Skolion of Seikilos
The original of this tune is the oldest known notated tune that can be positively dated, and so may be considered an emblem of the origin of western folk music. It was inscribed in Greek
musical notation on a 1st century AD Carian tombstone found in Turkey. An inscribed Greek epitaph was intended to be sung to the tune. The epitaph is believed to be by Seikilos in
memory of his wife, and is a mere four lines in length, its meaning basically being "Live life to the full while you can, for it is short".
The original tune was in a metre that can be notated in an approximation to 6/8 and was obviously intended to follow the metre of the Greek verse. I found it was easy enough to
convert it to the 6/8 of a jig with minimal alteration to the notes. It was in the Greek Phrygian mode, which is equivalent to our modern Dorian mode. (A monk in an early century of the
present era got thoroughly confused over the Greek mode names, and his error resulted in the modern names not corresponding to the Greek names).
The tune is only 8 bars long because of the length of the epitaph. I have resisted the temptation to write a "B" part, mainly because I have doubts about my ability to do so. It
would be nice if others more skilled would like to have a go and post their contributions here.
I think the important thing is to try to keep to the style of what we have. The tune has certain characteristics, some arising from its vocal origin, among which there are no intervals of more
than a third (apart from the opening two notes); the compass is no more than an octave; there is a characteristic fall of a bar and a half which occurs three times; and a falling motif from the C# to the G-nat.
1. The original tune (in ABC)
A e2 e3| cde d3| c2 d edc| B A2 B G2|
A ced cdc| A2 B G2 A| cBd ec2| A A3/2 AFE2||
I’ve specified the key as D rather than E dorian to make it clear that it has F#s and C#s.
Note, too, that I have used our modern bar structure here to reflect the syllables in the words of the epitaph and so is not in strict 6/8, and also that the length of the notes was not
determined by a metronome but by the words being sung.
2. Greek musical notation.
Surely the remote precursor of our beloved ABC! They used the letters of their alphabet to denote the notes of the scale, but, as far as I can make out, in no obvious order. It may have
been something more akin to our tonic-sol-fah singing notation. The length of a note was indicated by a line or other symbol above the letter. In those times the Greeks did not use
lower case letters; all writing was in upper case, there were no accents, no punctuation, and no spaces between the words.
Here is a transliteration of the Greek epitaph with the Greek notation above the words.
C Z2 Z3 KIZ I3
Hoson zês, phain-ou
K2 I Z IK O C2 OF2
Mêden ho-lôs su lu—pou
C K Z I KIK C2 OF3
Pros oligon esti to zên,
C K O I Z K2 C C3/2 CXJ2
To telos ho khronos a—pai—-tei
Notes: C was an alternative Greek way of writing an uppercase Sigma. F is the letter Phi.I’m not sure what Greek letter is signified by "J" (it’s not a Greek letter); I’ll provisonally assign it to Theta.
It clearly is not possible to place symbols over the Greek letters of the tune, so I’ve used the ABC notation for note length.
Here are the Greek letters used in the notation of the tune, with their modern ABC equivalents:
Greek: Z J I K O C F X
ABC: e E d c# B A G F#
3. A translation of the Epitaph:
Shine as long as you live
Do not be sad
For life is too short
And time calls for its end.
4. I first came across a reference to this tune a couple of weeks ago in Colin Wilson’s novel "The Philosopher’s Stone", and followed it up with internet searches.
5. I’ve played the tune in a session.
6. This tune is also known as The Song of Sicilus, or The Epitaph of Seikilos. A "skolion" was a drinking song.
7.4 The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd Edition, article on "Music"
7.5 Colin Wilson, op.cit. ISBN 0 58603943 0
Really neat, Trevor! Thanks!
I have a recording of this with Peter Rübsam on Bagpipes and Oskar Gottlieb Blarr on Organ on a CD entitled "Der Dudelsack". Koch International GmbH #3-1336-2. Excellent contribution Trevor!
Kool! I heard this as part of a lecture just a few weeks ago.
K: A Dorian
|: E |
A2 e ecA | c/d/ec dBG | c2 d edc | B2 ^A BGE |
A2 e ecA | cec dB/A/G | c2 d ecA | B^AB =A2 :|
|: ^g |
a2 c edc | abg a^ga | ceb aec | gfa afe
1 aec edc | a2 b g2 a | cee aee | dBc A2 :|
2 Aee ecA | c2 e dBG | cB/c/d ecA | AB^G A2 ||
NOTE: In the B-part, fourth measure, the first ‘f’ in the first bet, ‘gfa’, is more than sharp and lies between the f# and the g… The second ‘f’ in ‘afe’ is merely the usual f#… ?! ~ That’s just the way it came together…
"Skolios" ~ I held this back for later ~
K: A Dorian
|: E |
Aee ec Ac | cde cd BG | c2 d ec dc | B2 ^A BG AE |
A2 e ec Ac | cee cd BG | cdd ec Ac | B^AB =A2- A :|
|: ^g |
acc ec dc | abb ga ^ga | cee ac ec | fgg af ge |
1 aec ec dc | a2 b g2 ^ga | c2 e ac ec | dBc A2- A :|
2 Aee ce Ac | c2 e ed BG | c2 d dc Ac | AB^G A2- A ||
Hopa Hey! 😉
Maybe that is different enough to have a link here and have a place of its own. I’ll give it a try, linking the two together… Wish me luck…
Skolion of Seikilos
Nice to see that a 2000-year old tune has resulted in such an interesting new tune.
Isn’t the mode equivalent to our Mixolydian?
You mention that the mode was Greek Phrygian, equivalent to our Dorian. With a key signature of D major, and the emphasis on ‘A’ as the tonic (at least that”s how it appears to me), wouldn’t the mode be Mixolydian to us? The ‘C#’ yields a major 3rd and the Dorian mode has a minor 3rd.