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The Ancients on the Power of Music

Music is one of life’s pleasures and one we can all enjoy. I love music and I enjoy playing it and performing it. I make no claim to excellence, but it relaxes me, cheers me up, and I wouldn’t be without it. These sentiments are in no way new. Music was a central part of artistic culture in the ancient world and in some places even integral to the functioning of a people and their community. They were alive to music’s great power, its benefits, and its importance, so today’s sententia brings you the first of a short series of sententiae on some of the most powerful remarks on music from Greece and Rome.

Today’s comes from one of my favourite poets, Pindar. He was a Greek lyric poet of the fifth century who composed poems for victors in the four major Pan-Hellenic contests, the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean games, and even occasionally, more local events. His poems were written in the dactyl-epitrite metre and were performed to music. This lovely passage comes from the opening of the first of his Pythian Odes:

Golden lyre of Apollo, jointly owned possession also of the

violet haired Muses:

To this the dance step listens, the beginning of the splendour,

The singers obey your signs, whenever by your quivering strings you sound

the opening preludes that lead on the dance.

You quench even the spear-like thunderbolt of the ever-flowing fire. And on

the sceptre of Zeus his eagle sleeps, lowering his swift wings on either side,

the lord of birds, and you pour down a darkened cloud on his curved head, a

sweet seal on his eyelids: and as he slumbers he ripples his supple back,

captivated by your trembling rhythms.

The lyre is personified, which emphasises the great power of its music. The music confers calm, even putting out Zeus’ thunderbolt, giving music a divine quality that can overpower the weapon of the king of the gods. The most charming image, however, is the eagle of Zeus peacefully lulled to sleep, but also enchanted by the music. The effect is as much physical as it is psychological. Music can draw out the most powerful emotions in us, become associated with and thus resurrect memories. Reponses can be physical. Pindar’s aim is to convey the power of music and thereby to convey the lasting power of the fame he will confer on his patron Hieron of Aetna. A specific occasion, but an image that contains an undeniable and universal truth.


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