Solidarity Forever! Solidarity Never! Labor History Through Song

When labor organizes, it sings. Music has been an integral part of the workers’ struggle since its early days in the Nineteenth Century. The history of organized labor through song is a long story. True to labor’s international ethos, ours is a tale which spans various nations, generations, and language communities. We have a massive corpus of material to sift through in order to take the pulse of the topic at hand. Indeed, making our task hairier still, labor’s is a story whose definite start is hard to ascertain and whose end is nowhere in sight.

In order to respect the essay format, we will strictly hold to some parameters. They are these: We will maintain a general chronological flow whilst using one main song, with some ancillary helpers, to illustrate a various work-related theme as we plod along. In doing so we will maintain both the narrative pace and topical diversity of our story. At the same time, we will ascertain common trends down through the years of struggle.

Further study recommends the 2019 texts by Steven Greenhouse, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor, and James Sullivan, Which Side Are You On? 20th Century American History in Protest Songs.

Timeliness

Workplace organizing is back in the news. From the “Fight for $15” movement in America, to France’s Yellow Vest unrest, to Singapore’s protesting bus drivers, the working man is on the march once more. Even monolithic WalMart and sacrosanct Google, implacable foes of unions, have lately felt the pressure of labor. And with the fallout of the late Coronavirus shutdowns, some American economists are predicting a shockingly high 30% unemployment rate.

With this labor revival – I blush with pride from my pedagogical perch – the vanguard has been led largely by teachers. My profession has been shamefully eager, historically, to cooperate with a wide variety of schemes ginned up by every backroom Yaleie and stockjobbing finance bro who toddles along.

Ranging from a mass phrenology photographic campaign in the last century, to loansharking three generations of 18-year-olds and counting, no debasement, no sellout, has been too humiliating for my once-sublime profession. But, moryah, Saul can be Paul as soon as anyone. Even in labor-hostile America, scholars are fast repairing their deserved infamy. Teachers have hit the picket lines from Wisconsin to West Virginia, and from New York to California these last few years.

To Sing

Men sing from passion, or at least they ought. They sing in war “by the rocket’s red glare,” and they sing for women with “their technicolor cheeks.” Overcome by urban steel, men sing in cities “where seven million are screaming for space,” and humbled by nature, men sing with “sunshine on [their] shoulders.” Men sing because they love, and because they care, and because they are alive.

Of course, the obverse is just as true. That Christians in the so-called First World sing of a Sunday with all the gusto of a late-’80s Soviet Party Congress is one of the ominous portents for Western spirituality.

History does not hesitate to support my melodic social observation. Men sing because they care, and they’ve been at it since day one. In the great Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th Centuries, all factions busied themselves between bouts of rioting in scribbling out hymnody. The same was certainly true during the Reformation; Protestants explored the vernacular and Catholics doubled-down on chant. And whilst Tories belted out God Save the King, Enlightenment republicans answered with God Save Great Thomas Paine. Trench-up, and Home Office-down, Axis and Allies vied with each other through two world wars to out-sing the foe, this time with the timely aid of radiophone and loudspeaker.

And so, with labor. It’s a struggle that has all the hope and frustration, all the tease and triumph, of love and war and God. Thus, labor is a cause to which songsters have just as soon thrown in their pens and talents and throats for.

Limitations and Failures

At this early hour in our essay, historical impartiality requires that I address a topic which perhaps has occurred to fair-minded readers: What about anti-labor songs? In a fact that is as damning as it is absolute, there actually is no corollary corpus of anti-union songs. Nothing at’ll, so far as I’ve been able to find. There are examples of states co-opting various musical styles for their ends, particularly rock in Europe and country music in America. But as far as organic specimens go, we search in vain.

Never, after an afternoon of beating the skulls of miners or longshoremen, did the police of William Martin Murphy or Allan Pinkerton strike up a chorus of celebration and steeled resolve. They were the baddies, after all. Much less have the spoilers of our day sung, those more recent bureaucrats who delivered the Traffic Controllers’ pink slips in 1981, or General Motors’ ones in 2009, or Ikeas’ today.

An Overview

As mentioned above, labor history is a vast subject. Our main selections in this essay and the topics they raise are as follows. We start with the Luddites of the Industrial Revolution. We witness the transformation of a historic loafing worker into a mythological reformer through songs like, The Triumph of General Ludd.

Then we look at the musical celebration of labor itself through Greenland Whale Fishery, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, and The Fireman’s Song. Next we have There Is Power In The Union, where we consider labor’s tensions with religion. In Banks of Marble we look at transatlantic connections between labor struggles on different continents. Which Side Are You On? gives us an insight into masculine archetypes in workers’ music. And in Solidarity Forever we dissect a fine specimen of hope, reinvention, and continuity in song. The Internationale and the Left’s decision – and ultimate split – in 1917 follows.

We then see the use of existing hymnody by the Catholic Worker Movement. In The Ballad of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire we feel the perennial anxiety of workplace safety, and the biting regret of warnings not heeded. Rounding out our time together and bringing our exploration up to the present day, we have David Rovics’ piece Living On the Streets of LA. It shines a light on the trials of atomized and indigent workers in the modern gig economy. In addition to these main pieces, about a dozen auxiliary works will illuminate our analysis.

From Marx to Uber, but with fall more soul and pizzazz than either Nineteenth Century theoreticians or Twenty-First Century apps conjure, we will sing our way through the basics of labor history.

General Ludd

Many moons before former DNC candidate Andrew Yang alerted us to the dangers of automation, workers were wary of their bosses’ late penchant for machines.

In the throes of the First Industrial Revolution some of Britain’s weavers began destroying the new mechanical looms which were occupying ever-more floor space. The contraptions were able year by year to do the specialized work which men developed over a lifetime. Playing out the future in their heads, the men of Nottingham reasoned that workingmen would soon or late be replaced altogether. These wary weavers formed loose associations of economically astute hooligans, and by 1812 they signed their corporate missives “Ned Ludd.”

The actual Ludd is said to have been a lazy or impassioned youth – the sources differ, though teens have been known to be both b’times – who, a generation before the Luddites arose, destroyed his father’s looms. Historians disagree, but he was probably grounded. The noun became an adjective, and England’s Luddites give us a fine jumping off point in our labor saga.

Folk memory is a slippery thing, and proverbially one man’s hero is another man’s villain. Like other far-sung foes of the Crown before him, like Robin Hood and Roddy McCorley, like Jamie MacPherson and Ned Kelly, the historicity of Ludd takes a backseat to common memory. How Ned Ludd morphed from a moody, loafing youth into an anti-automation hero is the stuff of another essay. What matters is that in peoples’ minds he did, and that those people decided to sing about it.

As early as 1850, Ludd was canonized by a street balladeer in The Triumph of General Ludd. Here he is imagined as a full-blown, doctrinaire revolutionary. We sing, “Let the wise and the great lend their aid and advice/ Nor e’er their assistance withdraw/ Till full-fashioned work at the old-fashioned price/ Is established by custom and law.” In a song that was given a studio recording by Chumbawamba (“I Get Knocked Down”) in the late 1980s, Triumph continues with Ned’s manifesto, “Then the trade when this arduous contest is o’er/ Shall raise in full splendor its head/ And colting and cutting and swearing no more/ Shall deprive all his workers of bread.”

Robert Calvert’s 1985 Ned Ludd says, “They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy/ That all he could do was wreck and destroy/ And he turned to his workmates and said,” with Unabomber echoes, we note, “Death to Machines!/ They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.”

Continuing the common memory of Ludd in Britain, General Ludd from the UK band Seize the Day says, “Cause ‘en if we don’t break ’em [i.e., machines], our lives they will take ’em/ Our croft, our cottage, our village as well/ No freedom or laughter for those who come after/ But a servant and master in a factory hell.” Giving a full-blown first-person narrative, the song goes on, “So the door was kicked in, and the frames were all broken/ And the owner was woken and raised the alarm/ And the yeomen came riding, but we were in hiding/ The people providing, to keep us from harm.”

Steeleye Span deserves many honorable mentions for their innovative career, not the least for making a 16-minute epic on everybody’s favorite frame-breakers.

Celebration

A little later on I will address the Church’s musical consideration labor in the May 1st commemoration of St. Joseph the Worker. As Joseph Piper reminds us in his fine essay on leisure, all liturgy is celebratory. Thus, we can say labor is sublimated and celebrated in the Church’s ceremonies. However, grace builds on nature, and there is in labor folk a more basic element of rejoicing which we now turn to.

In work’s daily trials, and flow, and mundane happenings, men have sung. The Creamery Song, Greenland Whale Fishery, Canadian Railroad Trilogy, and the Fireman’s Song are our examples.

In The Creamery Song our familiar morning routines are considered. It says, “Paddy Stokes was the first in at daybreak/ The boiler to stoke and ignite/ There was plenty of steam, the machinery sang/ A day’s work in the dairy began.” But mornings are deadly for distraction, and many an idle minute’s been spent on another cigarette or another cup of coffee. “Then the farmer arrived in his pony and car/ And while waiting they’d have an aul spar/ They’d talk of the games and the state of the land/ Then they’d swing the tanks up on the stand.”

All the energy and physicality of industrialization is captured by Gordon Lightfoot in Canadian Railroad Trilogy. It says, “Look away, said they, across this mighty land/ From the eastern shore to the western strand/ Bring in the workers and bring up the rails/ We gotta lay down the tracks and tear up the trails/ Open ‘er heart let the life blood flow/ Gotta get on our way ’cause we’re movin’ too slow!”

A particular type of man all of us have likely worked for is comically memorialized in Greenland Whale Fishery. The whalers deploy in the verse, “The harpoon struck and the line paid out/ With a single flourish of her tail/ She capsized our boat and we lost five men/ And we did not catch that whale, brave boys.” Tragedy has struck, yes, but it’s not where you might think. The song goes on, “The losin’ of those five jolly men/ It grieved our captain sore/ But the losin’ of that sperm whale fish/ Now it grieved him ten times more, brave boys/ Now it grieved him ten times more.”

Not to rag too heavy on on bosses, but in Ian Campbell’s Fireman’s Song the coal stoker-narrator good-naturedly notes, “The driver sits there like a god/ A decent mate but an idle sod/ Though I’ll be shovelling on me knees/ Still he’ll sit there at his ease.” But no matter. This job has given me physical fitness and dexterity, if nothing else. “The pick and shovel are tools of me trade/ And two strong arms to swing the blade/ Hands with palms as hard as leather/ And nimble feet as light as a feather.”

Going forward, it is important to remember that the element which gives labor organizing its artistic energy is because labor itself is worth celebrating.

