Seikilos Epitaph

Our first series will come to a close with what is perhaps not the oldest piece of music ever, but a nevertheless astounding artifact from Ancient times.  It is the oldest surviving complete musical composition, which in itself is incredibly significant considering it dates from anywhere from 200 BC to 100 AD (potentially 2,000 years old!).  All music we have that was written from before the Seikilos Epitaph is only incomplete fragments.  

The music itself is inscribed in a cylinder of marble meant to be a grave marker.  The epitaph begins by announcing:

"I am a tombstone, an icon. Seikilos placed me here as an everlasting sign of deathless remembrance."

It's hard to say who this Seikilos guy was.  The only historical reference we have on him comes from this tombstone.  Most people from this era who were capable of writing music like this were either professional musicians or priests.  The inscription also references another person named Euterpe which is presumably whom the stone is dedicated to and leads one to believe that she was Seikilos' wife.  It's a bit morose though, since these stones typically adorned the gravesite of one who passed at a young age.  

The song has the following text (the 1st and 3rd lines are the rhythms and notes, the 2nd and 4th are the lyrics):

Translated as:

While you live, shine,
have no grief at all;
life exists only for a short while,
and time demands its toll.

Written above each word is a Greek symbol indicating a specific pitch in their tonal system (think of it like an ancient Solfège system: do re mi fa so etc.) along with another symbol that would indicate duration (either a one, two, or three) which is commonly translated into the modern notation system today using eighth, quarter, and dotted quarter notes.  It looks like this:

So it's not long, it can be performed in under 30 seconds if need be, and we know nothing about any other compositions Mr. Seikilos might have written.  Much of what existed in this era was lost to wars or pillaging or just time in general (much like Seikilos warns us of in his song).  The Seikilos Epitaph was almost lost to humanity on several occasions and the stone has had an interesting journey to say the least.

Seikilos himself lived in a city known as Tralles (which is in present-day Turkey).  It was discovered in 1883 by a Scottish archaeologist and biblical expert named Sir William Mitchell Ramsay near a railroad construction site near the Turkish city of Aydin.

It's right next to those other countries we bombed.
*Insert joke about American geography knowledge*

From here I've found two divergent tales about the stone.  One story says that a senior official in charge of the construction project took the stone as his own personal property and gave it to his wife who had the bottom of the stone ground down so it would sit level and support a flowerpot in her garden.  Another story claims that the Greco-Turkish war destroyed the museum in Smyrna that housed the artifact and it was later discovered in some Turkish woman's garden, supporting a flower pot.  I'm not sure which story is true, but it seems plausible that some Turk's idiot wife with a green thumb thought this priceless piece of antiquity would be better served as a flower pedestal and destroyed the base of the piece, obliterating the final lines.  

Oh Dennis!  There's some lovely filth down here!
Reminds me a bit of these two.

From there it was rediscovered, lost, smuggled out of Turkey, lost again, and then found in Copenhagen at the National Museum of Denmark.  There is a movement from within Turkey to have it returned on the basis that it was illegally removed from the country of origin, but I can't find any other information about that effort. 

It is striking to me that Seikilos has seemingly been quite successful in his efforts to thwart death and be remembered, even if all we know about him is what can be culled from a 2,000 year old piece of marble.  The text of the song is stunning too in how it exhibits such a strong emphasis on taking joy from the brevity of life.  The final line is especially meaningful to me and reminds me of an adage from Earl Nightingale:

"Don't let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway..."

As time does indeed demand its toll.

The clip this week comes from the San Antonio Vocal Ensemble with an approximation of what it might have sounded like with appropriate accompaniment from a lyra or cithara and some liberal interpretation on percussion. 

Homework: As you listen to this recording, think about someone you've lost. Someone who may have meant a lot to you, but is no longer here.  Write what comes to mind.  

See you next Friday.



IMSLP's PDF of the translated score
The map of Turkey and surrounding countries is property of Google.
The image of the "Turkish" couple is from the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.