January 20, 2012

Music Myths - The Greeks

Pan is one of the most well known Gods to play the flute or at least a flute family instrument. I’m not even going to try to list the songs named after him or connected to him. “Syrinx” by Debussy is one of the most famous. The story most often told with this piece today is that there was a nymph named, shockingly, Syrinx. Pan, the randy little goat, liked her. A lot. She was less interested in him, but those Greek Gods didn’t really believe in taking no for an answer. So she ran away from him and prayed for help. Just as Pan was catching up with her, she was transformed into a bunch of reeds (the Greeks got a lot of their plants that way). Pan heard the wind making music in the reeds and promptly invented the panpipes or syrinx, an instrument made of reeds of different lengths. Debussy’s “Syrinx” is the song Pan first played, according to the current program notes. Except that wasn’t the original story. “Syrinx” was first written as incidental music for a play about Cupid and Psyche. Psyche was a mortal woman married to Cupid, the son of Venus the Goddess of love. Venus disapproved and separated the pair leaving Psyche pregnant, homeless and very unhappy. Just as she is about to commit suicide, she hears music. She follows it to find Pan who talks her out of killing herself and sends her off to work things out with Venus (a messy process but things work out in the end). That is the moment this piece was written for, when Pan leads Psyche out of despair and sends her to be initiated by Venus. In the Homeric Hymns, Hermes the trickster God plays the panpipes and tells the story of Syrinx and Pan to put a hundred-eyed monster to sleep. Hermes also invented the lyre but gave it to Apollo to make up for stealing the Sun God’s cows (when he was 3 days old).
The aulos is a reed instrument from ancient Greece but it is sometimes mistranslated as flute (for no good reason). It sometimes has one pipe and sometimes has two but always uses double reeds like an oboe. The aulos was considered a wild instrument that inspired uncivilized behavior. It was linked with the worship of Cybele, a rather fierce Goddess the Greeks never felt comfortable with. When Perseus killed Medusa the snake-haired Gorgon, her sisters wailed for her. Athena the Goddess of wisdom was so fascinated by the sound, she invented the aulos to imitate them and taught Apollo to play. One day she saw herself playing in a mirror, and/or Hermes made fun of the way her mouth looked, and she threw the pipes away. Some people argue this shows Athena originally came from outside Greece and was modified by her new culture.
Apollo is the official God of music for the ancient Greeks but he doesn’t invent any instruments in the myths. He gets lessons on instruments or is given them as bribes but does not create any himself. There was once a music competition between Apollo on the lyre, the instrument of civilization, and Marsyas on the aulos, the instrument of barbarians. One version of the myth says Apollo won and Marsyas was punished for presuming to challenge the God. Another says that Marsyas won and was punished for showing up the God. Apollo is the God of harmony, order and structure. He cares about using music for civilization and education. He is in charge of all formal music that follows the rules and is not too stimulating, too sad or too emotional.
This brings us to Dionysus. He is the God of wine but he is also the other God of music. He is in charge of all the instruments too wild for Apollo and all music from countries other than Greece. His music stirs up passion and ecstatic behavior that can’t be controlled. He is in charge of music for grief, for drinking, for relaxing or just for pleasure (arguably the most dangerous music of all according to the Greeks). Dionysus is also in charge of the theater and all the music used to set the mood in plays (the origins of both opera and movie music).
The Muses are a group of Goddesses (sometimes 3, 7 or 9 depending on the myth) in charge of all the arts. They are each associated with different forms of poetry, science, math and music which were all considered related subjects by the Greeks. Euterpe is most often put in charge of the aulos (which is nearly always called a flute when related to her) and instrumental music in general. The Muses were protective of their arts. In some myths, they train up heroes to be wonderful musicians (such as Orpheus). In others, they have competitions with other musicians and tear them apart, win or loose. Artemis the Goddess of the hunt leads the Muses in circle dances and Apollo conducts their choirs.