Wobblies

No treatment of workers’ history, much less labor music, is complete sans mention of the I.W.W. Their motto was their philosophy. “One big union,” they said, and they meant it. Well did these “Wobblies,” as I.W.W. members were called in the slang of the time, know how to fight fire with fire.

The International Workers of the World was formed in 1905. What differentiated it from contemporary movements like the Knights of Labor or the American Federation of Labor was its belief in a united working class, not one segmented by trade. The dynamic of wage-earners organized across professions would allow for “sympathetic strikes.”

With this tool, if a lone factory went on strike, nearby sympathetic strikes could magnify its power. Should management hire scabs to replace the factory workers, for example, sympathetic action called for other sectors to make that bosses’ life hell.

A sympathetic strike would oblige the truckers which supplied the original factory, the operators of the power plant which kept the factory’s lights on, the groundskeepers who plowed the snow and cleaned the gutters, and so forth and so on, to join the factory hands and bring, not just one location, but potentially an entire town, city, or region, to a standstill.

A couple of years ago I greatly expanded The Ballad of James Larkin. Originally written by Donagh McDonald, son of the poet and 1916 signatory Thomas MacDonagh (“I See His Blood Upon the Rose”), the ‘60s Ballad beat contemporary historians to the punch in linking the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913 to the Easter Rising of 1916.

As regards a sympathetic strike, my expansion goes, “Then Larkin left us, he’d gone to England/ A Fiery Cross for some sympathy/ From Southampton and from London/ Labor joined hands across the sea.” Presaging the chronic weakness of 20th Century labor leadership, the stanza continues, “But union bosses were worse than useless/ And there’d be no general strike/ With ‘friends’ like this, you’d not need foemen/ Dublin’s heroes pushed on alone.”

Joe Hill and Religious Tunes

Joe Hill, originally an immigrant from Sweden, and himself the subject of no shortage of musical memorials in the wake of his famed (and framed) execution in Utah in 1915, was especially adept at co-opting religious hymns for organizing purposes. During Hill’s I.W.W. junkets through the American West, local capitalists routinely hired Salvation Army bands to play music over the speeches of Wobbly organizers like Joe Hill. There was no electronic amplification in those days, none within the budget of traveling Wobblies, at least. The appearance of a brass band playing There Is Power in the Blood or Onward, Christian Soldiers would be enough to put the kibosh on the most earnest speechifying.

Making lemonade of his lemons, Hill set his prolific compositions to tunes commonly used by churches. We recall that religious observance was much higher a century ago, and thus many tunes were generally known by the public. One example of Hill’s use of a religious anthem is The Preacher and The Slave. It employs the tune of In The Sweet By-And-By, and the song directly aims its barbs at the General Booth’s “Sally Army” interrupters. Hill’s song croons, “The Starvation [sic] Army, they play/ And they sing and they clap and they pray/ ‘Til they get all your coin on the drum/ Then they tell you that you’re on the bum.” Preacher is also notable for containing Hill’s famous expression, “Pie in the sky.” Like the memory of Hill himself, the expression would live on long after its initial appearance.

“Pie in the sky,” wasn’t a baseless phrase. Besides some papal encyclicals and the efforts of the Catholic Worker Movement, popular and institutional Christianity was silent on the labor topic. Any Protestant who brought up organizing a century past was also likely to be as soon fuzzy on doctrine, and thus suspect by the pious.

Culpable of guilt by association, observant upper- and middle-class Catholics joined Protestants in an ecumenical wariness of labor issues. However, the majority of American Catholics were poor, and their support of unions brought them into regular conflict with religious leaders.

As for the Orthodox response to the labor topic, of course there were not enough of them in the West to generate a conversation in that quarter. And indeed, set upon by Modernity far more abruptly than the Western Church, Eastern Christians still are nowhere nearer in 2020 to forming a labor theology than they were in Hill’s day.

Another example of the co-opting of pious tunes for labor purposes is Because All Men Are Brothers. With lyrics which would surely startle Johann Sebastian Bach, who notably used the setting for his St. Matthew’s Passion, labor’s rewriting states, “Let every voice be thunder, let every heart beat strong/ Until all tyrants perish our work shall not be done/ Let not our memories fail us, the lost years shall be found/ Let slavery’s chains be broken the whole wide world around.”

Also, from the prolific pen of Joe Hill is the 1913 piece There Is Power In The Union. Ripped from the formerly pious background of its original setting, There Is Power defiantly barks, “If you like sluggers to beat off your head/ Then don’t organize, and unions despise/ If you want nothing before you are dead/ Shake hands with your boss and look wise.”

Occasionally immigrants embody the ethos of a country better than natives. If Europe took our Henry James a century past, they at least had the good manners to trade their talented Joe Hill.

The Gospel of Christ Meets the Gospel of Labor

In juxtaposition to the antipathy or hostility towards labor from bourgeois Christians, the Catholic Worker Movement sought to bridge the gap between secular labor and the Christian tradition. Their Catholic spiritual tradition was an old hand in the ideological use of music.

Founded by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day in 1933, the CWM sought to make the Church a dynamic social force once again. On the back foot since the French Revolution, it was time to be proactive. As Dan McKannan writes in a contemporary Movement publication, “The Catholic Worker [community] is the place in which the American Catholic Church as a whole meets the American Left as a whole.”

Towards that end, I’ve stumbled across a contemporary mini-retreat inspired by Dorothy Day’s life which is suggested by the Movement. The recollection concludes with I Bind My Heart This Tide, a hymn from the turn of the last century. It contains these verses, “I bind my soul this day/ To the neighbor far away/ And the stranger near at hand/ In this town, and in this land.” With a distinct flavor of St. Patrick’s Lorica, it continues, “I bind my heart in thrall/ To the God, the Lord of all/ To God, the poor one’s friend/ And the Christ whom he did send.” It’s a fitting hymn for a day dedicated to the spirituality of one such as Day, herself an Oblate of St. Benedict and those religious’ commitment to “ora et labora.”

The response of the pious from the 19th Century through the foundation of the Catholic Worker Movement gave fuel to the secular Left’s claim that religion was in the keep of the ruling class. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engles succinctly wrote in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, “Communism abolishes all religion.” However, the plucky Catholic Worker Movement had enough sense to snatch the brand from the fire. Seeing labor quickly spinning off into the worldly, secular arena, they used songs too.

Unlike the I.W.W., the CWM tended to use existing Christian hymns to express their social gospel, a message which saw the Corporal and Spiritual Works as concrete marching orders as adamantine as Marx’s Ten Planks. Much like the inclusion of the Memorial feast of St. Joseph the Worker, the CWM uses existing hymns to sanctify the daily concerns of working men with religious iconography. For their efforts Catholics today still grouse about Dorothey Day being a “communist.” No good deed goes unpunished.

Liturgical Music

Much in the vein of the CWM, the institutional Church appointed May 1st the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955. It was a commemoration which had been knocking around since the 19th Century under different titles and ranks. That St. Joseph kept a second liturgical day on the Postconcilior calendar, when many saints lost the one they had, is a testimony to the gravity of the labor issue on the mind of the Church.

On both Joseph’s March 19th major celebration, when his historic and celestial assistance is remembered, and his minor honor on May 1st, when his silent laborings are recalled, the hymn Te Ioseph Celebrant is sung at Vespers. We mightn’t associate Latin liturgical hymnody with folk music, but really it is. It is no harder to sing than any folk piece, and a damn sight easier than many contemporary songs in those horrid missalettes.

When churchmen cease dumbing down the liturgical life of the faithful, once again the Volk can sing the decidedly folk piece Te Ioseph Celebrant. It honors the spiritual ends of labor with the stanza, “Death brings to other saints their rest/ Through toil they win the victor’s place/ Thou happier, like the Angels blest/ Alive, hast seen God face to face.”

John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideas, and is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut (USA). Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.

The image shows, “Protectors of our Industries,” an illustration from Puck Magazine, February, 1883.

Paddy’s Lament: The Irish And Their Music In The American Civil War

Introduction

In this essay we will look at songs concerning the Irish in the American Civil War, in order to come to a deeper grasp of this community in that war. By doing so, we will explore the interaction of the Irish with other minority groups caught up in the conflict, and their common lot with the larger Anglo culture.

We will examine period pieces and modern compositions related to the Irish. These songs are “The Opinions of Paddy Magee,” “We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam,” “Irish Volunteer,” “Kelly’s Irish Brigade,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” “Two Brothers Masterson,” “Boys That Wore the Green,” “Paddy’s Lamentation,” the equally doleful “Mick Ryan’s Lament,” and “Modern Army O.” Passing references will be made to “I Goes to Fight Mit Sigel” and “List of Generals.”

The Civil War produced a great many musical pieces. I chose the ones in this essay that especially invite distinct topical consideration. Briefly, “We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam” looks at Irish soldiers from the North. It also allows us to delve into George McClellan’s persistent popularity with his units, both ethnic and otherwise, throughout the course of the conflict. “Kelly’s Irish Brigade,” examines Irish southerners. In “Two Brothers Masterson” we look at the tensions that immigrants had with Africans. The role Germans and natives played in the war and its music is also considered.

The song “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” permits us to see connections with political movements back in Ireland. “The Irish Volunteer” demonstrates an eagerness to adopt native concerns and politics by new arrivals. “The Boys Who Wore the Green” is a look into the unit and cultural diversity, and chaos, which the 19th-century citizen-soldier model of military organization allowed for. “Paddy’s Lamentation” gives us insight into the disillusion which mid-war Irish were feeling, along with the rest of America.

Finally, “Modern Army O” and “Mick Ryan’s Lament” take us to the postwar world of an America eager to get back to normal. There is, of course, overlap in some of the themes chosen here, and each verse carries much historical meaning. Therefore, these works of popular art allow us to take a survey of topics related to Irishmen in the definitive American experience, the Civil War.

Gratitude and Patriotism

At the top of our list is “The Opinions of Paddy Magee.” The song addresses the proximate reason many Irish came to America in the mid-19th-century: the Great Hunger of 1845-49.

Along with other Anglosphere lands (Britain, of course, but also Canada and Australia) – starving Celts arrived in these United States by the hundreds of thousands at that time. Immediately they were recipients of native hostility.

The 1860s conflict gave refugees like “Opinions’” fictional narrator Paddy a chance to route the libel of divided loyalties, and show his gratitude towards his adopted home. During the real-life outbreak of war, the Catholic archbishop of New York, John Hughes, could not hang flags fast enough from his parishes. With memories of the popular “Know Nothing” Party and the horrific anti-Catholic Philadelphia riots of 1844 not far from mind, our soldier-singer declares:

Whin Ireland was needing, and famine was feeding
And thousands were dying for something to ate,
‘Twas America’s daughters that sent over the waters
The ships that were loaded with corn and whate.
And Irishmen, sure, will forever remember
The vessels that carried the flag of the free.
And the land that befriended, they’ll die to defend it
And that’s the opinions of Paddy Magee.

