A History of Western Music

By Donald Jay Grout; Claude V. Palisca | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1

MUSICAL LIFE AND THOUGHT IN
ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME

THE GREEK AND ROMAN HERITAGE

Western culture has undeniable ties to ancient Greece and Rome. Its ideals of beauty and art were rooted there. Its philosophy was founded on the precepts of Plato and Aristotle. And its literature, particularly European poetry and drama, was built on ancient Greek and Latin traditions. Since the Middle Ages, Europe (and later America) has turned to Greece and Rome for instruction and inspiration.

Western music has also drawn on the same sources, though not in such obvious ways as the visual arts, literature, history, philosophy, and government have, in part because very little of the music survived. Roman literature— Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero—could be studied and read throughout the Middle Ages. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, more Roman works came to light, and the surviving literature of Greece was gradually recovered. Medieval or Renaissance artists could study ancient sculpture and architecture and even imitate it; they had the actual statues and buildings or ruins to look at. But musicians of the Middle Ages did not have a single example of Greek or Roman music, and only a few ancient songs and hymns were identified during the Renaissance. We are somewhat better off today: about forty-five complete pieces or fragments of ancient music ranging from the third century B. C. E. to the fourth century C. E. have been recovered, all of them employing a system of ancient Greek musical notation. Some of these were composed during the period of Roman dominance but used Greek texts. Although no authentic settings of Latin texts survive, we know from written accounts, bas-reliefs, mosaics, paintings, and sculptures that music occupied an important place in Roman life.

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