The Delphic Hymns are two musical compositions from Ancient Greece, which survive in substantial fragments. They were long regarded as being dated circa 138 BCE and 128 BCE, respectively, but recent scholarship has shown it likely they were both written for performance at the Athenian Pythaides in 128 BCE (Pöhlmann and West 2001, 71-72). If indeed it dates from ten years before the second, the First Delphic Hymn is the earliest unambiguous surviving example of notated music from anywhere in the western world whose composer is known by name.
Both Delphic Hymns were addressed to Apollo, and were found inscribed on stone fragments from the south outer wall of the Athenian Treasury at Delphi in 1893 by French archaeologist Théophile Homolle, while Henri Weil restored the Greek text and Théodore Reinach transcribed the music to modern notation (Weil 1893; Reinach 1893). Reconstruction of the fragments was facilitated by the fact that the first hymn uses vocal notation, and the second one employs instrumental notation (Pöhlmann and West 2001, 70). It was long been believed that all that could be told of the composer of the First Hymn is that it was written by an Athenian, around 138 BCE, since the heading of the inscription giving the name of the composer is damaged and difficult to read. However, careful reading of this inscription shows that it cannot be the ethnic "Athenaîos" (from Athens), but rather names "Ath?naios Ath?naiou" (Athénaios son of Athénaios) as the composer (Bélis 1992, 48-49, 53-54; Pöhlmann and West 2001, 71). The Second Delphic hymn has been dated to precisely 128 BC; evidently it was first performed in the same year. The name of the composer has also survived, both in the heading of the hymn and in a separate inscription: Lim?nios, son of Thoinos, an Athenian (Pöhlmann and West 2001, 71). The occasion of the performance of both hymns was a Pythaid, a special religious procession of the Athenians towards Delphi held on specific occasions, usually after certain omens.
Both hymns are monophonic (consisting of a single melodic line), but are differentiated by their notation. The First Hymn is in so-called vocal notation and it is in the cretic (quintuple) meter throughout (Pöhlmann and West 2001, 70-71, 85).
Ten different notes in all are used in this first section. The fourth note from the bottom (written ? mu in the Greek alphabet or the note C in the conventional modern transcription) is the so-called mes?, or central note, to which the music most often returns (Landels 1999, 96, 228). Music with this mese was said to be in the Phrygian mode. There are more notes above the mese than below it. F and B? below the mese are not used, and the lowest note, here E?, is used only in the first section of the hymn. The note immediately above the mese D? (written ? lambda in Greek) occurs only in one place in section one, in bar 24, but is much more extensively used in the second section.
The second section of the hymn makes extensive use of the notes immediately above the mese (D? and D), and there is also repeated use of the note B? (written with the letter ? omicron in the Greek notation) a semitone below the mese (Landels 1999, 230). The strings Greek lyre (cithara) were not tuned in exactly the same way as those of a modern piano, so the transcription is not exact. For example, the intervals from C to D? and from D? to D were probably less than a modern semitone (Landels 1999, 96, 227). Therefore this section, which describes the sacrifice to Apollo, wanders around a small area of closely spaced notes. (A technical term for a group of closely spaced notes like this is a pyknon.)
In the third section, as in the first, the small intervals above and below the mese are once again not used. There are some octave leaps, and "the tone is bright and clear" (Landels 1999, 231).
Pöhlmann and West give a more technical description of the hymn. It is in the Phrygian and Hyperphrygian, with much variation: an archaic pentatonic effect is produced in the lowest tetrachords by avoiding lichanos, while above mese (nominally middle C) there is modulation between a conjunct chromatic tetrachord (C D? D F) and a disjunct diatonic one (D E? F G), extended by two more chromatic notes, A? and A (Pöhlmann and West 2001, 73). (A tetrachord is a series of four consecutive notes, e.g. C, B?, A?, G, or G, F, E?, D; the lichanos ("forefinger string") was the 2nd note going down, in this case the B? and the F, which are omitted from the First Hymn. The "conjunct tetrachord" refers to the mese and the three strings above it, and the "disjunct tetrachord", which overlaps with it, to the string above the mese and the three strings above that (Landels 1999, 90, 228).)