According to the song, the Civil War allowed these new Americans to repay charity given them a generation before.

Pay

Next at bat we have a pair of songs, “We’ll Fight For Uncle Sam” and “The Irish Brigade.” With these pieces we confront the basic question of why Irish immigrants participated so robustly on both sides of the conflict? The Crisis of 1860 and the war it precipitated were many miles removed from the concerns and culture of the Irish.

Whatever theoretical appeal Constitutional liberties like freedom of religion held for Hiberians, the welcome they actually received was not a warm one. Anti-Irish animosity became so desperate that famously during the Mexican War (1846-48) an entire brigade of the Federal army deserted over to the Mexican side!

Like German immigrants two generations later, Irish support for the Union was not a given. One pedestrian, though evergreen, reason immigrants fought in large numbers was for money. The famous $13 per month which Union privates received, even the Confederate’s $11 per month, a holdover from the prewar pay scale, was head and shoulders better than the unstable morsels which urban day laborers took in, to say nothing of the tempestuous lives of rural farmers.

In “We’ll Fight for Uncle Sam,” a Union piece, it contains the line, “Not long ago I came here from the bogs of sweet Kilarney. I used to cry out, ‘Soap Fat!’ because that was my trade, sir; ‘til I ‘listed as corporal in Corcoran’s brigade, sir.” Many of the Irish immigrants of the 1860s had come from rural stock. They had few marketable skills in the crowded cities of the north. If the army didn’t allow for a better life, it at least provided a less indigent one.

Geopolitics:Cotton

It is unwise to consider the Civil War in a vacuum. As comfortable as it is to study as such, as our definitive event, we must recall what Walter McDougal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute says. The War of the Rebellion was not an insular oddity, but, “part of the deepest rhythms of world history.” The trends of centralization, servile abolition, and a “shrinking” technological world were forces America participated in along with the rest of the world.

Both “We’ll Fight” and “Opinions” additionally invite the humble listener into the world of international politics. British support for the Confederacy is warned off with the line, “If John Bull should interfere, he’ll suffer for it truly, for the Irish boys in action will give him balley hooley.” We also hear, “John Bull, ye ould divil. Ye’d better keep civil!”

Through mid-war there was a chance of Britain supporting the Confederacy. This would have possible military advantages, and definite financial advantages. For a country heretofore not permitted to raise funds on the international markets and from major banks, legal recognition amongst the world community was a must.

The hungry textile mills of Europe lustfully weighed on the minds of British MPs as they considered the U.K.’s official reaction to the North American bloodletting. With the nearsightedness characteristic of speculation, the southern economy was a one-trick, cotton pony by the start of the war in 1861. “Guns for Cotton” was the dear hope of Confederate statesmen. Until the Crown could develop its cotton market in India, which eventually came on line by mid-war, this was an equation British statesmen were inclined to consider.

European powers, and others besides, needed cotton from the South for their mills. This commercial concern weighed heavily against ethical reservation concerning slavery. “Scott’s Anaconda,” the blockading of the entire Confederate coastline by the Lincoln administration, put a wrench in the French supply chain for the entirety of the war.

The “Famine du Coton” in Alsace, Normandy, and Brittany matched the supply hardships experienced by the English. The financial angle could have put European powers in the Confederate corner, and this was possibility enough for our Irish songsters to put John Bull – and by extension, Marianne – on alert.

Geopolitics: The Trent Affair

The possibility of English support for the Confederacy was made likelier still with international guffaws by Union leaders. For example, the Trent Affair in November 1861 was when Union sailors boarded British ships to arrest two Confederate agents under the laws of war.

The Lincoln administration was adamantine that the Confederacy was not a nation. Thus, according to their own logic, southern agents were not subject to the rule of international law. The only conclusion left, then, was that Union sailors trespassed on British property, and kidnapped British guests.

Earnestly for them in the moment, and amusingly for us 150 years later, Northern attorneys engaged in great rhetorical gymnastics trying to justify their Administration’s position, while also fending off charges of criminality. This incident, combined with William Seward’s subsequent bluster in the press, brought the relationship between the U.K. and U.S. the closest to war since 1812.

Geopolitics: Slavery

Slavery is a topic which does not enter into any of the immigrant-related songs chosen for this essay, north or south. In fact, even in general works from the war period, forced servitude is only mentioned obliquely. Examples of this include, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “Marching Through Georgia,” both Union songs; and “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and Albert Pike’s reworking of “Dixie,” for Confederate examples.

As a slave power, nearly alone in the Western world besides Brazil and Cuba, the Confederate States of America (CSA) did not do themselves any favors when appealing to European nations for legal recognition, much less material assistance. France and Britain were the two biggest candidates for Confederate support. France had abolished slavery in 1794 (albeit briefly resurrected by Napoleon) and the United Kingdom in 1833. In the age of 19th-century mores, whatever the temptation of cotton, the CSA’s “peculiar institution” worked against their international interests.

Irish Confederate Units

The odds against the Confederate cause from the start tended to lend its partisans to associate their enterprise with grand moral and political motives, and historical precedents. “Kelly’s Irish Brigade” attempts to weave the Confederate struggle and its Hibernian involvement into the larger saga of Irish liberation.

When nowhere near technical brigade size, the southern narrator sings, “[Northerners] have called us rebels and traitors, but themselves were called that name of late.” While the song immediately goes on to reference the Rebellion of 1798, we also intuit the songster’s general scorn for Yankees.

Like the British in the American Revolution, an event which was within reaching memory at the time of our topic, invading Yankees were occupying another country as far as southerners were concerned. This certainly is a parallel not lost on the narrator of “Kelly’s Irish Brigade.” He sings, “They dare not call us invaders. ‘Tis but states’ rights and liberty we ask. And Missouri we’ll ever defend her. No matter how hard the task.”

Larger Struggles

We next have “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.” This song allows us to connect the Irish struggle in the Civil War with another fight in another land. It speaks with the voice of an imprisoned Union soldier trying to keep up his spirits despite his condition. As he says, “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching. Cheer up, comrades, they will come!” Just wait, just hope, we’ll be free in time.

Most people today would not associate “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” with the Civil War. The tune was co-opted and popularized a few years after Appomattox for the Irish nationalist cause. Rebranded as “God Save Ireland,” it commemorates the Manchester Martyrs. The Martyrs were three Fenians hanged by the Crown in 1867. The retooled “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp,” now “God Save Ireland,” became the de facto anthem of Irish Republicans through the War of Independence (1919-21).

Rather than a forlorn, pining captive, though, “God Save Ireland” has its prisoner-singer defiant ‘til the end. One stanza reads, “They met him [the hangman] face to face, with the courage of their race. And they went with souls undaunted to their doom.” When we recall Cathal Brugha’s famous use of “God Save Ireland,” we must remember its connection to an earlier generation and an earlier war.

The Fenians

We turn now to the influences of the Fenians on the Civil War. The Fenian Brotherhood was a group founded simultaneously in America and Ireland in 1858 (on St. Patrick’s Day, of course). The Civil War promised a ready means for these secret revolutionaries to build and drill a corps of fighters to ship back home.

One of the stranger aspects of Celtic participation in the War of the Rebellion, as the United States government still calls the 1860s bloodletting, is that a people dominated by an outside power, as Ireland was by the British, would enthusiastically enlist in significant numbers on the side of a power trying to squash the self-determination of another group of people, the American southerners. This is a curious dynamic we’ll see later with the post-war Irish participation in the western Indian Wars.

In his infamous summons of 75,000 men, a move which initially worsened the Crisis, President Lincoln plainly said his intention was, “To suppress said combinations.” However, practical considerations overruled die-hard revolutionary ideology. The majority of immigrants lived in Northern cities like Boston and New York, as opposed to southern ports like Charlestown and New Orleans.

Additionally, the Union’s chances of victory were more secure from the start. While it took at least two years to come to full strength, once the Federal government brought its organizational and industrial might to bear, their ability to train and arm mass bodies of men recommended Fenian support for the Union. The conflict would provide free quality training which Irish revolutionaries could deploy back in Ireland.

In On Deciding to Fight for the Union, Union Irish Brigade leader, Thomas Francis Meagher said, “We could not hope to succeed in our effort to make Ireland a Republic without the moral and material support of the liberty-loving citizens of these United States.”

This decision can be directly tied to individuals who helped raise Irish units. Meagher (pronounced “mar”) was involved in the Young Irelander uprising of 1848, that “Year of Revolutions.” Transported to Australia after his conviction of treason, Meagher escaped and made his way via Brazil to America.

Another revolutionary was Michael Corcoran. In addition to a revolutionary pedigree as rich as Meagher’s, Corcoran made a name for himself when he was court-martialed for not leading the largely-Irish 69th New York Militia on parade when the Prince of Wales visited America in 1860. The charges were dropped upon the eruption of hostilities. However, “The Boys Who Wore the Green” saucily remembers, “Colonel Corcoran led the 69th on that eventful day [i.e., Bull Run], I wish the Prince of Wales were there to see him in the fray.”

Meagher and Corcoran organized and drilled an expanded 69th New York following the Confederate firing on Ft. Sumpter in April 1861. The unit was altogether green. However, several soldiers had seen service in recent European wars. These included ten officers lately in the service of Pope Pius IX’s own “St. Patrick’s Brigade,” in the Papal States’ luckless fight against Garibaldi.

Narratives

When, how, and why minority groups align their interests and narratives with related groups is a topic well worth its own treatment. By “narrative” I mean a group’s own reading of its revolutionary history, especially in light of similar struggles elsewhere.

Such is also the forging of the Irish nationalist “apostolic succession” narrative. This narrative attempts to link Ireland’s own desperate rebel history. It also includes foreign efforts for the Liberal cause in its understanding. The Fenian narrative in this case includes friendly connections with America’s Revolutionary experiment.

The ancient clan system in Ireland was smashed with the Tudor conquest. The 1745 Battle of Culloden in neighboring Scotland brought this truth home. Suddenly the passing of the clan system went from a suspected abstraction to a bloody, grim reality. Celtic nationalists ultimately retrenched and settled upon the most cutting-edge political philosophy of the day to rally around: republicanism.

America’s two wars with Britain, as well as the explosion of the French Revolution on the Continent, gave added inspiration to independence-minded Hiberians for their own liberty. However ill-served rebels like Robert Emmet were by the republican National Assembly, the international republican experience provided garrisoned Ireland an example to imitate.

