Music Among The Hebrews, Greeks And Romans

IN considering the music of remote antiquity we have seen that its most important function was in religious worship. The Hebrews also gave it great importance in their temple service. More than any other ancient nation do they give evidence of the feeling that music is something supernatural, something divine — or that it contains, at least, a breath of the divine. In the Hebrew biblical accounts we find abundant testimony that music was used for the purpose of creating in man a feeling of awe, to induce in him a spiritual state proper for the reception of messages from on high, to bring to his consciousness whatever in him was divine.

The tribe of Levi — the tribe of the priests — cultivated music as one of the studies necessary for becoming an acolyte. The liturgy of the church was noble, and the lofty character of its poetry is exemplified in the thoughts of Isaiah and Ezekiel, which are expressed in wonderfully sonorous language, replete with flowery metaphor and full of Oriental poetic imagery.

There is abundant evidence in the Bible and in the writings of Josephus, the great Jewish historian, that the music of the temple service consisted of what we call antiphonal singing; that is, one choir sang a strain and a second choir answered, sometimes the men on one side and the women on the other, or both on either side, something like the preliminary service in the modern Episcopal Church, when the rector reads and the congregation answers with a line or stanza. This antiphonal singing led, in later years, to a great advance in musical art. A predominating idea throughout many of the Psalms, as well as most Oriental writings, is what is called “parallelism,” that is, the utterance of a thought followed by a sequel, which either reiterates that thought in other words, or is a commentary thereon.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”

Now, that is a direct statement. The sequel follows:

“The world, and they that dwell therein.”

Note that “earth” and “world,” as here used, mean exactly the .same thing, forming a parallelism — the same thought repeated in different words.

“For He hath founded it upon the seas,”

and the sequel

“And established it upon the floods.”

Here, again, we have the same thought expressed in other words;

“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?”

That is iteration; now comes the reiteration:

“And who shall stand in His holy place?”

Many of the Psalms are constructed in this antiphonal manner.

The whole Jewish ritual strove to realize the ideal of the grand song of praise to be sung in the hereafter, and was full of beautiful, poetic conceptions. Even to-day it is one of the most potent art-influences in the world, and the Jews have been ministers of art in all lands. They have been celebrated in modern music as well as in the music of the ancient temple, and there is ample evidence that even in antiquity music played a part in their daily social life. In Genesis xxxi : 27, Laban says to Jacob, when the latter re-turns after a long absence, “Wherefore didst thou .. . steal away from me, and didst not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret, and with harp?” This means that they would have had a fare-well feast together with music as a prominent feature.

During the Captivity, the music of their ritual was probably influenced by the music of Egypt, for while we know that the Jews had and have a remarkable capacity to retain and discriminate, we also know that they possess the ability to assimilate that which is best from others.

Jewish Psalmody began with David, and is really the foundation of our ecclesiastical music, for the hymnologies of the nineteenth century derive their strength from the hymns which, sung thousands of years ago, inspired the Jews in their struggles for religious and civil liberty. Their religious music was their national music, and all history shows that religion and patriotism exercise a powerful and enduring influence upon the life and character of any people.

In some old manuscript copies of the Psalms are marks, or “curlicues,” that look like enlargements of germs or bacilli. These marks were used for the purpose of indicating how the voice was to proceed, whether up or down, how far up, how far down, or whether it was to continue on a level, that is, on the same tone. In the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era, similar marks called neumes appear. We shall meet with them further on, more definite in shape and more easily deciphered.

Their musical instruments were so restricted in tone-power and quality, that the development of instrumental music was necessarily equally limited, but large choirs and great bodies of players were often brought together. We read in Chronicles that at one of the temple services four thousand Levites played on these primitive instruments, and two hundred and eighty-eight singers took part. While the Bible gives the names of the Jewish instruments, an idea of their appearance can be obtained only from the monuments of antiquity, the great Egyptian tombs. In the picture of a Jewish procession, on the inner walls of the tomb of Beni-Hassan, supposedly representing the family of Jacob on its visit to Joseph, there are thirty-seven performers on musical instruments. Only one of these carries what was called a lyre, a small, hollow wooden instrument, like a box, with a number of strings stretched across an opening in its center. These short strings, played pizzicato with a plectrum, could of course not yield much sound, but a number of them played together probably produced a considerable volume. Among these instruments is also to be seen the Kinnor, a small triangular harp that was in general and even household use. When we read of David’s harp, and that “they hung their harps upon the willow-trees,” the Kinnor is meant. In addition to these two instruments are depicted the Nebel, a large harp played with both hands; the psaltery, flutes, small trumpets and small cymbals; others in that procession do not carry any instruments at all, but apparently simply clapped their hands to mark the rhythm, like the negroes in their “juba.”

