by Grammy winning producer Trevor Gibson
MUSIC FROM ANCIENT ROME
We’ve all grown up learning about the Romans and watching movies about them. Isn’t it bizarre that we have no idea how Roman music actually sounded? That’s what Mary Ann Tedstone Glover thought. She realised that, while there were a number of musicians who had created music and labelled it as Roman, there was no thoroughly researched and evidence-based recreation of authentic Roman music out there.
When she began pondering the idea she was a professional songwriter who spent her time writing bespoke music for TV and film. As an individual who was steeped in music rather than academia, she had quite a different perspective from most of the researchers in the field. A self-confessed Roman geek she has long eaten Roman style breakfasts and made her own Roman bread. Yet while the history books tell us that the taverns, streets and private house parties of ancient Rome were literally filled with music, the fact that the civilisation had been so avidly studied by classicists made it appear all the more strange to her that its soundscape remained silent to us. She set herself a goal of unravelling the secrets of the mood music of ancient Rome, not only to satisfy her own curiosity but to bring it to the world. In 2017 she was accepted as the world’s first PhD researcher in ancient Roman music and her quest began in earnest.
As the ancient Romans worked within musical modes, there weren’t actually many notes in any one piece of music.
Roman music separated into four different branches:
Courtly music: composed and played for the emperor by the empire’s best and brightest musicians. It was likely to be very similar to music from ancient Greece, and might be thought of as being similar to the classical music of the era;
Religious music: very little evidence remains about pre-Christian religious service as a result of which, little is known of it;
Military music: largely consisted of brass instruments which were robust enough to be taken to war such as the cornu and occasionally, for large set piece demonstrations (such as those which took place in large arenas during gladiatorial combat), an organ powered by water. It may be considered a very specific genre of music and not something which would be heard outside set piece demonstrations by the general public of ancient Rome;
Street music: this ‘genre’ very likely formed the vast majority of the music played and heard in ancient Rome. In modern parlance it was as different to the music played in the Court of the Emperor as rap music is to classical music today. Yet because it was not notated, it has, until now, remained silent to us.
In simple terms, after a considerable amount of research, Mary Ann found that the socio-economic status of Roman street musicians likely meant that they were unlikely to be educated. As a result, the vast majority were unlikely to read or write notation. This, of course, explains why no notation for ‘street music’ has been found.
As part of her journey into how the music they did play sounded, she began by looking at the venues in which they played.
While there is evidence that music was played at street festivals, individual taverns may have paid musicians to attract customers. The rich, who could afford to pay for street entertainment, did not carry money for fear of being mugged. And while the Romans were the first civilization to carry cheques (enabling ladies to go shopping without the indignity of carrying either money or goods as they took helpers with them) it’s unlikely that street musicians accepted such tender. Given this, and the fact that it is unlikely that the poor would give their money to street musicians, it’s considered that in addition to the occasional organized street events referred to above, musicians probably earned the vast majority of their income at private parties called symposia. Such parties were characterized by men reclining on couches, drinking wine and talking about important matters. It’s well evidenced that the wine would be watered down in order to allow serious attention to be paid to such discussion and, indeed, forfeits would be doled out for those who did not water their wine, with one forfeit being described as the individual being obliged to run around the room with the flute girl on their back. Despite the obligatory watering of the wine, such parties quite often descended into noisy drunken affairs with guests running around the streets, with one report of a reveller threatening to punch passers-by as he ran.
Underlining the status of musicians as just another form of entertainment and their lack of legal rights, in one music competition that had been imported from Greece, the viewers reputedly became bored of a kind of an ancient X Factor in which a number of flautists were in competition for the Emperor’s prize. As a result, the emperor ordered them to fight using their flutes as their only weapons.
Upon the realization that instruments played by street musicians were unlikely to be of high quality, a review of instruments known to be from that time was carried out including instruments such as:
The aulos: a double reeded instrument of Greek origin consisting of two pipes that were played together at the same time. The two pipes were held together with a band known as a capistrum and were played using a circular breathing technique.
The pandoura/lute: was made from a upturned turtle shell with a skin stretched across it. Gut strings were stretched up a ‘neck’ of wood or bone. Not to be confused with a medieval lute the pandoura had only 3 strings.