Indeed, during the heady days before his imprisonment for sedition in 1848, Thomas Meagher advocated physical force republicanism against the pacifistic position of Daniel O’Connell’s supporters. He specifically used the American example as justification. Ireland’s revolutionary past merged with the American saga as theoretical examples which expats like Corcoran and Meagher were keen to develop and fuse for the ends of their Irish story.

Other Ethnic Groups

Next, we consider the role of race, the Irish, and the Civil War. In introducing this theme, we recall that Irishmen were not the only subgroup to be caught up in the majority-Anglo Civil War. Indians, blacks, and Germans all richly participated as well.

Native Americans, however, come from a vastly different musical tradition than the various European ethnicities which participated in the war (including the majority Anglo one). Additionally, they made a different use of martial music. Thus, we have no corpus of native Civil War music.

Another possible field of study is German participation in the war. They were closer to the Irish military and musical experiences. The Germans were also a community numerically as robust as the Irish. However, the language barrier meant that few period songs were written, and less survive for our perusal.

There is one delightful exception to this Saxon dearth: “I Goes To Fight Mit Sigel.” Reasonably concerned with his martial alcohol access, our patriot-narrator explains, “Dere’s only von ting vot I fear, Ven pattling for de Eagle. I vont get not no lager bier, Ven I goes to fight mit Sigel!”

Franz Sigel’s command of the largely-German XI of the Army of the Potomac is also noted, along with Irish commanders, in the 1864 song “List of General.”

African-American Interactions

When it comes to Irish interactions with African-Americans, “Two Brothers Masterson” does not blush. The 19th-century was not a politically correct era. Perhaps this allows us a truer picture of the times. “Masterson” is set to the tune of the “Croppy Boy,” and it follows an equally doleful trajectory.
At this point you ought to be noticing a cross-over of music in the later development folk. Both America and Ireland equally influenced the other’s music.

Twice in “Masterson” we note the unhappy interaction of American blacks and Irish. The singer states, “With savage blacks [the brothers] did not agree.” When put upon to help hang his sibling, Patrick refuses. Sensing a need, a nearby, “wild black sergeant proposed to do the deed.”

This artistic animosity can be traced to the actual competition both groups faced for northern jobs during this period. Indeed, we remember that during the New York draft riots in 1863 African-Americans were especially targeted by the rioters, and a great many of those rioters came from the Irish community centered around New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen district.

Chaos

In “The Boys That Wore the Green” we get a taste of the chaos of those early days of the Rebellion. The song memorializes the motley units which found themselves at the First Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861. The peacocking and bluster which both sides liberally engaged in, from well before Lincoln’s election the previous autumn, quickly drained away as the grim reality of protracted battle loomed.

After a solid start on the morning of July 21st, the Rebels rallied and broke the Union ranks. It’s a debacle commemorated in the fourth stanza of “Boys.” The singer talks about the capture and recapture of the 69th’s battle flag, declaring, “The colors of the 69th, I say it without shame, Were taken in the struggle to swell the victor’s fame.” Politely omitted is the fact that Michael Corcoran was wounded and also captured in the battle. He was paroled and went on to organize Corcoran’s Legion, another majority-Irish unit.

The rearguard fight the Irish Brigade made at Bull Run with the 11th New York Zouaves is mentioned in the fifth stanza. It states, “In that hour of peril, the flying mass to screen, Stood the gallant New York firemen, with the boys that wore the green.”

After several verses lauding the mutual assistance each unit gave the other during the Civil War’s seminal battle, the song finishes, “Farewell, my gallant countrymen, who fell that fatal day. Farewell, ye noble firemen, now mouldering in the clay. Whilst blooms the leafy shamrock, whilst runs the old machine, Your deeds will live bold Red Shirts, and Boys that Wore the Green!” And indeed, each unit had cause to be nostalgic. By mid-war both, due to attrition and maturation, regiments were drastically different from their early-war selves.

Militia Model

At Bull Run, the citizen-solider model favored in America well into the 20th Century was sorely tried. If the Confederate national army wasn’t itself in its birth pangs on “that eventful day,” however, things would have been worse for the north. The rebel inability to consolidate and counter-attack is the biggest “what if” of the entire conflict.

The organizational militia model in force, during those well-sung early days of the fight, allowed for a small perpetual corps of men, mostly alumni of the military academies, to be the nucleus around which a much larger mass of militia could form. Those militia units were called in the Federal parlance of the time, “Volunteers.” True to their forebears in the American Revolution, these Volunteers were led by officers chosen either for quality, charisma, or graft.

While the militia system provided against an ancient Cesarean takeover, or a modern Military Industrial Complex, it made for chronically messy military starts. The United States would know this well into the 20th-century. In any case, the behavior of the 69th at Bull Run was something the men could be proud of.

It was a legacy they would have an opportunity to build upon, a year and a half later at Antietam. As the late Connecticut author, Thomas Craughwell, wrote, “The Irish Brigade turned the tide at Antietam. By driving off the Confederates, it all but ensured a Union victory. The Irish had been building a reputation as tenacious fighters; at Antietam they cinched it.”

Unit Diversity

Not all of early-war messiness was bad or incompetent. It occasionally allowed for local flare. Ethnic regiments such as Irish, German, and Indian units are examples of this diversity. Likewise was the “Zouave” phenomena. Inspired by French soldiers, these light infantry units were recruited from the fire brigades of New York City by the early-martyred Elmer Ellsworth.

Clothed in their distinctive red and blue embroidered uniform, the 11th New York was one early group to buttress the defenses of Washington, following weeks of anxious waiting and rumors, during the Secession Crisis in the spring of 1861. Both their unusual accoutrements and their baptism of fire at Bull Run guaranteed the mutual affection of both regiments in “The Boys Who Wore the Green.”

Little Mac

Lastly, “The Boys Who Wore the Green,” along with “We’ll Fight for Uncle Sam” and “List of Generals,” raises the specter of “Little Mac.” George McClellan was the Army of the Potomac’s sometimes-commander. Notoriously reluctant to engage with a southern opponent who was two or three times his size, Abraham Lincoln once humorously said, McClellan had a case of, “the slows.”

Nevertheless, “Little Mac,” as his troops affectionately called him, was an excellent organizer. Units always had the supplies they requested, and after defeats like the Second Bull Run, McClellan was able to rebuild the army and boost its confidence.

While their affection wasn’t able to take Little Mac to the White House in 1864, it was able to live on in songs with verses like, “Once again, the stars and stripes, Will to the breeze be swellin’. If Uncle Abe will give us back Our darlin’ boy McClellan;” and, “Of one more [general] I’ll be telling, and who should be restored straightway. To put an end to this rebellion: Little Mac, he knows the way!”

Burnout

The gay, baggy pants and striped shirts of the Zouaves went by the wayside in “Paddy’s Lamentation.” Thanks to Sinead O’Connor, this is the only piece in our Civil War selection with popular play. The song describes the wariness Irishmen were feeling by mid-war.

This song also reflects the greater mood of America. Similar to the narrator of “Masterson,” our pleading singer advises, “To America I’ll have ye’s not be going. There is nothing here but war, where the murderin’ cannons roar. And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin.” Like many ethnic songs, “Paddy’s Lamentation” has “Easter eggs” in it which betray its North American composition. “Dear old Dublin” was far removed for most 19th-century Irish immigrants. Hiberians who came to America, mostly came from the west of Ireland.

In any case, all the men who were inclined to go in for Meagher’s transatlantic revolutionary schemes had done so by the war’s second year. After that, the motives were less idealistic. Cap-stoning this sentiment was the death of Michael Corcoran in 1863 in a riding accident in Fairfax, Virginia.

As Craughwell writes, “[Corcoran’s] death came as a shock to the Irish Brigade, whose men had loved and revered Corcoran since 1860 when he refused to march the 69th Regiment in a parade honoring the Prince of Wales.” Either money or the force of law stocked the ranks of the Irish Brigade after the initial idealism died down.

Manifest Destiny Resumed

Finally, we close with two postwar pieces: “Mick Ryan’s Lament” and “Regular Army O.” The one doleful, the other comical, both songs take us from the eastern seaboard to the Wild West, with the downsized U.S. military. With the Rebellion over, the American government returned to its pre-war hobby: westward expansion. Our refugee-cum-trooper, Mick Ryan, sings, “I swear I did not see the irony,

“When I rode with the Seventh Cavalry. I thought that we fought for the land of the free, When we rode from Fort Lincoln that morning.” In other words, the expat from Erin was used in his turn to dispossess Indians from their homes. This ultimately led to his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, commanded by former Civil War hero, George Armstrong Custer.

In “Modern Army O,” we’re introduced to a man who, making no idealistic motivational pretense, “had the choice of going to the army or to jail.” Compelled to endure longer and longer marches on less and less grub, our modern soldier throws off the whole army and skedaddles to Mexico.

In both songs we are confronted with one of the curses of war: addiction to fighting. As long-standing the battlegrounds of today attest, places like Somalia, Afghanistan, or Syria, after a while a country’s young men have no stock and trade but war.

That was the condition many veterans found themselves in, in 1865. Decidedly less ideological or reverential than earlier pieces, the song shows an increased assimilation of Irishmen by the later part of the 19th-century, due in part to their military service. As Craughwell writes, “The courage and sacrifice of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War helped diminish prevalent anti-Irish prejudice in America.”

Conclusion

Our selections have featured both early-war, red-blooded martial anthems, burned-out ballads from later in the conflict, and ironic and irreverent postwar choices.

The songs were written from historic moments of patriotism, and contemporary meditations on the hardships of history. They permit us to dive into aspects of the American Civil War which standard study does not allow for. We come closer to our subject. We laugh and cry and bleed and gripe along with the soldiers, who fought the war – and we sing with them, too.

John Coleman is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut (USA). Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.

The image shows, “July 27, 1861: New York’s 69th (Irish) Regiment return from 1st Battle of Bull Run” by Louis Lang, and painted in 1862-1863.

Ancient Church Music – Old Roman Chant

Ever heard the claim: “Pope Gregory the Great came up with Gregorian chant?”

For centuries, it has become common wisdom that the venerable pope was the source of what we now know of as Gregorian chant, and the assumption that it was the chant tradition of the Roman Church – apparently the sole one – was a given. Many – scholars and laymen alike – repeat this attribution, often without question. However, certain discoveries in the 19th century (which were not given proper attention until the 20th century!) has shook the foundations of centuries of pious retelling.

Before 1890, no serious enquiry had been made into the direct origins of Roman Chant or its forerunners. It was in that year when a monk from the famous Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, Dom André Mocquereau (1849-1930), as part of his research into the manuscript tradition of Gregorian chant, published an account of three books he discovered in the Vatican Library: two Graduals (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Archivio di San Pietro, MS lat. 5319 and MS F. 22) and an Antiphonary (MS B.79), all dating from somewhere between the 11th and the 13th century.