In addition to being the earliest surviving substantial fragment of ancient music, the First Delphic Hymn may also have been the longest, perhaps even longer than the Second Delphic Hymn, which runs to 40 lines; unfortunately, the First Hymn does not survive complete (the Seikilos epitaph, dated anywhere between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE, is the earliest surviving complete piece of music).
The image below shows the first section of the hymn in conventional transcription. Various modern recordings of the music can be found in External links (see below).
The portion above has been translated by Armand D'Angour as follows (Brown and D'Angour 2017, 4):
Hark, you whose domain is deep-forested Helicon, loud-thundering Zeus' fair-armed daughters: come with songs to celebrate your brother Phoebus of the golden hair, who over the twin peaks of this mountain, Parnassus, accompanied by the far-famed Delphic maidens, comes to the streams of the flowing Castalian spring as he visits his mountain oracle.
The second verse describes the presence of the delegation from Attica and the sacrifice of incense and young bulls that they have made. The third verse describes how the god (Phoebus Apollo) took over the prophetic tripod at Delphi after killing the snake that guarded it, and how once an army of invading Gauls "perished in rivers of molten snow" (see: Brennus (3rd century BC)).
The photograph below shows part of verse 2 and the beginning of verse 3 on the inscription, ending at the word Aththída "Attica".
The Second Hymn is headed Paean and Prosodion to the God and is described as having been composed by Lim?nios son of Thoinos, an Athenian (Pöhlmann and West 2001, 75, 85). It consists of ten sections in all, the first nine in cretic metre constituting the paean, while the tenth in aeolic rhythms (glyconics and choriambic dimeters) is the prosodion.
The style and subject matter of the 2nd hymn is similar to the 1st, but the key is different. The central note (mese) of the first section is D (in conventional notation), rather than C, making it the Lydian mode (Landels 1999, 236). Below the mese are the notes A and B?, and above it are E, E?, F, and G.
The notes used in the second section are different from the first section. B? is replaced by B?, E? and the top G are not used, and a bottom E and a top A appear, so the range is wider. One way of interpreting this is to assume that the music has moved into the Hypolydian mode (Landels 1999, 239). Mostly the melody moves up and down in small steps but there are some big jumps occasionally down to the bottom E.
The first part of the 2nd Delphic Hymn is the Paean, which is composed in the cretic metre (- u -, that is: long-short-long). The opening section has been translated by by J.G. Landels as follows (Landels 1999, 237):
Come ye to this twin-peaked slope of Parnassos with distant views, [where dancers are welcome], and [lead me in my songs], Pierian Goddesses who dwell on the snow-swept crags of Helikon. Sing in honour of Pythian Phoebus, golden-haired, skilled archer and musician, whom blessed Leto bore beside the celebrated marsh, grasping with her hands a sturdy branch of the grey-green olive tree in her time of travail.
The paean goes on to describe how Apollo, after his birth on the island of Delos, visited Attica. As in the first hymn, the second also describes how Apollo killed the Python guarding the Delphic sanctuary and defeated an army of marauding Gauls with a snow storm.
The final part of the work is the prosodion, or processional hymn, with the metre changing from cretic (- u -) to glyconic (- - - u u - u -). In this part, the singers beg Apollo and his sister Artemis to protect Athens as well as Delphi, and they close with a prayer for the continued dominion of the victorious Roman empire (Landels 1999, 243-5).
Two different notations of music were used, one a series of special signs, perhaps derived from an archaic alphabet, and the other simply the 24 letters of the Ionian alphabet. The first hymn uses the latter system and the 2nd hymn the former. But it was possible to use both systems at the same time; if so, the special symbols were used for the instrumental accompaniment, and the Ionic alphabet for the song itself (Reinach 1926, 161).
A suggested reason for the difference in notation in the two hymns is that the author of the first, Athenaios, is listed as a singer, while the author of the second, Limenios, was a cithara-player. One difference between the two notations is that the symbols in the first hymn are placed above the vowels, while those in the 2nd hymn are mostly placed above the consonants which begin the syllables (Landels 1999, 225).
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These hymns were thoroughly examined by musicologists and there have been many efforts to perform them with replicas of ancient musical instruments. The first time that they were performed was in 1894, one year only after their discovery, during the international athletic convention for the establishment of the modern Olympic Games.