The cithara: was a professional looking lyre which was more stable, more expensive and larger than the smaller lyres. This would be unlikely to have been within the reach of a street musician. As a result it, was discounted from the repertoire of the average street musician
The lyre: probably the predominant instrument of street musicians from ancient Rome the lyre took many forms though, fundamentally, the instrument of the ancient world bore many similarities to the instrument we know today as the lyre (though more accurately that should be known as the clarsach). The lyre of the ancient world, however, had fewer strings and these were made of gut making it much harder to tune.
Having established that the key instruments utilized by street musicians included the lyre, pandoura and tibia/aulos along with various hand percussion, and having listened carefully to recreations of them all, Mary Ann quickly found that there was in fact only one musical mode in which they could be played together. This resulted in a limited set of notes that could be relied upon. Additionally, as there were vast differences in volume between the aulos and the other instruments, she realized that balancing them for a live performance would be difficult.
She did, however, find evidence from a mosaic in Pompei that the aulos and lyre were indeed played together. As a result, because of the volume differences between the two, in a performance the aulos player would have to stand considerably further back in order that the other instruments could be heard.
Texts from Plato and Xenophon set out descriptions of symposia (dinner parties) the roles of musicians and the instruments they played. Excerpts of bills of costs from the epigraphic gallery of the capitoline museum at Rome provide details in respect of the attendance of musicians and, in addition, Xenophon described how the musicians were also expert acrobats. Yet musically, Plato may have given the most insight to the music of ancient Rome in his discussion on disunion and discomfort and of voices moving but rarely meeting. Mary Ann realized that during that period the traditional three-part harmony had yet to be invented. This led her on a quest to find something that rested on the idea of tension and release to give life to Plato’s words. In addition to the above, clues were gleaned from the world of art as to the kinds of music played. In essence, most art of the period which showed street musicians had them playing tibia/aulos and lyre alongside percussionists and singers.
Interestingly such art often, cryptically, depicted a picture of a goose. In the early stages of the research this was something of a mystery until, when Mary Ann gathered the instruments and the musicians in the recording studio for the first time, she noted that the sounds made by the tibia/aulos and a goose were uncannily similar. Further research led her to realise that there are, in fact, two schools of thought on the goose. The first is that the goose effectively depicts the sound of the aulos; the second suggests that the goose is no more than an ancient joke to depict how badly a poor player could made the instrument sound. Either way, for Mary Ann, it was a clue to the fact that even the Romans thought that it could be loud/raucous and that, while the instruments may not be considered to work together terribly well to modern ears due to the volume differences, this was no bar to them being played together in the times of our forebears.
Having come to the conclusion that the socio-economic status of street musicians provided a likely indicator to the soundscape, our intrepid researcher began an investigation into other period instruments that low status street musicians might have played. When she came across an article about a rattling cup she realized that might in fact be an instrument and became determined to follow the thread down. She was overjoyed when she found that the Getty museum in Los Angeles had a cup which actually rattled. Further research led her to understand that there are in fact 8 other cups in existence that also rattle, but that most were held in private collections. Suspecting that the rattling cup was very likely a musical instrument, and in the certain knowledge that the examples of rattling cups in existence were so valuable that no collector would be likely to allow her to shake one vigorously, Mary Ann decided to recreate such a cup of her own so that she could hear how it sounded. As its make-up basically required that beads should be sealed inside the base of the cup, it took considerable trial and error to create a cup that actually rattled. After twelve entirely unplayable versions, finally a cup which rattled was created. Mary Ann recalls that her first impressions were that the cup made a distinctive sound but was difficult to play well.
As the project progressed Mary Ann moved her findings from notation, musical modes, recreated instruments and clues gleaned from a number of places to practice, and actually gathered recreations of all of the instruments together to test her findings in a recording studio. It was while she was actually in the studio testing the instruments together and a session percussionist was trying to work out how to get the best sound from the rattle cup, it was realized that the rattle cup was very difficult to play until it was turned upside down, at which point both the balance and the sound of the instrument changed. Mary Ann immediately realized that she had just made a significant discovery: upside down the rattle cup both sounded and looked like a bell. This was important musically, but was most significant because, in ancient Rome, the bell was the symbol of Dionysus, the god of fertility and the figurehead of an illegal cult.
