Nero's Lyre

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

My myriad of "Musical Adventures in Time Travel" would not be complete, without exploring the notorious Emperor Nero - the most famous (or rather infamous!) lyre player of antiquity, who we actually know by name! According to the timeless folklore, Nero famously played his lyre to accompany the Lament he sang as Rome burnt in the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE: whether this event was fact or fiction is irrelevant - the concept of this unique single, is to evoke upon my own lyre, what Nero's famous lament may have actually sounded like...

Nero's notorious reputation often masks the known facts about his passion for music, and above all, his desire to master the Kithara - the large wooden lyre favoured by the professional musicians of both ancient Greece & Rome:

"The emperor Nero was noted for his love of music, and it is recorded that he played and sang. In 60 A.D. he instituted, apparently for the first time in Rome, musical competitions after the Hellenic pattern. In 65 A.D. he inaugurated a more elaborate festival, the "Neronia," which he planned to hold every five years.25 In both he appeared as chief contestant. To all appearances, Tacitus and other conservative Romans were more shocked by these actions than by his brutal murders. Of course, the desire for recognition in the musical world on the part of a Roman emperor was not original with Nero. His predecessor, Caligula, had performed as a dancer and singer, and planned to take part in tragedies. Whether he was trying to emulate Caligula or not, Nero's desire for artistic recognition was evidently quite sincere. He is said to have been exceedingly anxious over the outcome of the contests in which he appeared and to have observed strictly the "full rules of the cithara" ("Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned", Mary Francis Gyles - The Classical Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Jan. 1947), 211‑217)

Gyles goes on to say, "there can be no doubt that the instrument employed by Nero was the cithara. Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Sextus Aurelius Victor, Philostratus, and Juvenal attest the fact. Furthermore, most of them manifested the same revulsion as Tacitus at the spectacle of a Roman emperor appearing in public performances. But whatever the feelings of others, Nero enjoyed himself so much that he repeated the "Neronia" after a short interval rather than wait five years for its scheduled return. He even made a trip through Greece to gain more appreciative audiences for his musical efforts. Here he ordered the various local and national festivals to be held in the same year so that he could take part in them all."

NERO FIDDLED WHILE ROME BURNED?

As the violin was not invented utnil some 1500 years after the tme of Nero, the notrious Nero obviously did not literally play the fiddle as Rome burnt - the origin of this phrase, is from a mistlanslation of the original general Latin term a for string instrument, "fidicula" as "fiddled", as explained here, by Mary Giles "In the late Republic the Latin word fides, meaning string, is used by Cicero to designate some stringed instrument.18 Again, in quoting Zeno, Cicero uses the diminutive form fidicula.19 This form, fidicula, is employed by Pliny to indicate the constellation known as "Lyra."20 It is uncertain whether the term applied to the lyre or cithara type of instrument, or to both,21 though it is certain that it specified a stringed instrument. Since these terms are rarely found in Roman literature, it is probable that their use was largely confined to oral expression" (Mary Francis Gyles - The Classical Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Jan. 1947), 211‑217).

There are several souces from anitquity which tell of the story of how Nero played the Kithara as Rome burnt down - Dio Cassius, describing the fire wrote that "Nero ascended to the roof of the palace from which there was the best general view . . . and assuming the kithara-player's garb, sang the Capture of Troy. . . ." (Dio Cassius, 62.18.1)

Earlier, according to Tacitus, " the report had spread that, at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he [Nero] had mounted his private stage, and, typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, had sung "the Destruction of Troy." (Tacitus, Ann. 15.39.)

Writing at almost the same time as Tacitus, Suetonius wrote "Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas . . . he sang the whole of the Sack of Ilion in his regular stage costume." (Suetonius, Nero 38).

It was my was my aim in composing "Nero's Lyre" to transport the listener back in time, to relive once more, this timelss , classic moment from antiquity - enjoy your journey!

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The Sack of Troy: Paean for Ancient Greek Kithara

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

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The Sack of Troy: Paean for Ancient Greek Kithara

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"The Sack of Troy: Paean for Ancient Greek Kithara" - an improvisation for replica ancient Greek kithara, (the large wooden lyre once played by the professional musicians of ancient Greece) in the favourite ancient Greek mode of Plato himself; the ancient Greek Dorian Mode, which he considered the most 'manly' and noble of the musical modes, capable even of inspiring bravery in battle.

In ancient Greek Classical literature, there was a lost ancient Greek epic by the title of "The Sack of Troy" - which was one of the Epic Cycle, which told the entire history of the Trojan War in epic verse. In creating this this new composition for replica ancient Greek kithara, it was therefore my intention to evoke the sort of ancient Greek 'paean' style melody (an ancient Greek hymn of thanksgiving) to which that lost epic of ancient Greece could have been recited!

Regarding the ancient Greek Dorian Mode, this was misnamed the 'Phrygian' mode in the Middle Ages. This intensely introspective mode is the equivalent intervals as E-E on the white notes of the piano. I also use authentically pure intervals tuned in just intonation.

