantine Chants

Byzantine Chants

Western Liturgies

From 374 to 397 AD, the Bishop of Milan was St. Ambrose, who first introduced antiphonal psalmody and hymns to the West.

Old Roman Chant

Ambrosian Chant

Ambrosian chant was based mainly on the Eastern customs of liturgical singing. It's very interesting to see how this melodic vocal lines spread out under the continuum vocal bass sound, also known "issun", a kind of pedal bass notes.

Antiphonal Psalmody

With time, the liturgy and music of the Western Church was increasingly regulated by the Church of Rome.

By the eighth century the Schola Cantorum was established in Rome, where teachers were entrusted with the training of boys and men as church musicians.

The most important reform of the liturgy and chant was mainly the work of Gregory I (The Great), Pope from 590 to 604. He reorganized the liturgy and reformed the Schola Cantorum, establishing a uniform repertoire of chant for use throughout the Church in all countries.

Gregorian Chant