Following this discovery our researcher looked yet more closely into the known rattle cups and realised that there were essentially two kinds of cup. One with the “rattle” in the base and another with the “rattle” in the lip.
As an aside, she realized that when the latter is used as a drinking cup, rather than as an instrument, a notable ‘click’ could be felt when two of the beads clicked together. As a result, she concluded that, to members of the cult of Dionysus which had been outlawed in 186 BC this could amount to a secret sign: what she titled the “kiss of the God Dionysus”
While researchers at the Getty museum had previously noted the rattle yet had concluded that it was of no real merit and might in fact be a simple joke Mary Ann came to a very different conclusion: that the cup was in fact a bell-like musical instrument. Yet the realization that the upturned cup looks like a bell and that the bell was the symbol of the banned cult, opened up an entirely different and unexpected avenue.
Mary Ann’s cup research found that in some of the existing cups a second bead could be held in place or released by means of a secret mechanism. She quickly realized that if an individual knew how to release the second bead, thereby giving them the ability to bestow the ‘kiss of Dionysus’, this might give them great power. Work continues to recreate a modern cup with a mechanism to allow the second bead to be secretly released. While it may be that, as an instrument this may make the rattle cup sound different, being Mary Ann, she is determined to do so in order that she can bestow the first kiss upon herself!
Undeterred by these additional avenues of research, work on the world’s first recorded album of authentic ancient roman music continued apace. Realizing that the complex harmonies would be a challenge for most modern singers, Mary Ann identified the vocalists who had provided the lush medieval style acapellas in the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, Papagena, and asked them if they would like to be involved in the project. They jumped at the chance. Yet while musically they were near perfect and they had a lot of fun with the unusual chordal slides, it transpired that when Dr. Spencer Klavan, a post graduate lecturer at Oxford University heard them sing, he immediately noted their Latin pronunciation and accents were simply inappropriate for the style of music played which was, of course, street music. In essence their pronunciation of madrigal Latin meant they were effectively singing in a style which would have been way above the station of the prostitutes and musicians who made up the street musician community. Klavan agreed to give them lessons to correct the issue.
The final piece of the original jigsaw was that Mary Ann wanted the recordings to be the authentic sounds of musicians playing ancient instruments together. As a result, she recruited Grammy-winning recording engineer and producer, Trevor Gibson of Circle Studios in England, to work with her on the project. Gibson’s interest had long been in catching the authentic vibe of fabulous musicians working together and, to that end, recently co-mixed English band Bastille’s single “Warmth Re-Orchestrated” (in which English pop band Bastille had taken an orchestra and a choir on tour and played some of the world’s best music venues from the Royal Albert Hall in London to the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg). Mary Ann challenged him further by insisting that the trickeries of time and space which can be applied in a modern recording studio were not to be utilized here and that the recording must be an accurate depiction of Roman street musicians playing in a room together. In essence, she insisted that no synthetic sounds were used in the recording or mixing of the album. Gibson instantly saw the commercial opportunity and persuaded Nick Tarbitt, Chief Executive of the UK boutique Integrity Publishing Ltd, to support the venture.
Having unraveled the clues and gained publishing support for the venture, Mary Ann was then free to assemble the jigsaw and has now completed the world’s first thoroughly researched album of street music from ancient Rome, which will be released digitally in October 2021 and on vinyl/CD in November 2021. The album itself takes the listener on a stroll through ancient Rome, from the raucous orgies depicted in the song “Bacchus” to the lullabies of “Lala,” and encapsulates everything she learned along the way, from the archaic ideas of harmony and discomfort to the bell-like codes of the rattling cup. For the first time film and TV representations of ancient Rome have access to authentic music from ancient Rome and an individual who can guide them on that path.
Yet just as that album is released, allowing the world to experience the secrets of ancient Roman music for the first time in almost 2000 years, her discoveries have led inexorably to a number of further questions:
Are all rattling cups the sign of the cult of Dionysus?
How many ancient cups found by archeologists would actually rattle if they were shaken and, given their value, has anyone even tried?
Even though the cult of Dionysus was illegal did it survive with the rattle-cups acting as signals to alert members of the cult to each other?
Was the very playing of the instrument in fact a coded signal in plain sight?
Mary Ann’s research continues, not only to these questions, but to unravel further mysteries of the music of ancient Rome, from the religious to the military.