Now what intrigued Dom Mocquereau about these manuscripts was that although the material in these sources covered the same liturgical feasts as did the Gregorian books (showing that they were related to each other in that they were both Roman chants), it was melodically distinct from both it, as well as with Ambrosian chant. He wrote a letter to his abbot:

“I must tell you of a discovery we made at the Vatican, and that continues to astonish us. Perhaps Dom Pothier will be able to explain what I am going to say? It is a 12th-century Gradual, certainly of the Roman liturgy, with the exception of some slight peculiarities, but in which the chant is not the one used in all manuscripts in all countries. This is a singular exception that intrigues me. For a time, I had thought that the Ambrosian chant had replaced the Gregorian chant; but this is not the case, because in this new chant the universal Gregorian chant is easy to recognize, but with constant variations that give it a very special character. This is surely an Italian manuscript, as proven by the notation. One note that I found, I no longer know where, advances the unsubstantiated notion that it belonged to St. John Lateran. We have yet to see the Archives at that Basilica; are surprises of this kind awaiting us there, perhaps? I have no idea. I would be most interested to know what the Reverend Father Dom Joseph Pothier thinks about all this. I have not yet studied this curious manuscript in detail, because I had hoped to manage to get it to Solesmes.”

Dom Pothier wrote a reply dated the 8th of April:

“… bring us as many details as possible. What do the variations in the chant or the text consist of? … we must have a good analysis of it; it is on that analysis that we will base the research needed to understand the nature of the variations, their origins and their cause … the more numerous and the more accurate the details, the narrower the scope of the guesswork will be. … Traditions thrived in prior times; at St. Peter’s they still use not only ancient hymns, but even a special Psalter that dates from far back.”

Eventually publishing the results of his study of the manuscripts, Dom Mocquereau then concluded that this repertory, which he recognized as distinct from Ambrosian and Gregorian chant, seems to date from a “relatively recent period, when the rules of Gregorian composition were beginning to fall into disuse.” (Paléographie Musicale, Volume II, pp. 4-5, footnote 1). In short, it was a later corruption of Gregorian chant.

Contrary to this view, fellow Benedictine Dom Raphael Andoyer, who after analysing the same sources, expressed the opinion in 1911-12 that they actually represented an earlier stage of musical development than that of Gregorian – a stage he defined as ‘pre-Gregorian’ (ante-grégorien). For Dom Andoyer, these melodies are the ones which Pope Gregory the Great organized and revised (thus he views Gregory’s ‘authorship’ of plainchant, rather than composing it outright, in the strict sense) into what would become known as Gregorian chant.

After this, the subject was abandoned and no new or authoritative conclusions were reached until 1950, when German musicologist Bruno Stäblein published several articles dedicated on the subject, declaring these manuscripts to be prime examples of a chant tradition he called Altrömisch, or Old Roman. From his time on the problem of Old Roman chant became the object of wide-ranging investigation, and even today it claims the close attention of many experts.

We must note here a couple of interesting and inescapable questions, for which an explanation was needed: among the hundreds of medieval manuscripts of Gregorian chant, there is not one which is known to have been used or written at Rome before the mid-13th century, and the very few sources of definite Roman origin which date from before that period contain similar material to that of Gregorian books, but are different from a melodic point of view – and these manuscripts happen to be the ones which Dom Mocquereau discovered (and dismissed as late corruptions)!

In Stäblein’s view, both the ‘Old Roman’, which he takes to be the one edited by Gregory the Great, and the newer ‘Gregorian’ – a later revision which he dated from the reign of Pope Vitalian (657-672) – coexisted and were being used simultaneously in Rome. Basing his argument on the evidence of an Ordo Romanus which ascribes an active interest in the revision of chant to eight Popes – from Damasus (366-384) to Martin (649-653) – and to three abbots of the Roman monastery of St. Peter (Catolenus, Marianus and Virbonus), Stäblein held that the three abbots are to be credited for the reformation of Roman chant.

The transformation, according to him, would have taken place before 680, when John the archicantor of St. Peter’s was sent by Pope Agatho (reign 678-681) to England, ostensibly to teach singing there. This dating, in Stäblein’s opinion, is confirmed by what certain sources relate about the work of Vitalian, during whose pontificate the chant in the Papal liturgy was apparently performed by the group of cantors named Vitaliani after their founder.

By the 11th to the 13th centuries, Stäblein continues, the situation was such that the Old Roman style of plainchant continued to be employed in the monasteries of the Lateran, while the Papal palace used the ‘Gregorian’. The substance of his argument went largely unchanged as time went on, though Stäblein was compelled to make slight adjustments due to the criticism of other scholars (for example, about the mission of the cantors to England).

In brief, he hypothesizes the idea of a transformation at Rome of Old Roman into Gregorian, and the coexistence of the two traditions (respectively, as the chant of the Papal liturgy and the chant of the other Roman churches) until the 13th century.

A similar position was taken up by Joseph Smits van Waesberghe, who believed however that the monastic institutions of Rome used Gregorian chant, while the secular clergy kept using the Old Roman style of plainchant.

His idea was criticized, however, by other scholars due to his excessive dependence on the Liber Pontificalis (which has undergone intense modern scholarly scrutiny) and for making an over-strict and historically unfounded distinction between Roman monks and secular clergymen. His critics also raised an objection used against Stäblein’s thesis: that there is no incontrovertible proof either that a reform of chant took place in 7th-century Rome or that the two repertories existed side-by-side there until the mid-13th century.

Allowing for more or less personal emphases, other scholars (such as Fr. Stephen J.P. Van Dijk O.F.M., and Ewald Stammers) accepted Stäblein’s idea of the coexistence of the two repertories, and also took into account a fact confirmed by liturgical historians, according to whom Rome had witnessed over a long period the coexistence of the Papal liturgy (which was undergoing a continual, yet gradual, process of reform) and the liturgy of the presbytal tituli, i.e. the parish churches served by non-Curial clergy.

In 1954, Michel Huglo published an exhaustive directory (Le chant ‘vieux-romain’: liste des manuscrits et temoins indirects, Sacris Erudiri 6) of Old Roman sources both direct – that is, Graduals and Antiphonaries – and indirect, demonstrating thereby that this chant was the official repertory at Rome towards the mid-8th century, in about 1140, and in the 13th century.

Old Roman was thus to be seen as a local repertory of specifically Roman origin (like the Ambrosian chant of Milan or Beneventan chant) which had nonetheless spread into central Italy and had even left traces in the monastic centers of the Carolingian Empire (Stäblein has shown that it was in use as far away as St. Gall in present-day Switzerland in the 9th century) before Gregorian chant had gained the upper hand.

Although he came to no conclusion regarding the origins of Gregorian chant, Huglo was prepared to state that Old Roman was the only form of chant familiar to the entire Roman clergy of the period; and this was a clear enough indication that the origins of Gregorian should be looked for outside Rome.

Musicologist Helmut Hucke took up the challenge, when developing an alternative line of argument to that of Stäblein. In Hucke’s view, the point of departure of Gregorian is Old Roman, which underwent a transformation in Frankish territory during the Carolingian era.

As everyone who has studied the history of the Roman Rite pretty much knows, the Roman liturgy starting from the Middle Ages is actually a hybrid between the Gallican family of rites and the original liturgy in use at Rome.

It all started in 754, when the first King of the Franks, Pepin the Short decreed the adoption of the Papal liturgy in his kingdom. It was the time when the Roman liturgy, which until then, apart from the Anglo-Saxon mission Church, had possessed and laid claim to recognition only for Rome and its environs, advanced in a short time to becoming the liturgy of a great empire.

Of course, as soon as the Roman way of worship was introduced in Frankish territory, its started to absorb local elements. It is often related that Charlemagne, Pepin’s son, once asked Pope Hadrian I to provide an authentic Roman sacramentary for use throughout the empire, which the latter sent to the court at Aachen around in the year 785-786.

The intention was to preserve it as the authentic “standard” of the text attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great and to disseminate it throughout all of Charlemagne’s domain through copies, thereby unifying the whole empire under one liturgy – that of Rome. However, the sacramentary the Pope sent soon proved to be ill-suited to the Emperor’s plan: it only contained the liturgy for certain feasts, which would make it ill-adapted to the daily liturgical needs of a parish!

When complaints reached the ear of the Pope, his excuse was saying that he merely picked from the Lateran library what seemed to him to be the best sacramentary he had! Recognizing the obvious unsuitability of the book, the court liturgists decided to correct the text (especially its rather mediocre Latin) and then to augment it with a supplement – derived from the local traditions – so that it could serve for the daily liturgy. The result of this work is the Hadrianum, aka the Hadrian Sacramentary.

Eventually, this hybrid Roman-Frankish liturgy started creeping its way into the Eternal City itself, eventually supplanting its own parent altogether. Church life in Rome was stagnant during the saeculum obscurum of the first half of the 10th century; there was a liturgical vacuum, which the Gallo-Roman liturgy refilled.

This took place both through the direct intervention of the Holy Roman Empire and by the settlement of the Cluniacs in monasteries of Rome or its neighborhood.

Hucke’s idea was that Old Roman chant would have shared the same fate as that of the Roman liturgy, to which it is tagged: it would have encountered the Gallic repertories and would have been transformed into what would be known into later ages as ‘Gregorian’ not only by an inevitable process of ‘contamination’ but above all by being deliberately adapted for aesthetic reasons.

Whatever the value of the latter motive, it should not be forgotten that musical notation did not exist yet, and the repertory would have been handed on by memory.

Hucke’s idea received support from writers such as Willi Apel and Robert J. Snow, while Walther Lipphardt, although claiming that Gregorian chant was the Frankish version of a Roman original, maintained that the melodic material exported from Rome was accepted in Frankish domains without any modification; thus Gregorian would be nothing more than the Roman chant of the 9th century.

Apart from this detail, these are the broad lines of the second hypothesis: the birth of Gregorian in what is now France as a result of the impact of Roman chant on the local Gallican traditions.

Part of the reason why Gregorian chant succeeded in gaining the upper hand, it seems, was facilitated by two factors: the invention of a process of writing the melody, which represents a turn in musical history, and its being attributed to one of the most famous characters in Christendom – Pope St. Gregory the Great.

There are now various alternative theories as to how Gregorian chant got its name, aside from the standard interpretation that it was named after Gregory the Great, and not without their own critics.