In "The Republic" by Plato, Book III (398-403), in a classic philosophical dialogue of argument and counter-argument between the characters in this passage, the text is as follows:

"The harmonies which you mean are the mixed or tenor Lydian, and the full-toned or bass Lydian, and such-like. These then, I said, must be banished; even to women who have a character to maintain they are of no use, and much less to men.

Certainly.

In the next place, drunkenness and softness and indolence are utterly unbecoming the character of our guardians.

Utterly unbecoming?

And which are the soft and convivial harmonies?

The Ionian, he replied, and some of the Lydian which are termed “relaxed”.

Well, and are these of any use for warlike men?

Quite the reverse, he replied; and if so the Dorian and the Phrygian are the only ones which you have left."

(https://theoryofmusic.wordpress.com/2008/08/04/music-in-platos-republic/)

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Microtonal Music for Lyre (Etude in the Archytas Enharmonic Genus)

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

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Microtonal Music for Lyre (Etude in the Archytas Enharmonic Genus)

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This single features a completely spontaneous improvisation for solo replica ancient Greek chelys (tortoise shell form) lyre based on a hauntingly evocative documented microtonal scale from ancient Greece, known as the "Archytas Enharmonic Genus":

http://www.ex-tempore.org/ARCHYTAS/ARCHYTAS.html

The use of quarter tones in this ancient Greek scale adds an intensity to the resulting music improvised in it in an entirely different dimension to the artificial constraints of our monotonously standardized 12 note chromatic system. The feeling of intensity in this microtonal scale is further enhanced by the authentic use of the clearly focused intervals, tuned here in just intonation.

The lyre I am playing is a replica ancient Greek chelys (tortoise shell form of lyre) - the "Lyre of Apollo III", hand-made in modern Greece by Luthieros:

http://www.en.luthieros.com/product/the-lyre-of-apollo-iii-ancient-greek-lyre-chelys-11-strings-top-quality-handcrafted-musical-instrument

In this improvisation, I also demonstrate the rhythmic potential of the reconstructed tortoise shell form lyre by using the greater mass of my replica ancient Greek carved bone plectrum to also occasionally beat rhythm on the skin soundboard; in much the same manner that acoustic guitarists today can beat rhythm on the soundboard of their guitars whilst they play:

I sincerely hope that Apollo would approve of my effects to bring both his lyre and his long-forgotten ancient Greek musical scales new life!

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Orpheus's Lyre: Lament For Solo Lyre in the Just Intonation of Antiquity

Michael Levy - Composer for Lyre

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Orpheus's Lyre: Lament For Solo Lyre in the Just Intonation of Antiquity

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This composition for solo lyre, was inspired by the timeless ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice:

"Eurydice and Orpheus were young and in love. So deep was their love that they were practically inseparable. So dependent was their love that each felt they could not live without the other. These young lovers were very happy and spent their time frolicking through the meadows. One day Eurdice was gaily running through a meadow with Orpheus when she was bitten by a serpent. The poison of the sting killed her and she descended to Hades immediately.

Orpheus was son of the great Olympian god Apollo. In many ways Apollo was the god of music and Orpheus was blessed with musical talents. Orpheus was so sad about the loss of his love that he composed music to express the terrible emptiness which pervaded his every breath and movement. He was so desperate and found so little else meaningful, that he decided address Hades. As the overseer of the underworld, Hades heart had to be hard as steel, and so it was. Many approached Hades to beg for loved ones back and as many times were refused. But Orpheus' music was so sweet and so moving that it softened the steel hearted heart of Hades himself. Hades gave permission to Orpheus to bring Eurydice back to the surface of the earth to enjoy the light of day. There was only one condition - Orpheus was not to look back as he ascended. He was to trust that Eurydice was immediately behind him. It was a long way back up and just as Orpheus had almost finished that last part of the trek, he looked behind him to make sure Eurydice was still with him. At that very moment, she was snatched back because he did not trust that she was there. When you hear music which mourns lost love, it is Orpheus' spirit who guides the hand of the musicians who play it" (Taken from Thomas Bulfinch and retold by Juliana Podd in Encyclopedia Mythica)

In this piece, I explore transposing between the incredibly poignant-sounding ancient Greek Phrygian mode (this was misnamed the "Dorian" mode in the Middle Ages) to evoke the yearning of Orpheus for his forever lost love, and the dreamy, sensual & feminine-sounding ancient Greek Hypolydian mode (misnamed the "Lydian" mode in the Middle Ages), to paint a picture of Eurydice - the lost love for which he forever yearns...

In this composition, I tune my lyre to the wonderfully pure just intonation of antiquity - unlike the horrible compromise of equal temperament, whereby each semitone is artificially made equal, in order to seamlessly transpose between different keys, in just intonation, the correct & exact ratio of pitches in a scale is precisely calculated, resulting in a wonderfully pure sound. In just intonation, the intervals have a unique density & music performed in just intonation is at the same time transformed into a sound that is both calming yet at the same time, inspiring. Just intonation was perhaps, one of the little-known wonders of the ancient world?

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