Another instrument in general use among the Hebrews resembled the Greek pipes of Pan, or Pandean pipes, and was called the Ugabh. The pipes of Pan were originally made of dry reeds from the riverside. These reeds were cut to certain lengths and joined together, and when one blew across the ends of them, they produced, according to their length, tones of high or low pitch. Out of the principle of these Pandean pipes was evolved, in the course of time, the organ. The earliest of the small trumpets were made out of rams’ horns. By the way, the ram’s horn, or Shofar, is still used in every Jewish community. At the beginning of the Jewish year, the Shofar is blown in every synagogue; this is quite an important ceremony, and he who has the Shofar is highly honored, and blows upon it a call such as can be played on a cornet or bugle without pressing the pistons or keys.

The peculiar melody, printed below, is claimed on excellent authority to be that of the first stanza of an ancient Jewish hymn for a solo voice, with interspersed choral exclamations, and each stanza is said to increase in melodic floridity.

Among the Greeks we also find a lofty, ideal conception of the power of music; and not only among the poets and musicians, but among philosophers, law-givers and judges of the courts. The Greeks also believed that music came from the gods, and was something that could, in its highest sense, be used only for the worship of the gods. Pythagoras, whom we remember in mathematics, tells of the relation of number and “harmony,” which was the name then given to music. He was the chief pioneer in researches on musical acoustics, and formulated the idea of the relationship of tones to each other. By means of the Monochord (a wooden box over which was stretched a metal string whose vibrating length could be shortened or lengthened by a movable bridge), he discovered the true relationship of the fourth, fifth and octave of a given tone; that three-fourths of the length of a string would produce its fourth; two-thirds, its fifth; and one-half of the string, its octave. We find the same principle applied in playing the violin; and the “frets” on the mandolin take the place of the bridge of the Monochord. When playing the tones of the scale on a violin, we apply the principle that Pythagoras discovered, for the finger pressing the string on the finger-board shortens the vibrating part. Be-cause of the numerical simplicity of each of their ratios, he declared the fourths, fifths and octaves to be perfect musical consonances, just as we do today. It is undoubtedly due to this declaration that, in the first attempts at music for two and more voices, these intervals were deemed the proper ones to be used.

The relationship between a tone and its third he found to be so complex that he and his followers regarded it as a dissonance; this interval was consequently avoided by the early composers, except in certain kinds of secular music. Pythagoras was so much esteemed and revered that many people followed his teachings and became his disciples, a whole sect calling themselves “Pythagoreans.” In that sect (or club, as we might call it), music, mathematics and astronomy were ranked side by side as great developers of the mind; and an ability to play on the lyre and to sing were requisites for admission.

Plato, too, was a great admirer of the power of music, and speaks of it as the purger of evil passions. Terpander was another of the Greek promoters of musical art, and Olympus (not the mountain, but the man) tells us how common was the use of music in social circles as early as 600 B.C. Just what that music was like we have but a vague idea. Pindar, one of the greatest Greek poets (522 B.C.), and a disciple of Pythagoras, was celebrated for his melodic invention; one of his odes was preserved, and has been deciphered and arranged by the German savant, Westphal. It consists of a solo, followed by a chorus of Citharodes.

Their instrumental music was, of course, limited, but that they made much out of it is evident from the fact that it made such a deep impression on them. Flute-playing was common among them also, and rival methods of teaching the flute were already in vogue in 600 B.C.

Nowadays we talk of banquet or after-dinner speakers. In those times there were no after-dinner speakers, but there were after-dinner singers. They sang, they improvised. The opera of Tannhduser affords examples (translated into modern terms!) of improvisation as it was carried on in the early Middle Ages. You may remember that in this opera the Landgrave offers the hand of his daughter, Elizabeth, to him who shall best improvise upon a given subject. Not only knights, but even servants, were allowed to compete in this banquet-song — for that is virtually what it was. The Greeks knew this art and practised it. They began it by singing of their heroes, but later they sang stories full of beautiful thoughts and poetic imagery.

In France and England, during the Middle Ages, people were afraid to have a song made about them, for if it was a song of ridicule or criticism it was often the political end of the person sung about. Even in the nineteenth century the “Song of the Shirt,” Hood’s poem, when sung (though to a very ordinary tune), stirred all England from center to circumference, changed its laws, and gave the workingmen rights they had never had before and of which they had not even dreamed. — The Greeks had similar ideas of the power exercised by music over men’s minds on certain occasions.