One proposes that the name actually refers to a different Gregory (one popular candidate here is the 8th-century pope Gregory II) – a theory that already existed even before Old Roman chant was actually discovered – while another says that the name was actually the result of (Carolingian?) propaganda by appealing to higher authority to give vindication for the abandonment of local chant traditions in favor of the (Frankish-) Roman style of chanting.

After all, who could go wrong with Gregory’s music?

Patrick lives in Japan. He supports the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite according to the Missal of Bl. Pope John XXIII.

The photo shows an early medieval illuminated manuscript, ca. 12th-century.

Music Of The Renaissance

The spirit of change that was transforming so much of art and culture in the Renaissance also touched the musical styles of the period, the most important of which was polyphony, or the blending of several individual melodies, which ultimately led to the development of harmony.

By about 1500, polyphony included vocal orchestration, or the grouping of contrasting voices. This gave not only depth to the music and the singing, but also a rich texture, since various melodies could enter, depart and re-enter in a piece of work.

As well, this interaction of melodies was given greater color by the use of different rhythms for each of these melodies. This combination of various individual melodies to form a single musical mode reflected the ideals of the Renaissance, which always sought perfection and unity.

During this time, choirs were relatively small and consisted of 26 singers, exclusively male, in which the soprano parts were sung by boys or men who could sing falsetto, or a higher pitched tenor. Also, instruments began to be introduced as accompaniments to the choir. Only the choir of the Sistine Chapel was strictly forbidden to use instruments in its choral singing.

The Renaissance also saw the separation of music into religious and secular forms. The most important religious styles were the Mass and the Motet.

The Mass referred to the musical setting of that part of the Church worship known as the Ordinary, which consisted of five sections for which music was needed. The words of the Ordinary provided the text that Renaissance composers could set to music.

The Motet was the musical setting of those parts of the Church service that were not part of the Ordinary. Usually, the words used for Motets were familiar to the worshippers and provided composers with the opportunity to reach a profound expression that would be both moving and meaningful.

In fact, the composer sought to interpret the truth of the words through music. It was the motet that brought about a unique change in music – the unity of words and melody. It is something that we take for granted today, but we have to keep in mind that before the Renaissance, music always took a secondary role to the words. In the sixteenth century and onwards, both words and music were equally important.

The secular version of the Motet was the Madrigal, which was an intimate form of music, performed by a small group of singers, both male and female, accompanied by a lute. The Madrigal was in a sense chamber music, since it was created to provide entertainment for members of the aristocracy. Some famous madrigalists are Carlo Gesualdo (ca. 1560-1613) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) in Italy; while in England we have William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1558-1603), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).

Many important composers flourished in this era, such as Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1400-1477), who was a popular French composer, and was the first one to write large-scale Masses for four voices. These massive works, which often reworked a famous melody, began a style that was to remain popular throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

He is also famous for writing beautiful instrumental pieces, such as “Se la face ay pale” and “L’Homme armé. “When, in 1420, the dome of the cathedral of Florence, built by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), was dedicated, it was Dufay who was commissioned to compose a special a dedicatory motet, which he called “Nuper rosarum flores” (“The Flowers of Roses”).

Josquin des Prez (ca. 1440-1521) was born in what is now Belgium, but moved to Italy, where he became the court musician to the Dukes of Milan and Ferrara, and later served in the Papal Chapel at Rome. He was very famous in his own time, and was often called the “Michelangelo of music,” and Martin Luther referred to him as “the master of notes.” Josquin’s music was effortless, which made full use of the flexibility of polyphony, while creating beautiful melodies. His most famous work is the “Missa Pange Lingua.”

Palestrina (ca. 1525-1594) was another renowned composer whose name is often used to illustrate the music of the Renaissance, since he was regarded, in his own time, as creating the purest and the most perfect melodies and songs. A careful balance of ascending and descending phrases that gives a smooth flow to his music marks his work.

A famous contemporary of his was Lassus (1532-1594), a prolific composer,  who created some two thousand works, both religious and secular. He transformed the contrasting melodies of polyphony into expressive harmony. He was a master of matching the mood of the words with appropriate music, and he could write songs that were deeply moving as well as those that were humorous.

His fame was such that the Emperor Maximilian II made him a noble, and he was much favored by Pope Gregory XIII and King Charles IX of France. One his most famous works is the religious piece entitled, “Tristia est anima mea” (“Sorrowful is my soul”), which was published in 1565.

It is often said that the Renaissance was a time of immense musical variety and richness, and it was one of the few times in musical history that so many acknowledged masters flourished at the same time.

 

The photo shows, “The Concert” by Gerard van Honthorst, painted ca. 1623.

First Melody: The Earliest Written Music

Music and history are closely intertwined. Music answers an innate urge in humanity – that of transcendence. How can we rise beyond the mundane, and how can we commune with ideas far greater than us – ideas such as, perfection, beauty, truth, goodness.

Language can only meet us half way because by its very nature it is expository and therefore “teacherly”; We speak and think so that we may learn and know. Language cannot become what it explains. Language is the bearer of ideas, of culture; it is not ideas or culture.

Music, on the other hand, is not expression, because it does not explain. Rather, music is what words seek to describe: Music is idea. Music is not about perfection, beauty, truth, goodness. Music is itself perfection, beauty, truth, goodness. We have only to deliver, for example, a violin into untrained and unskilled hands, and we will immediately know truth from falsehood – music can only exist as perfection.

Humanity has always understood music as transcendence – which is why we have evidence of music far earlier than any evidence of writing.

For example, there are more than thirty bone flutes and whistles found in France, Germany, and England. The most recent ones come from the Geissenklöterle cave, in southern Germany and date to the early parts of the Upper Paleolithic (around 43,000 BC).

Inside the Trois-Frères cave, in the Ariége region of France, there is a faint image of a man, dressed in the hide and head of an animal perhaps playing a flute.

The current work of Iegor Reznikoff, at the University of Paris, suggests that cave paintings were intimately linked to music, since he found that the greatest density of images was always located in those parts of a cave that had the greatest resonance. The graphic representation of music, therefore, is far older than the need to write.

Humanity and music are inseparable.

The earliest confirmation of writing, on the other hand, does not emerge until the latter portions of the Neolithic era, with the Dispilio Tablet (5000 BC); the Tartaria Tablets; the Vinča symbols (5000 to 4000 BC); and the Gradeshnitsa Tablets (4000 BC).

These pieces remain enigmatic since we cannot read any of them. In order to decipher an ancient script, we need a lot of it; frequency and repetition are crucial in the decoding process; otherwise, it is like playing “hangman” without any clues and without an alphabet. True writing did not emerge until the Uruk period (4000 to 3100 BC), in Mesopotamia, with cuneiform, those wedge-shaped graphemes that remained in use well into the first century AD.

Given humanity’s deep connection with music, why did so many ancient civilizations that were literate not also create a system of writing music?

Ancient Egypt is mute about its music, although we have so many depictions of musical activity as well as actual musical instruments.

Even ancient Rome has left no music behind – so much so that some historians even suggest that the Romans were a particularly unmusical bunch.

It is all a puzzle as to why music remained firmly and deeply tied to an oral tradition, as evidenced in India, for example; and therefore we cannot say that the music of India is very old, despite the assumption of great antiquity.

The Indian melodic structures (the ragas) can only be traced back to the courts of the Mughals and provincial princes with any degree of certainty. The three important theoretical treatises are relatively recent – the Natyashastra and the Dattilam are from the third century AD; the Sangeet Ratnakara was written sometime in the thirteenth century AD. We cannot go any further back with any degree of certainty. It was V.N. Bhatkande (1860 to 1936), who devised a notational system for Indian music.

In China, there are tablatures (finger-positioning, tuning, and strumming methods) for various melodies. These date from the Tang (seventh century AD) and the Song (tenth to the thirteenth centuries AD) Dynasties.

These tablatures constitute the Gongche system that employed the wenzi pu (full ideogram notation), which is not overly accurate as it can indicate several possibilities. In other words, clarity is a problem, since notes have to be guessed – we can never be certain.

One such tablature survives (written in a scroll discovered in Kyoto, Japan), for a melody called, “You-Lan,” (“The Secluded Orchid”); the scroll dates to sometime before the tenth century AD.

The melody is for the guqin, the seven-stringed long zither. There have been many attempts at guessing and playing “You-Lan” from the finger-positioning and the strumming techniques indicated – but none have yielded satisfactory results.

In the end, we have to acknowledge that Chinese music, like the Indian, was essentially oral in nature. In addition, this is likely true of ancient Egyptian and Roman music as well.

Therefore, aside from the Greeks, did any music from the ancient world survive?

Until about 1968, the answer would have been a resounding, “No.”

Things changed when a rather obscure book came out in Paris, with the curious title – Ugaritica 5: nouveaux textes accadiens, hourrites et ugaritiques des archives et bibliothèques privées d’Ugarit (Ugaritica 5: New Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic Texts from the Private Archives and Library of Ugarit).

It was another volume in the continuing series of publications of ancient texts that had been discovered in Syria, some forty years earlier. It has been a monumental task cataloguing and transcribing these texts.

The discovery of thee texts was made back in the early summer of 1929 by two French archaeologists.

They had begun the trek in two automobiles, heading north from Beirut and into the Alawite State that hugged the coast of Asia Minor, hard by the Mediterranean Sea.

This territory, including the States of Aleppo and Damascus and Greater Lebanon, were under the French Mandate, following the First World War.

The previous masters of this area, as well as of the entire Middle East, the Ottoman Turks, had been swept away after the defeat of the Germans, with whom they were allied.

The narrow road that the automobiles of the two archaeologists followed, at the dizzying speed of 25 miles per hour, was newly built by the French; and it was only a partial one because it soon vanished in a wasteland of rock, scrub and hillock; to the east rose the Al-Alawiyin Mountains.

The two men realized that their cars were no match for the terrain – and they would have to go back to Beirut and return with transport better suited – camels.

The two men were Claude Schaeffer and Georges Chenet, archaeologists who had built a reputation for themselves in Europe.

Schaeffer was an assistant at the Museum of Prehistory and Gallo-Roman Archaeology in Strasbourg; he had published extensively on the Neolithic Alsace and played a leading role in the “Glozel Affair” of 1925 (a cache of antiquities was purportedly found which Schaeffer and others proved to be forgeries). Chenet was an expert in Gallo-Roman ceramics and a master tile-maker.

An unlikely pair, but they had been sent by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, the venerable society dedicated to the study of ancient and medieval culture.

Schaeffer headed the mission whose purpose was to begin digging at Minet el-Beida, a little harbor on the Mediterranean, in the Alawite State.

Back in the spring of 1928, a farmer named Ibrahim, while plowing his field, had unearthed a flagstone. Beneath was a tomb built of cut rock that still many artifacts, not only of ceramic, but of gold and ivory.

