Tthe interplay between East and West, a dynamic that lurks beneath the surface of the more present question “what is Greek and what is not?,” has been at the heart of Greek culture since the Roman Empire “fell” and then spent more dominant centuries ruling from Constantinople. Greek music has always been particularly confident, proud of its own rhythmic and melodic sensibilities. Its musicians have also proven

Ancient Greeks believed music to be the work of the gods. Not only did Greeks acknowledge Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto, to be the god of music (in addition to
being god of light and sun, truth, prophecy, healing, plague and poetry–busy guy), but there were also goddesses known as the Muses (the mousai), who inspired the creativity of all human music-makers; the word “music” even comes from them.

We don’t know whether or not Apollo was a divine musician–his greatest hits album, released only on 8-track, has long been lost–but we do know human Greeks made music an essential part of their theatrical presentations and religious observances. In ancient
Greece, music was an essential part of classical education, at least for boys, who started their musical instruction at the age of six. Girls picked up music along the way and joined boys in mixed-gender choruses that performed at spiritual ceremonies and public events. Ancient Greek instruments played instruments like the aulos, a wind instrument with two reeds (watch a modern performance here), a plucked string instrument known as the pandura and a special kind of lyre called the kithara–the word “guitar” derived from from “kithara.” (See Sean, wearing a rockin’ toga, demonstrate the kithara, as well as other ancient Greek instruments like the salphinx and a rhombos.)

While ancient Greek songs are no longer all the rage, Western musicians owe much to Greeks as pioneers of music itself. Essential elements of modern music–musical notation, for example, and the basic modes, which form the foundation of Western religious and classical music–have their early origin in Greece. Thanks, Greece!

After the Greek empire fell, Romans ruled the roost, but they respected Greek culture and used Greek music as a basis for their own. In the later days of the Roman empire, when the seat of power moved to Constantinople (now known as Istanbul), Greek, Roman and
Ottoman/Turkish musics all flowed freely into one another. “Eastern” rhythms and modes, known in Turkey and the Arabic world as “makams” or “maqamat,” still form the foundation of much Greek music, as we’ll learn below, and in class, when we explore Greek dancing. (Learn a bit here about the overlap of Turkish, Arabic and Western modes.)

Scholars of Greek folk music (dhimotiká) generally acknowledge its development into main movements, so we may as well too:

Acritic songs, heroic poetic songs
written in Medieval Greek which came from 9th century Byzantine Empire border guards [listen to and learn about music from the Turkish region of Pontus, on the shores of the Turkish Black Sea, which has its roots in acritic music], and

Klephtic songs, which developed among
the kleftes, the Greek warriors who fought in the 18th and early 19th centuries for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire [listen to klephtic music here, thanks to the Hellenic Folklore Research Center].

These two forms underlie much of Greek folk music, though of course each region of Greece proudly boasts its own special sound. (What, you thought all Greek music as just “Greek music?” Nah!) Look at this map to get your bearings, then check out:

— “Nisiotika” songs from the Aegean Islands

— music from the island of Crete (watch Cretan band Chainides perform “O Xainis”)

— the distinctive polyphonic music of Epirus, in northwestern Greece (experience “the art of polyphonic singing from epirus“)

Macedonian music; there are many kinds! (Enjoy the Western Macedonian band Syrtos here.)

— the music of Thrace, in southwestern Greece, near Bulgaria, where the rhythms are tricky! Let Wikipedia introduce you to the many kinds of Thracian dance, then venture to YouTube to watch performances of Bulgarian/Thracian dances like Troiro, Trite Pati and the Sedi Donka, which, if you can count along with the video, is in 25/16 meter, subdivided into 7+7+11, or even further subdivided into 3 2 2, 3 2 2, 2 2 3 2 2.

Greek popular music has its origin on the Ionian islands, which were never ruled by the Ottoman Empire and therefore didn’t adopt Ottoman melodies and rhythms. Ionian music from the 19th century known as the Heptanesean kantádhes, or “serenades,” are based upon Italian popular songs and are usually performed by three singers, at least one of which plays a mandolin or guitar. Listen to a serenade from the Ionian island of Zakynthos. [To get a sense of the difference between the music of “East” and “West,” both of which are present in Greece, compare the song from Zakynthos to the dance songs from Thrace linked above.]

The most popular Greek songs from the 1870s to the early 1930s were known as “Athenian serenades,” which were songs by composers like Spyridon Samaras (wasn’t he dashing as a young man?) that appeared in theatrical productions like operettas and comedy revues. (You may be familiar with a Samaras composition still used today as the Olympic anthem.)

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