The Greek system of music was based upon “modes,” of which we shall learn more later. Measure, in our sense of the word, did not yet exist independently, the rhythm of the song being derived from that of the text. The early Greek scales were like those of the Egyptians, limited to four tones, and formed what we call tetrachords (tetra meaning four). The half-step (e f) in them was immovable, and the position of the half-step in this small scale determined the mode. Two such tetrachords were in the course of time used to form the octave-scale.

The Greeks attributed different emotional and ethical effects to melodies based on their different scales, as inducing different moods. Melodies based on the Dorian scale were considered to inspire respect for law and order, obedience, courage and independence, and therefore adapted to the education of youths; those based on the Lydian scale were considered by some philosophers, such as Plato, to possess an enervating tendency; while for those based upon the Phrygian scale was claimed the power of inspiration.

The early Greek tonal system provided for the extension of the scale into two octaves, and was therefore capable of considerable melodic expression. The insertion of quarter-steps, borrowed probably from their Asiatic neighbors, did not improve the original system, for, after all, neither the human voice nor musical instruments could more than approximate their pitch.

The Greek idea of melody was, that it should be a rein-forcement of poetic diction by means of fine gradations and inflections of rhythm and tone. They had many musicians who were not poets, but most of their poets were musicians. They thought music was the foundation of all science, and it was said that “nothing great could be expected from a man who was ignorant of music.” One of the reasons why Greek poetry is in some respects far superior to Latin poetry is found in the fact that the Greek poets were musicians.

At a later time, when philosophy, poetry and music were separated, all three were at first weakened. The philosophers spoke no more through the medium of poetry, nor the poets through the medium of melody; still later, however, the separation proved the means of a great development in each. In the Athenian drama, the Athenian tragedy, we find the union of poetry, music and mimetic action; and many great composers of recent centuries, beginning with those who made the first attempts at opera, strove to realize what they thought was the Greek ideal. Monteverde did it; Puccini did it; the first really great opera-composer, Gluck, did it, for all his later operas follow his conception of the Greek style, and are on Greek subjects. He tried to revive the ideal which the Greeks had apparently reached.

The decline of an art begins when any one element of it is unduly magnified in importance. The moment that technique became the thing most appreciated, when the artist was judged by technique alone, there arose the age of the virtuoso, and the art proper, the art as a whole, was weakened just to the extent that the individual stood out. It may be difficult to apprehend the full force of this distinction, even though our present musical life illustrates it frequently. Shakespearian dramas are nowadays usually played by a cast containing perhaps but one fine actor; all centers on that individual, and the rest of the company is often mediocre. Shakespeare realized that danger when he said, “The play’s the thing” — not the actors. When we plan to go to a performance of opera our first question is, usually, “Who is going to sing?” not “What is the opera?” and “By whom is it written?” “Who is going to sing?” Not “What great art-work are we going to hear?” but “Who is the virtuoso?”

Now we must not decry the virtuosi, for we desire and ought to hear them; but we wish to hear their interpretation of the art-work, which is greater than the individual who interprets.

As a result of the rise of virtuosity in Greece, philosophy, the lofty thought, degenerated, and instead of the philosopher we have the sophist, who exalts the individual. History teaches that, as soon as “technique” in one of the arts be-gins to reign, it is not long before it is not a question of real art any more, but rather of who can do the most amazing, wonderful thing, thus making technique the art.


The Roman Empire, after its conquest of Greece, did little toward the development of music as an art, but offered prizes to those who had the greatest dexterity, could blow the loudest or play the fastest, and thus soon lost the art-ideals which the Greeks had formerly held. Although Rome borrowed her art from other nations, nevertheless, because she offered large financial rewards and great honors, musicians (especially the virtuosi) flocked thither to receive them. We read that upon one occasion, in the time of Julius Caesar, there were thousands of singers and players at one feast. In the Roman schools, however, we find the old Greek curriculum continued in the teaching of what was called, and is stilled called in college courses, the “humanities;” and among these humanities, music ranked first. Under the Roman emperors some developments were made in the theory of music and the classification of rhythms and meters.

One evidence of the importance which the Greeks attached to music and its allied arts is the story of the Nine Muses. The poet Callimachus explains their functions in these words:

Calliope the deeds of heroes sings, Great Clio sweepeth for their tones the strings; Euterpe, teaches mimes their silent show, Melpomene presides o’er scenes of woe: Terpsichore the flute’s soft power displays, And Erato gives hymns the gods to praise: Polymnia still inspires melodious strains, Urania, wise, the starry course explains, And gay Thalia’s glass points out where folly reigns.

The study of the music peculiar to nations of the pre Christian era reveals their efforts in the domain of vocal music with and without instrumental accompaniment, the lofty ideals which moved them to expression in music, in song, and the limited means at their disposal, which nevertheless contained the germs of the greater art which was to blossom and bear fruit so abundantly after the advent of Christianity.