In his study “Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik” (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) postulated that ancient Greek culture was characterized by an antithesis between what he called “the Apollinian” and “the Dionysian” – the former representing rationality, clarity and order, the latter standing for irrationality, disorder and creativity. Although the main target of Nietzsche’s conceptual duality was of a philosophical nature, he used mythology and music as the starting point of his explanatory model. For Nietzsche, these two opposing principles were, inter alia, embodied in the mythical account of the musical competition between Pan (the ferocious player of the syrinx) and Apollo (the cultivated master of the kithara) – a story which is prominently recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses (11.150–193).
The Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig does not make any explicit reference to Nietzsche, but the hint is obvious: a special exhibition with the title “About Harmony and Ecstasy: Music in the Ancient Civilizations”, curated in the town in which the philosopher was Professor of Classics for eleven years (1869–1879), clearly ties in with the idea of this antithesis – an idea that has been much doubted, even ridiculed, but that nevertheless seems to permeate Greek culture in numerous respects. At least this is the impression with which one is left, since the title is mirrored multiple times through binary oppositions that structure the exhibition and guide the visitor: order vs. chaos, control vs. hubris, celebration vs. mourning, mind vs. body, etc. – all apparent variations on Nietzsche’s overarching principle.
Exhibits that, in one way or another, all have to do with ancient Greek music – depictions of musicians, singers and musical instruments as well as actual instruments, ancient and reconstructed – have been assembled for the sake of this exhibition, which lasts from 18 April to 19 September 2021. To be precise, though, while the focus clearly is on ancient Greece, the actual scope of the exhibition is much wider, as it equally incorporates the ‘rest’ of the ancient world and thus also offers insights into the musical heritage of Egypt, the Near and Middle East, and Rome. Thus, one can see and admire, for example, an Egyptian relief from the 14th century B.C. that shows a chorus of blind singers (the motif of the “blind musician” constituting a widespread iconographic trope in ancient Egypt); a Phoenician bronze rattle (a so-called “chalcophone”) from the 8th–6th century B.C. (see a similar specimen [not the exhibit shown in Basel] here); and a copy of the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman relief from the 1st century B.C. that displays the wedding of Poseidon and Amphitrite and that shows, amongst other figures, two Tritons playing their instruments (a kithara and a conch shell, respectively).
From the Greek world (including the Greek diaspora in the Magna Graecia), vase paintings take pride of place; a personal favourite of mine was the depiction of Helen and Paris on an Apulian red-figure hydria by the Dareios Painter (c. 330 B.C.), showing Helen playing the harp. This vase is insightful from a socio-cultural point of view as it demonstrates how certain instruments were connected to social class – in this case: the harp as an instrument of the upper class. Furthermore, the depiction may also be read as a metapoetic statement, as an iconographic reference pointing to its ‘sister art’, the textual tradition of epic poetry, for which the ‘Beautiful Helen’ was a major source of inspiration.
When it comes to music, the probably most notorious antagonism (be it real or just imagined) is that of theory vs. practice. In relation to ancient cultures, the understanding and reconstruction of both areas is a great challenge because the existing sources are so scarce – both when it comes to concrete musical notations and actual remains of musical instruments from antiquity. However, despite these obstacles, enormous progress has been made in both areas in the past years – the work of Conrad Steinmann (practitioner as well as theoretician and musical archaeologist) needs to be singled out here –; and the exhibition in Basel offers valuable insights in this respect. Not only does it display several reconstructed instruments such as a kithara (a large lyre that was regarded as Apollo’s personal instrument) and several auloi (the “aulos” being a double-reeded wind instrument widespread in ancient Greece and often depicted on vases; see the picture below), but the visitor is also given the opportunity to actually listen to audio recordings of these and other reconstructed instruments on one’s smartphone (via a QR code provided).
Listening to these recordings was a great pleasure, because it complemented the visual experience with an auditive component that is normally not present in a museum. In addition to this, it also offered room for further reflection: we all know that what we call ‘antiquity’ is, at the end of the day, as much the product of our imagination as it is ‘a fact’ – but in light of the vast amount of textual material available, we easily tend to forget about this. Such convenience is clearly lacking when it comes to ancient music. So, maybe the antithesis between reality and imagination, between fact and reconstruction is what lingered on me most after after two hours that felt like two minutes. And, I dare say: Nietzsche might have liked this exhibition too.
[Editorial collective]. 2021. Von Harmonie und Ekstase: Musik in den frühen Kulturen. Basel: Steudler.
Hagel, Stefan. 2009. Ancient Greek Music: A New Technical History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1872. Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik. Leipzig: Fritsch.
Steinmann, Conrad. 2021. Nachklänge: Instrumente der griechischen Klassik. Materialien und Zeugnisse von Homer bis heute. Basel: Schwabe.
West, Martin L. 1992. Ancient Greek Music. Oxford: Clarendon.
A satyr playing the “aulos”, a double-reeded wind instrument that was widespread in ancient Greece. Fragment of a vase from Apulia, c. 370 B.C. Photograph taken by Silvio Bär at the Antikenmuseum Basel (2021).
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