When Ibrahim began to sell what he had found to antique dealers, the word got out of a new site. Eventually the French authorities got involved and Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres became the official sponsor of an expedition.

Minet el-Beida was in fact a necropolis. This meant that a city had to be nearby. The obvious choice was a mound, some sixty-feet high, which lay a few hundred yards to the east. The locals called the mound, Ras Shamra (“Fennel Hill” because of the abundant fennel that grew on it).

When Schaeffer and Chenet turned their attention on this mound, they did indeed find an ancient city. Before long, they began to find cuneiform clay tablets that named the city they were digging – Ugarit – a name well known the late Bronze Age.

Luckily, Ugarit has largely escaped damage at the hands of Isis, who have destroyed many ancient sites.

In May of 1929, the city yielded its greatest treasure. In a pillared-room, later identified as the royal palace, thousands upon thousands of clay tablets lay piled. They were copies of royal correspondence, trade records, religious stories and myths, poetry, land deeds, and international treaties.

It was a treasure trove of historical data. We are still working through the vast amount of information contained in these documents. The dig would last a lifetime for Schaeffer. Chenet, sadly, would die early in 1951. Work at the site would continue until 2000. Much has been discovered; much lies buried still, to be dug up at a later, and safer, time.

Ugarit flourished during the Amarna Age (1550 to 1290 BC) – that rich period of the Bronze Age when trade flourished and four great powers vied for supremacy with Egypt.

There were the Hittites to the northwest; the Mycenaeans in Greece and Crete; the Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni in the upper reaches of the Euphrates; Babylon to the south under Kassite rule; and Assyria to the northeast.

Ugarit was a harbor city through which flowed goods from the then known world – ceramics and weapons from Mycenae, gold and ivory from Egypt, silver, copper and tin from Assyria and beyond, horses and chariots from the Mitanni and Hittite kingdoms.

The kings of Ugarit kept close ties with all the neighboring monarchs; we know of eight, whose reigns lasted from 1350 to 1200 BC.

The international character of the city is demonstrated by the presence of all the major languages current at the time – Egyptian hieroglyphics, Phoenician, Akkadian, Sumerian, Hurrian, Hittite, Cypro-Minoan (similar to Linear A), as well as the city’s native tongue – Ugaritic, which belongs to the larger Northwest Semitic family. Curiously, so far, we have not found any evidence of archaic Greek (Linear B); perhaps one day we shall find Linear B tablets as well.

The texts discovered also make clear that this thriving city had developed a far more efficient system of writing – an alphabet that used cuneiform signs for sound values; in other words, an alphabetic cuneiform, which is entirely different from other types of cuneiform being used at the time.

It is a matter of debate whether the innovative Ugaritic writing system is the world’s first alphabet. As well, the religious texts show many parallels to the literary aspects of the Hebrew Bible, such as the story of Daniel.

Ugarit came to a violent and sudden end sometime after 1196 BC when it was burned to the ground. It was part of a general destruction pattern which first becomes evident around 1200 BC, and is known as “the Bronze Age Collapse,” or simply, “the Catastrophe.”

For those alive at the time, it was a calamity of untold proportions. Cities in the Near East, Greece and the Aegean were put to the torch – forty-seven in all were burned to the ground. Civilization itself was snuffed out.

Troy (Hissarlik in Turkey) went up in smoke at this time, which perhaps suggests a historical basis for the legends told by Homer. Only Egypt managed to repel the attacks, although, it would never regain its former glory.

We know that Ugarit’s end was swift because, dramatically, at the very moment when it was attacked and burned, about a hundred letters from the king were baking in an oven (to get them ready to be “mailed”). They would never be sent. Their urgent pleas for help would remain unread until our own era.

Who was behind all this devastation? The historian Robert Drews has very convincingly shown that the Catastrophe cannot be explained by recourse to impersonal forces, such as, drought, earthquakes and a systems collapse; rather, human agency is involved.

The Catastrophe was the result of the development of a new mode of warfare – infantry, foot-soldiers equipped with javelins that had different shaped heads (tanged and elliptical) and an entirely new type of sword, the long Naue Type II, that had a blade some 70 centimeters in length – excellent for slashing and thrusting. Both the javelin and the sword entirely neutralized the super weapon of the Bronze Age – the horse-drawn chariot, the basis of defense for all cities. The chariot was no match for infantry tactics.

The Egyptians named these marauders, “Sea Peoples,” because they arrived suddenly in ships.

A different world would re-emerge – the world of the Iron Age – without great palaces, smaller settlements and villages, parochial in nature, community-based, hardly international. The period is also commonly known as a Dark Age.

Such is the world from which emerged those texts published in Ugaritica 5 in 1968.

In a review copy, one scholar, named Hans Güterbock, noticed something peculiar about a section in which thirty-one hymns were printed – beneath each one were words that the editors said were unknown and therefore untranslatable.

However, Güterbock, who was an expert in the study of cuneiform, instantly recognized these as Akkadian musical terms. His inquiry continued until he and several others established the fact that underneath these thirty-one hymns were the very melodies to which they were to be sung.

Thus was discovered the earliest written music.

The original versions of these hymns were on baked clay tablets, oblong in shape (to fit neatly into the hand). The writing on the surface of each tablet was in three sections.

On the top were the lyrics. In the middle was the musical notation. At the bottom were the names of the scribes who wrote out these tablets, followed by the names of the composers. Each section was marked off by a double line, and the text was demarcated by a double winkelhaken, or hooks (they look like over-sized quotation marks).

From these tablets, we now know the names of two scribes (Ammurabi and Ipthali – both are good Semitic names; Ammurabi being the more familiar Hammurabi, although our scribe is not to be confused with his more famous namesake – the king, known for his law code). And we know the names of four composers (Tapthikhun, Pukhiyanna, Urkhiya, and Ammiya – all are typical Hurrian names).

The lyrics are in Hurrian, which is noteworthy, since Ugaritic was the “mother-tongue” of this ancient city. Ugaritic is a Semitic language, rather close to Hebrew.

But Hurrian is a very different language, and we do not entirely understand it. (It is of great personal interest to me, and I have been closely studying it for over two years). The people who once spoke this language, whom we call “Hurrians” for the sake of convenience, were at one time a highly influential nation in the ancient Near East. Their ideas and their culture had a deep and lasting impact upon their neighbors, particularly, the Hittites, the Assyrians and the Hebrews.

The very fact that Semitic scribes in Ugarit were busily transcribing hymns in a language not their own suggests that things Hurrian were held in high regard. This is especially true of religious rituals whose traces can be found in the Hebrew Bible.

The Hurrians were also renowned horse trainers (this expertise stemmed from a close association with the Indo-Aryans, who in the Bronze Age were regarded as the masters of the horse and horsemanship). The earliest horse training manual is written by a Hurrian named Kikkuli (the text of this manual is in the Hittite language, and dates from about 1345 BC). The Hurrians together with the Indo-Aryans established the formidable kingdom of Mitanni, which endured from about 1500 BC to 1300 BC.

Hurrian is also interesting because it has no genetic link to any other language in the Near East. It is not Semitic, or Sumerian, or Indo-European. Rather, it is an ergative, agglutinative language, which simply means that the idea of a subject in a sentence is entirely absent, and cases, tenses, and attribution are expressed by adding particles and suffixes to word-roots. Likely, Hurrian originated in the Caucasus region, where such languages were and are common.

Since all the thirty-one clay tablets published in Ugaritica 5 are fragmentary, only one hymn could be reconstructed into a complete version; this was possible because this one hymn showed up on three of the thirty-one tablets. It must have been a very popular and important piece.

So, what was missing on one tablet could be completed by reference to the other two. The complete version is known as “Hurrian Hymn 6,” and the lyrics suggest that it is a song of supplication to the goddess Nikkal, who was specifically worshipped at Ugarit. She was the goddess of fruit orchards and fertility and was married to the moon god Yarikh (or Yorah in Hebrew; commonly Anglicized as, “Jorah,” mentioned in Ezra 2:18). The famous city of Jericho is named after this good.

The words of the hymn are difficult to interpret with precision, but generally, they are the prayer of a woman imploring Nikkal to grant her a child.

Following the transcription of Theo Krispijn, we hear the woman’s plaintiff voice – unalt akli samsammeni, says the original, “I have come before you, imploring.”

There is divine promise – kaledanil Nikalla nikhrazal khana khanodedi attayatal – “for it is Nikkal that strengthens them and permits the married couples to bear children; and the fathers bring forth children.”

Being barren is a curse – assati veve khanokko – “why as your wife have I not born a child?”

The hymn in the original is called a zaluzi. We do not know what this word means. Perhaps it has something to do with a chanted plea – a song of supplication, perhaps.

The melody of this hymn (to lyre accompaniment) is explained in the original as being in the nidqibli mode. This has recently been understood (by Richard Dumbrill) to be the enneatonic scale of E. The rhythm is 2+3+2/4, a pattern that is heard even today in the folk songs of the Caucasus region (the original homeland of the Hurrians).

There have been ten attempts at interpreting the melody over the years, the most important being that of Anne D. Kilmer, David Wulstan and Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin (in the 1970s); M.L. West and R.J. Dumbrill (in the 1990s); and Theo Krispijn (in 2000).

The most lyrical version is by Dumbrill. Recordings have been made by the Ensemble de Organographia and by Michael Levy. Recently, Dumbrill’s version has also been made available, sung to the lyre.

The tune has a soft, rueful lilt that still has the power to move, for it carries the deep pathos of a time long lost, of hands that plucked the harp long turned to dust, of faces lost to oblivion, and voices lost in the great hush of vanished millennia. Yet from the silence, there bursts forth a song.

And suddenly we become one with the scribes Ammurabi and Ipthali; we become the audience of the composers Tapthikhun, Pukhiyanna, Urkhiya, and Ammiya; and with tender hearts we listen to the mellifluous voice of a woman, who shall be forever nameless, chant her plea, until the last note quivers and fades on the strings of the lyre.

The hymn may be heard here.

 

 

The photo shows, “By the Waters of Babylon,” by Arthur Hacker, likely painted in 1888.

The Music Of Ancient Greece

The past comes to us fragmented and silent. We seek to reconstitute it in many ways – through collections in museums, through the uncovering of artifacts, through the preservation of manuscripts, and through individual curiosity and interest.

This is the grand ritual of history – to get beyond the inherent muteness of yesterday and of millennia – we the living must give voice to the dead that they might speak again, though briefly, though in faded whispers.

Lost is the noise of antiquity – the cadence and exuberance of conversation, the scurry and skitter of trade and industry, the jangle and din of ceremonies.

