The First Delphic Hymn To Apollo (circa128 BCE) in The Just Intonation of Antiquity

Michael Levy
Ancient Greek Music Fragment


Track 8, "A Well Tuned Lyre: The Just Intonation of Antiquity".

This is my most recent arrangement for solo lyre in the just intonation of antiquity, of  the famous "First Delphic Hymn to Apollo" - a precious surviving fragment of music, which is an amazing legacy from the mostly lost musical culture of ancient Greece:

In January 2013, my arrangement of the Delphic Hymn heard here, was featured in episode 1 of the BBC Radio 3 series, "The Story of Music Question Time".

There are two Delphic Hymns that have been discovered, and they were dedicated to the god Apollo. Unlike the famous "Song of Seikilos" (the first  complete piece of music that has been so far found to have survived from antiquity), the two Delphic Hymns have sadly not survived in their complete form. However, they do survive in substantial just a tantalizing taste of the glory of the tragically lost, magnificent musical culture of ancient Greece!

The two Delphic Hymns were traditionally dated c.138 BC and 128 BC. My rendition here, is of the earlier of them; the First Delphic Hymn. Although it has unfortunately not survived in its complete form, the First Delphic Hymn to Apollo is the earliest unambiguous surviving fragment of notated music from anywhere in the Western World! It is written in the unambiguous alphabetical musical notation system used in ancient Greece, whereby alphabetical notation describing the pitch of the melody, is written above the text of the song, as can be clearly seen in this image of the actual Delphic Hymn, as it was found, inscribed in marble:

The rhythm can easily be inferred from the syllables of the text.

The First Delphic Hymn to Apollo was discovered in 1893 by a French archaeologist. It was inscribed in marble, carved on an outside wall of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi.

All that is known about its composer is that it was written by an Athenian, around 138 BC, since the part of the inscription giving the name of the composer is too difficult to read. The Second Delphic Hymn is slightly more recent, and has been dated to precisely 128 BC; evidently it was first performed in the same year. The name of the composer of the Second Delphic Hymn has also survived, in a separate inscription: he is called "Limenius". The occasion of the later hymn was the Pythian Festival, and this one, the earlier hymn, was probably written for the boys choir at the Pythian Games in 138 BC.

Recent research, though, seems to confirm that both Hymns, in fact, date to the slightly earlier date of 128 BC - the year of the Pythian Festival to Apollo (held 10 years before the Pythian Games)

The translation of the fragment of text which has survived of the this, the First Delphic Hymn to Apollo, is as follows:

"Hear me, you who posses deep-wooded Helicon,
fair-armed daughters of Zeus the magnificent!
Fly to beguile with your accents your brother,
golden-tressed Phoebus who, on the twin peak of this rock of Parnassus,
escorted by illustrius maidens of Delphi,
sets out for the limpid strams of Castalia, traversing,
on the Delphic promontory, the prophetic pinnacle.
Behold glorious Attica, nation of the great city which,
thanks to the prayers of the Tritonid warrior,
occupies a hillside sheltered from all harm.
On the holy alters Hephaestos cosumes the thighs of young bullocks,
mingled with the flames, the Arabian vapor rises towards Olympos.
The shrill rustling lotus murmurs its swelling song, and the golden kithara,
the sweet-sounding kithara, answers the voice of men.
And all the host of poets, dwellers in Attica, sing your glory, God,
famed for playing the kithara, son of great Zeus,
beside this snow-crowned peak, oh you who reveal to all mortals
the eternal and infallible oracles.
They sing how you conquered the prophetic tripod
guarded by a fierce dragon when, with your darts
you pierced the gaudy, tortuously coiling monster,
so that, uttering many fearful hisses, the beast expired.
They sing too, . . . ."


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