ancient music, Seikilos Epitaph

We’ve come to the ‘Louie Louie’ of ancient music: a song that exists in uncountable versions.

W. M. Ramsay, a Scottish archaeologist, discovered a marble stele during an excavation at Aydin, western Turkey, in 1883. The stele has inscribed on it a complete song, with words and musical notation, in ancient Greek. It has been dated to around the second century AD, making it the oldest complete song on record. (The music I’ve covered hitherto has been fragmentary, or been widely open to different interpretations.) The stele is now in Copenhagen, in the National Museum of Denmark.


A stele (or stela) is an inscribed upright stone serving as a monument, usually a tombstone. This particular stele is dedicated by a man named Seikilos, and the words of the song are an exhortation to enjoy life and not to grieve, for time will soon demand that all things end.

You could spend hours online listening to the various interpretations of this piece of music, but, unlike the Hurrian Hymns, or the chorus from Orestes, the music is instantly recognisable as the Seikilos Epitaph in every version: the notation is not disputed. There are, however, disagreements about pronunciation. In my last post, I threatened to completely solve the problem of The English. I’ll deal with this in short order. I’m English, and when I hear English singers singing in ancient Greek, it’s pretty obvious to me that they are English. It’s especially obvious if they are affiliated with Oxford university or something like that, because they sound like they’re doing a Received Pronunciation version of Ancient Greek. It’s also worth remembering that modern Greek has a very different pronunciation to ancient Greek. So, to modern Greek ears, I can imagine that the English accent combined with the academic insistence on trying to cleave close to ancient pronunciation, sounds horribly cacophonous. Now, when Greek listeners, whose ears are offended, get behind their keyboards to complain online, the English interpreters, justifiably – with the weight of academic research behind them – get narked. And the whole thing gets ugly, and no-one comes out of it well. Basically, posh English people do sound silly when they put on foreign accents, but THAT’S FINE. Everyone sounds silly when they put on foreign accents. For those offended by any accents, dialects or pronunciation in these versions, may I recommend a clarifying dose of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by the Swedish Elvis Presley, Eilert Pilarm

Good. That’s settled. Back to Seikilos.

The earliest modern reappearance of this piece of music of which I’m aware is surprising. The 1951 film Quo Vadis, with Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero, includes a scene with Nero extemporising a song which happens to have a melody almost identical to that of the Seikilos epitaph (though the words are not the same). Thanks to my pal Tony for spotting this.

From the 1950s, recorded versions begin to proliferate, albeit slowly at first. Now the Internet gives us access to scores, possibly hundreds of recordings. I’m going to highlight three versions.

The Gardzienice Centre of Theatre Practices was founded in Poland in 1977, and, among its varied projects, hosted the Metamorfozy performance piece in the 1990s, and the Ancient Orchestra project from 2001 to 2004. The intention behind these projects was to recover the Dionysian elements in a music which had — they felt — been too politely Apollonian in its reception. (It’s worth exploring their Bacchic interpretation of ancient music at length.)

For the Metamorfozy album (2000), the Seikilos Epitaph was retitled after its initial words, rendered in Greek and Polish:  ‘Hoson Zes / Dopóki żyjesz’

In 80 short seconds, it creates an atmosphere of remoteness and disquietude through a drone, some off-mic vocalisations, and a dissonant flute. The soft, breathy vocal enters the sound-picture like some sexy ghost, disturbing the air just enough to hit the right notes, before the whole thing fades out again.

The music lives, and Athenian ensemble Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody have taken the material of the Seikilos Epitaph as a starting point for a longer variation (titled ‘Oson Zeis’, also on their album Awakening the Muse, 2013).

It’s pleasing to hear this sung by Athenians with modern Greek pronunciation, merging the ancient with a modern pop and folk tradition. Consequently, the rendition possibly involves over-emoting to an extent that may jar with my revoltingly hip Londoner tastes, but I can’t blame them for exploiting the full melodic potential of their interpretation.

Finally, it’s those English musicians with the weight of Oxford academia behind them that I mentioned earlier. This version is distinguished by the musicianship of master aulos player Barnaby Brown, and practised interpreter of ancient songs, Stef Conner, singing and playing lyre. This performance is extracted from the Radio 3 Early Music Show (listen here at 50’38”).

This interpretation doesn’t waste any time. The rhythm of Brown’s double aulos gives the song such lift at the start, before unobtrusively fading to an accompanying drone for Conner’s voice. When the aulos it repeats the melody line after the singing, it provokes a strong rush of joy before promptly ending, well under a minute. Too short, like the life described by the inscription on the stele.

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