Singing Homer
Singing Homer Podcast
Performing Greek Prose

Performing Greek Prose


No transcript...

The key to reading Greek aloud—that is, the first step in treating ancient texts in the way that they were intended to be used—is to know which syllables were weighted in the delivery. This is to pay attention to ancient Greek usage, which describes the pitch changes in Greek prosody with the words ‘sharp’ (ὀξύς) and ‘heavy’ (βαρύς). With respect to prosodic pitch these do not mean, as is often erroneously stated, ‘high’ and ‘low’, but ‘sharply rising’ and ‘heavily falling’. When one applies them to a voice, sharpness and heaviness intuitively connote different kinds of intensity, not only tonal shifts. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that these Greek prosodic qualities of sharp and heavy intonations were not unlike the sounds, including pitch changes, associated with the familiar English stress prosody. In particular, when one determines which Greek syllables bore the heavy Greek prosody, one knows which syllables ‘anchor’ the delivery, and which ones the speech lands on. The sharp syllables, on the other hand, propel and energise the line, including at the ends.

καὶ ὅσοι φθόγγοι ταχεῖς τε καὶ βραδεῖς φαίνονται, τοτὲ μὲν ἀνάρμοστοι φερόμενοι δι’ ἀνομοιότητα τῆς ἐν ἡμῖν ὑπ’ αὐτῶν κινήσεως, τοτὲ δὲ ξύμφωνοι δι’ ὁμοιότητα. τὰς γὰρ τῶν προτέρων καὶ θαττόνων οἱ βραδύτεροι κινήσεις, ἀποπαυομένας ἤδη τε εἰς ὅμοιον ἐληλυθυίας αἷς ὕστερον αὐτοὶ προσφερόμενοι κινοῦσιν ἐκείνας, καταλαμβάνουσι, καταλαμβάνοντες δὲ οὐκ ἄλλην ἐπεμβάλλοντες ἀνετάραξαν κίνησιν, ἀλλ’ ἀρχὴν βραδυτέρας φορᾶς κατὰ τὴν τῆς θάττονος ἀποληγούσης δὲ ὁμοιότητα προσάψαντες μίαν ἐξ ὀξείας καὶ βαρείας ξυνεκεράσαντο πάθην, ὅθεν ἡδονὴν μὲν τοῖς ἄφροσιν, εὐφροσύνην δὲ τοῖς ἔμφροσι διὰ τὴν τῆς θείας ἁρμονίας μίμησιν ἐν θνηταῖς γενομένην φοραῖς παρέσχον. (Timaeus 80a ff.)

[We must pursue] also those sounds which appear quick and slow, sharp [ὀξεῖς] and heavy [βαρεῖς], at one time borne in discord because of the disagreement of the motion [κίνησις] caused by them in us, but at another in concord because of agreement. For the slower sounds overtake the movements [κινήσεις] of those earlier and quicker ones, when these are already ceasing and have come into agreement with those motions with which afterwards, when they are brought to bear, the slow sounds themselves move [κινοῦσιν] them; and in overtaking they did not cause a disturbance, imposing another motion [κίνησις], but once they had attached the beginning of a slower passage, in accord with the agreement of the quicker one, which was fading, they mixed together a single experience out of sharp and heavy sound, whence they furnished pleasure to the mindless, but peace of mind to the thoughtful, because of the imitation of the divine harmony arisen in mortal orbits.

I demonstrate here how intuitive performance can become, when I apply the law of tonal prominence to Greek prose. The new law finally makes sense of Greek rhythm, in prose speech as well as poetry. The accent marks preserved in our texts had appeared to have a purely random relation to emphasis in lines and sentences. The breakthrough was to discover that whenever the syllable following the acute mark was long, it bore a down-glide in pitch which carried the prosodic weight. That is, in certain definite circumstances it was the syllable following, rather than the graphically accented syllable, which was prominent. Now, with the discovery of the new law, phrases and sentences seem to take sonic shape in a way that makes sense to those raised in Indo-European languages. Phrases seem to ‘self-organise’, rather than intone suddenly and randomly. An author’s voice emerges.

I have picked the most obscure passage in Plato I know. I shall not attempt to explain it here. I have merely recited it in the new way, and supplied my translation below. In speaking it out I wish to share the simple experience I have been blessed with: even if it occasionally seems that what Plato is saying is ‘all Greek to me,’ at least now one is not decoding symbols, but listening to someone talking, someone trying to describe something subtle.

It seems to me Plato is describing the musical motion of an Homeric hexameter, both objectively and subjectively as we like to say: at once both outside and inside. I say in my recent book, Singing Homer’s Spell: “[he] is trying to describe the phenomenology of a poetic or melodic line, the way it moves and cadences both internally and finally, and seems to be trying to describe the experience of the hexameter dance of the Muses in particular. Remember that Greek writers had no recourse to abstract terms derived from Greek or Latin, like even our ‘rhythm’ and ‘accent’, to help describe phenomena that are hard to get a perspective on at the best of times, so as to put them into words and sound scientific when doing so.”

Singing Homer
Singing Homer Podcast
A performance of Homer's Odyssey in ancient Greek, with texts.
Listen on
Substack App
RSS Feed
Appears in episode
A P David
Recent Episodes