The Seikilos epitaph is a Hellenistic Ionic song in Phrygian octave species and the oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. The song, the melody of which is recorded, alongside its lyrics, in the ancient Greek musical notation, was found engraved on a tombstone, a stele, near Aidin, Turkey (not far from Ephesus). While older music with notation exists (for example the Hurrian songs), all of it is in fragments; the Seikilos epitaph is unique in that it is a complete, though short, composition.
Inscription text and lyrics
The following is the Greek text found on the tombstone (in the later polytonic script; the original is in majuscule), along with a transliteration of the words which are sung to the melody, and a somewhat free English translation thereof; this excludes the musical notation:
|Ὅσον ζῇς φαίνου||Hoson zēis phainou||While you live, shine|
|μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ||mēden holōs sy lypou||have no grief at all|
|πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν||pros oligon esti to zēn||life exists only for a short while|
|τὸ τέλος ὁ χρόνος ἀπαιτεῖ.||to telos ho chronos apaitei.||and time demands its toll.|
meaning "Seikilos to Euterpe"; hence, according to this reconstruction, the tombstone and the epigrams thereon were possibly dedicated by Seikilos to Euterpe, who was possibly his wife. Another possible partial reconstruction could be
On the tombstone there is also an indication that states in Greek:
A free translation of this is "I am a tombstone, an image. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance".
Translated into modern musical notation, the tune is something like this:
Melody sung in an approximation of Koine Greek pronunciation and in modern popular vocal style.
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Although the transcription of the melody is unproblematic, there is some disagreement about the nature of the melodic material itself. There are no modulations, and the notation is clearly in the diatonic genus, but while it is described on the one hand as being clearly in the diatonic Iastian tonos, in other places it is said to "fit perfectly" within Ptolemy's Phrygian tonos since the arrangement of the tones (1 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 [ascending]) "is that of the Phrygian species" according to Cleonides. The overall note series is alternatively described as corresponding "to a segment from the Ionian scale". Another authority says "The scale employed is the diatonic octave from e to e (in two sharps). The tonic seems to be a; the cadence is a f♯ e. This piece is … [in] Phrygic (the D mode) with its tonic in the same relative position as that of the Doric. Yet another author explains that the difficulty lies in the fact that "the harmoniai had no finals, dominants, or internal relationships that would establish a hierarchy of tensions and points of rest, although the mese (“middle note”) may have had a gravitational function". Although the epitaph's melody is "clearly structured around a single octave, … the melody emphasizes the mese by position … rather than the mese by function".
The find has been dated variously from around 200 BC to around AD 100, but the first century AD is the most probable guess. The date of the inscription itself is also a matter of some debate. One authority states that on grounds of paleography the inscription can be "securely dated to the first century C.E.", while on the same basis (the use of swallow-tail serifs, the almost triangular Φ with prolongation below, ligatures between N, H, and M, and above all the peculiar form of the letter omega) another is equally certain it dates from the second century AD, and makes comparisons to dated inscriptions of 127/8 and 149/50 AD.
Although the material on the Seikilos stele is sparse, it indicates that the Greeks had developed a musical system in the third or fourth century BC. It was probably only used by professional composers and choir leaders, while others learned the tunes by listening to them. Texts of plays, regardless of type, were often copied without music, so the lyrics with music like that of the Seikilos epitaph are extremely rare.[clarification needed] There is no evidence that the Greek musical system survived into the Middle Ages, but texts from Byzantine times and the early Renaissance have added notations after the Greek system.[vague]
History of the stele's discovery and exhibition
The Epitaph was discovered in 1883 by Sir W. M. Ramsay in Tralleis, a small town near Aidin. According to one source the stele was then lost and rediscovered in Smyrna in 1922, at about the end of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922. According to another source the stele, having first been discovered during the building of the railway next to Aidin, had first remained at the possession of the building firm's director Edward Purser, where Ramsay found and published about it; in about 1893, as it "was broken at the bottom, its base was sawn off straight so that it could stand and serve as a pedestal for Mrs Purser's flowertops"; this caused the loss of one line of text, i.e., while the stele would now stand upright, the grinding had obliterated the last line of the inscription. The stele next passed to Edward Purser's son-in-law, Mr Young, who kept it in Buca, Smyrna. It remained there until the defeat of the Greeks, having being taken by the Dutch Consul for safe keeping during the war; the Consul's son-in-law later brought it by way of Constantinople and Stockholm to The Hague; it remained therein until 1966, when it was acquired by the Department of Antiquites of the National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet), a museum situated at Copenhagen. This is where the stele has since been located (inventory number: 14897).
Older musical compositions
There is a tradition of music notation older than the Greek system. A corpus of music fragments recorded on cuneiform tablets goes back to about 2000 BC.
One 19th-century scholar believed that an extant corpus of Chinese music, first recorded in the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907), predates this work as well as the earlier fragments of Greek music. This is based on the conjecture that because the recorded examples of Chinese music are ceremonial, and the ceremonies in which they were employed are thought to have existed "perhaps more than one thousand years before Christ", the musical compositions themselves were performed, even in 1000 BC, in precisely the manner prescribed by the sources that were written down in the seventh century AD. (It is based on this conjecture that Van Aalst dates the "Entrance Hymn for the Emperor" to c. 1000 BC.).
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- Rulan Chao Pian. China in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, first edition. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980.
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- Mathiesen, Thomas J. (1999). page 148.
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- Van Aalst 1884.[page needed]
- Seikilos Epitaph: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- "Skolion of Seikilos", The Session.
- MP3 recording of the Seikilos song.
- RM recording of the Seikilos song, text accompanied by lyre (download)
- Arrangement for organ of the Seikilos song (video and score)
- Hank Green of the vlogbrothers interpretation of the song