History truly is the great leveler, as Guiderius and Arviragus sing in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust…
The sceptre, learning, physic must
All follow this and come to dust.

And yet an echo of this ancient noise can still be heard in the fragments of music that have survived from Greece of long ago. They are snatches of melodies that once soothed the spirit and delighted the ear.

Similar shreds of music remain also from the ancient Near, Middle and Far East; but by far the largest selection comes from Greece. We have sixty-one melodic pieces, and new ones continue to be found.

These are but remnants of a once grand musical tradition that pervaded much of the civilized world.

Understanding ancient Greek music is important, since so much of our own musical vocabulary and traditions stem from this antique period.

Essential words, such as, “music,” “rhythm,” “tone,” “melody,” “chord,” “scale,” “harmony,” and many technical ones (“chromatic,” “diatonic,” “enharmonic”) are all derived from Greek – as are our scale and tuning classifications, our consonance and dissonance structure, and our use of the octave modal scale.

The Greeks were great theorizers of music. They saw its obvious link to mathematics, and extended this connection to explain ideas of perfection, of morality and even of healing.

In fact, our notions of “musical therapy” are nothing than the rediscovery of their system of modes (or melodic behavior), each of which was seen to positively affect the emotional and spiritual make-up of a person.

There were fifteen such modes. For the ancient Greeks, sound was not something inert which we might receive or ignore without consequence – rather, sound was an active principle – even an entity – that entered our body and altered our interaction with reality.

Music for the Greeks was far more than entertainment (or worse, “relaxing” – an odious way to describe music) –it was a moral force – a process of civilization – a structure for goodness – an ideal of perfection.

The story of the recovery and then the decipherment and the ultimate performance of ancient Greek music is a fascinating one.

But how did it survive, and how are we able to read it? The sixty-one pieces, mentioned earlier, are found on two types of material – stone and papyrus, with papyrus comprising the majority.

But since this ancient form of paper is very fragile, all we really possess are torn bits and pieces on which are transcribed scores that we can work out as parts of melodies – only parts because the whole is lost.

Most of these shreds of papyrus come from Egypt, which is only fitting since the city of Alexandria once housed the famed library, in which the entire learning of the ancient world was said to be contained.

Sadly, the Arabs destroyed this library when they conquered Egypt in the seventh century AD. An eye witness account tells us that it took six months to burn all the books.

The fragments that we possess are those that escaped this conflagration because they had either been thrown onto garbage heaps, or even used as “stuffing” for mummies in the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

The most famous piece of music on papyrus is the Stasimon Chorus from Euripides’ play, Orestes. It’s a haunting melody, in the chromatic scale, of a chorus sung just after Orestes has killed his mother. This piece of music survives on a papyrus fragment that dates from about 200 BC.

These musical papyri are rustling whispers from an antique age.

Three pieces of music are also preserved in stone. There are two hymns to the god Apollo, inscribed onto a piece of the wall of the Athenian Treasury at the temple in Delphi. They were discovered in 1892 by the French archaeologist, Théophile Homolle. These hymns, though fragmented, preserve a substantial portion of the melodies, and they date from the second century BC.

The third piece is the Seikilos Epitaph, which is chiseled onto a marble gravestone. It’s a touching song of dedication by a man named Seikilos to his dead wife named, Euterpe.

The gravestone was discovered in 1883 by William Ramsay during excavation at the ancient city of Tralles (modern-day Aydin, in western Turkey). It’s now housed in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. All three are elegant echoes in stone.

We are able to read this ancient music because we know the notational system that the Greeks used – they had one set of symbols for voice and an entirely different one for instruments. We have gained this knowledge because we possess two remarkable documents.

One is a small fragment on which all two sets of symbols are inscribed and also explained. This is the Table of Alypius, a musician who lived in Alexandria, in the fourth century AD. We can rely on his information because he had access to the vast library in his city.

The other work is more extensive – it’s an entire book on Greek musical theory and practice written by Aristides Quintilianus, who lived in the second century AD. We have also fragments of a work by the fourth century BC philosopher Aristoxenus of Tarentum. These valuable documents have allowed us to return a little sound to antiquity.

The reason why we have these three valuable sources in the first is because of the efforts of one man (whose son would become both notorious in his time and later famous).

His name was Vincenzo Galilei (1520–1591) – the father of Galileo Galilei. Vincenzo was a renowned musician and intellectual of his time, and he was a member of the Florentine Camerata, which was a group of thinkers, philosophers, musicians and writers who met regularly at the house of their founder and patron, Giovanni de’ Bardi.

These men sought to veer music back to its classical roots, which they believed had been abandoned in their day. The result was the creation of musical drama, or what we now call, “opera.”

In 1581 Vincenzo published a few scores of ancient Greek music that he had deciphered. The scores consisted of three hymns to the Muses, to Nemesis, and to Helios (the sun god), which had been composed by Mesomedes of Crete (who lived sometime in the second century AD and who was the court musician of the Emperor Hadrian – he of the Wall in England)).

Vincenzo was the first to decode ancient Greek music by using the information given by Alypius, Aristides and Aristoxenus.

Vincenzo also effectively launched the field of study that now is known as “archaeomusicology” – or the study and reconstruction of ancient musical traditions.

A few decades later, Giovanni Battista Doni designed instruments that might properly play the music of Classical Greece. And in 1652, there appeared the extensive study of such music by the Danish historian Marcus Meibomius.

On the strength of this study, Meibomius was invited to the court of Queen Christina where he gave a concert of this music.

The concert ended badly, however, because in the middle of it, Meibomius struck Pierre Bourdelot, the Queen’s physician and favorite (who famously healed the Queen’s melancholia by making her laugh by reading Pietro Aretino’s satires and sonnets). Bourdelot was scoffing at what was being played and sung.

Meibomius beat a hasty retreat from the royal court and before long found gainful employment in Denmark.

In the Baroque era there appeared, in 1721, a study of ancient Greek melodies authored by Jean-Pierre Burette, physician, book-collector, and a man of great erudition.

Like Vincenzo Galilei, Burette again transcribed the three hymns by Mesomedes, to give them greater currency; and he even organized a concert in Paris for these three ancient pieces.

In the nineteenth century, musicians such as, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie and Camille Saint-Saëns, were involved in reviving ancient Greek music. Their interest was given impetus by the discovery in 1892 of the three Delphic Hymns, mentioned above.

These hymns were studied and transcribed by the polymath Théodore Reinach (who built the Villa Kerylos on the French Riviera) along with two other scholars (the classicists, Henri Weil and Otto Crusius).

Reinach also asked Gabriel Fauré to compose an accompaniment to one of the hymns; and this hymn and accompaniment were performed to much public acclaim in France, England, and the United States.

This hymn was also played at the very first meeting of the International Olympic Congress in June of 1894 (held at the Sorbonne in Paris). It’s said that upon hearing this ancient music the delegates at the Congress were filled with enthusiasm to create the modern Olympic Games.

This four hundred year old tradition of studying, decoding and playing ancient Greek tradition continued in the twentieth century with recordings by J. Murray Barbour, Fritz Kuttner, and Annie Bélis.

But what did this music sound like? To answer this question, let’s first take a look at the instruments that were popular in ancient Greece, and then we can move on to the pieces of music themselves.

There was the lyre, a version of the harp that consisted of seven strings. It was made of a wooden soundbox, two curving arms, and a crossbar. The strings were made either of gut or linen and were fixed to the crossbar by moveable pegs. It tended to be an instrument for amateur performance.

The larger version of the lyre was the kithara, from which our word, “guitar” ultimately descends. It had a larger soundbox, two sideboards and a crossbar. Seven gut strings were stretched over a bridge and wound on pegs fixed to the crossbar. The kithara was much louder than the lyre and was used as an accompaniment in public performance by professional singers.

The aulos was the main woodwind instrument of the Greek world and was made-up of two pipes (usually reed stems; later bronze). Each pipe had a double-reed that produced the sound.

Usually the aulos was tied to the mouth of the player by a leather strap tied at the back of the head (see painting above). This assisted in keeping the flow of air constant. Although it’s often called a “double-flute,” it really was much louder than the modern flute and sounded more like the chanter of the bagpipes. The aulos accompanied processions and dances.

There were also other instruments as well, such as, the syrinx (panpipes), the krotala (castanets), rattles, drums, and cymbals. The Greeks also invented the water-organ (the hydraulis).

Written records tell us that music was frequently heard not only at formal and informal dinner parties (like the symposia, where philosophers like Socrates worked out their ideas), but it was also an essential component in civic ceremonies, in religious worship, marriages and funerals.

And we have records of musical competitions in which prizes were awarded. We also know the pay-scales for professional musicians who belonged to guilds; and there were also choirs and choral competitions.

Concert halls were found in most cities, such as the Odeion built in Athens by Pericles in the fifth century BC. We have also found a few monuments erected to honor musicians.

The Greeks also invented drama; and this art form heavily relied on music (the members of Florentine Camarata based the structure of the opera on Greek drama).

We know also that all men in ancient Greece were educated in music and could play one or more instrument; and they were also taught to sing and dance.

On the philosophical level, music was regarded as the highest expression of individual, civic, and cosmic harmony – it was Pythagoras (he of the theorem) who first described the overtone series, for in it he found harmony and perfection, which he called beautiful.

Music, therefore, was beautiful – because it could only be expressed perfectly. One has only to fumble through a tune on an instrument to understand this. Music can only work when each note is perfectly played or sung.

The nature of the music that has survived tells us that the Greeks used the diatonic scale which has five whole notes and two half-tones in an octave, which together give seven pitches.

This led to the two octave scale, or the Greater Perfect System. And when the Greeks wrote their music and the writing of music expressed intervals on the Greater Perfect System.

The tradition started by Vincenzo Galilei continues in our day with great recordings of ancient Greek music being made by groups, such as, the Madrid Atrium Musicae, Ensemble Melpomen, the Ensemble De Organographia, and the marvelous Ensemble Kérylos (named after the magnificent villa built by Reinach mentioned above), which is led by erudite and imaginative Annie Bélis.

Some years backs, Dr. Jay Kennedy, a professor of philosophy at the University of Manchester, suggested in an intriguing study that Plato, the famed philosopher, embedded musical forms in his work by following the structure of the twelve-note scale.

This wonderfully connects with Plato’s notion that music is the experience of the soul, because music alone can cure the soul – and music then is the gift of the soul.

The more we study ancient Greek music, the more we learn and understand that we have forgotten so much. Music is always a mystery and a revelation.

The ancient Spartan poet, Alkman, says, “right against the steel is the sweet playing of the lyre.” This is a very concise view of ancient Greek music – music is life itself.

 

 

The photo shows, “The Vintage Festival,” painted in 1871, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.