Treasure Trove Found in Louvre Biscuit Tin




The refined musical tastes of Alexander the Great (324 BC) have been uncovered in a biscuit tin stashed in the Paris Louvre.

The verses should you wish to sing along!

(Read more on line here)

A fragment of a musical score from the 4th century BC has been decrypted, reconstructed and readied for recording on period instruments — listen to something rather similar and from the identical period, here:

Audio file

« Oreste » d’Euripide interprété par l’ensemble Kérylos

This small fragment of Orestes by Euripides performed by the Kérylos Ensemble dates from the time of Alexander the Great. It was recorded as part of a special Macedonia kingdom exhibition by Sophie Descamps.

Discussing the latest fortuitous find, Laurent Capron, a papyrus expert at the Sorbonne, told the Rue89 website: “During an inventory I was doing in 2002, I found the score curled up in a biscuit tin with a bit of old cigar and newspaper scraps. It had been vegetating in the depths of the Louvre for more than a hundred years. I soon realized it was a forgotten marvel.”

What sort of music did music lovers of the period listen to? Well says Laurent Capron, to date we have very few traces, some 35 notes of music exist from the time of Euripides (5th century BC) — listen to them above — which in terms of range and depth, is rather like what would happen if an archaeologist in 3000 years time uncovered just one minute of Mozart’s myriad scores.

Following the biscuit tin discovery Annie Bélis, an ancient music specialist and archaeologist of French audio heritage, was entrusted with the fragment.

According to the Rue 89 report, she is one of very few scholars able to access the musical notation of the time, making use of the Alypius treatise.

While clearly difficult Alypius’s 4th century BC Introduction to Music — only mastered since Renaissance times — has become a Rosetta Stone opening the door to 1687 notational symbols of antiquity. The treatise enabled Annie Bélis to decipher the fragment —  labelled she says smilingly, as a “used paper towel” —  which, as it turns out, is a veritable treasure trove. She has now identified it as coming from the play Medea by the younger Carcinus — one of the leading playwrights of period (around 360 BC) — and mentioned by Aristotle in ‘Rhetoric’ where the heroine, unlike the mythical version put about by Euripides, is innocent.

So thanks to Annie Bélis of the Louvre and Alypius we can now follow in the footsteps of 4th century BC Greeks and soon if all goes to plan, hear this haunting aria, sung in a deep male voice – because female roles in those times were taken by men.

However before the work can be recorded a similar process to that which proceeded the Orestes piece above, has to be completed.

Bust of Euripides. Marble, Roman copy after a ...

Bust of Euripides Image via Wikipedia

In the case of the Euripides fragment Annie Bélis first set out to reconstruct authentic copies of the period instruments used. She had recourse to records made by painters and sculptors of the time which showed what the instruments looked like. Without being able to tap any subsidies (disheartening when one realises that to produce a workable faithful reconstruction takes two years and costs 20,000 euros), Annie Bélis turned to a luthier to make the copies of the Roman harps, basing his work on visual sources she was able to supply.

The luthier also studied sculptures of Apollo playing music and was able to create three excellent quality copies of harps — an historic first for the museum– which are now used by the Kérylos ensemble.

It should not be forgotten that in those times (just as today) music went hand in hand with dance, as can be seen in the Louvre’s magnificent exhibition of Macedonian terracotta artefacts.

Dance of course is an opportunity for show and entertainment, mime, physical education and even war-games (as with the Spartans).

But dance responds primarily to an ancient ideal of eurhythmy, that is to say, a quest for the harmony of the soul through the perfection of body rhythm.

So music in the days of antiquity was not only an artistic challenge and a political force it was a component of human greatness and that was something Alexander the Great knew better than anyone.

Story: Ken Pottinger
editorial@french-news-online.com

French Luthiers:
The Luthiers of France website is here
A Toulouse luthier trained by Italy’s Stradivarius institute, offers his services here.
Luthier Fans can find more on this dedicated website

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