Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Notes on Marsyas, Midas and the Phrygian mode

We said we did not require dirges and lamentations in words.
We do not.
What, then, are the dirge-like modes of music? Tell me, for you are a musician.
The mixed Lydian, he said, and the tense or higher Lydian, and similar modes.
These, then, said I, we must do away with. But again, drunkenness is a thing most unbefitting guardians, and so is softness and sloth.
What, then, are the soft and convivial modes?
There are certain Ionian and also Lydian modes that are called lax.
Will you make any use of them for warriors?
None at all, he said, but it would seem that you have left the Dorian and the Phrygian. (Plato Republic 424b-c.)

In Book 6, Ovid is most obviously concerned with art -- continuing the theme of Book 5 involving "gifts" of the Muses and gods, gifts that can carry lethal consequences. The power of images, image making, and music, the hubris of makers, and the fate of the artist are in play in what happens to Arachne, Niobe, and to Marsyas, and later to Tereus, whose hideous crime is revealed in Philomela's purple web.

The first two stories take place in or near Lydia, Lycia and Phrygia, the latter of which is linked to the power of flute music via the figures of Marsyas and Midas, and was home to the Phrygian mode, as Lydia was of the Lydian.


According to Hyginus, Marsyas was the son of a shepherd-satyr who happened upon the flute (aulos) that Athena had discarded after inventing it. She'd played it for the gods, and was mocked by Hera and Aphrodite because of how it made her cheeks puff out. Angered, she went to Phrygia, saw her reflection as she played, and threw it away, cursing anyone that played it. Marsyas found it, practiced it (perhaps with tutoring from Pan), and this led to his fateful competition with Apollo, and its gruesome result, described by Ovid.

Pindar, as we've noted previously, told how Athena created the many-voiced song of flutes so that she could imitate with musical instruments the shrill cry that reached her ears from the fast-moving jaws of Euryale (Medusa's sister, who was mourning her murder).

Here's another version, which incorporates the tale that it wasn't only the earliest flute music that Athena created, but the first flute -- both linked to Medusa:
Athena also took two ribs from Medusa’s corpse to create a flute, but she could never understand why Aphrodite and Hera broke out laughing when she tried to master playing it. She eventually saw a reflection of herself as she looked trying to blow through them and cast the flutes to earth as she cursed the person who found them. The satyr Marsyas discovered them and learned to play them excellently, but he got involved in a musical contest with the god Apollo that was judged by Midas, the king of Phrygia. Apollo won by playing his lyre upside down, but Marsyas lost his life after trying to do the same thing with the Medusa flute.
Ovid gives Marsyas these haunting words:

"Why do you draw me from myself?"
This is a dry witticism, but with tragic overtones here in Book 6. Later, the Romans transformed Marsyas into a figure of Republican speech -- "parrhesia" -- speech without covering veils.
Among the Romans, Marsyas was cast as the inventor of augury[21] and a proponent of free speech (the philosophical concept παρρησία, "parrhesia") and "speaking truth to power." The earliest known representation of Marsyas at Rome stood for at least 300 years in the Roman Forum near or in thecomitium, the space for political activity.[22] He was depicted as a silen,[23] carrying a wineskin on his left shoulder and raising his right arm. The statue was regarded as an indicium libertatis, a symbol of liberty, and was associated with demonstrations of the plebs, or common people.

In the fora of ancient cities there was frequently placed a statue of Marsyas, with one hand erect, in token, according to Servius, of the freedom of the state, since Marsyas was a minister of Bacchus, the god of liberty. Theoi
And later still -- perhaps thinking about this extension of the satyr to public life, Dante transformed the figure of Marsyas yet again, in his vibrant invocation to Apollo in Paradiso I:
Enter into my bosom, thou, and breathe
As at the time when Marsyas thou didst draw
Out of the scabbard of those limbs of his


Afterward, in course of time, an unmusical license set in with the appearance of poets who were men a native genius, but ignorant of what is right and legitimate in the realm of the Muses. Possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure, they contaminated laments with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs, actually imitated the strains of the flute on the harp, and created a universal confusion of forms. (Plato, Laws 700a-701c.)

Phrygia is also credited as the source of the earliest Greek music, the warlike Phrygian mode (you can listen to a version of it here), and the aulos. Here, Marsyas's flute (aulos, or tibia) is made of antlers:
Phrygia developed an advanced Bronze Age culture. The earliest traditions of Greek music derived from Phrygia, transmitted through the Greek colonies in Anatolia, and included the Phrygian mode, which was considered to be the warlike mode in ancient Greek music. Phrygian Midas, the king of the "golden touch", was tutored in music by Orpheus himself, according to the myth. Another musical invention that came from Phrygia was the aulos, a reed instrument with two pipes. Marsyas, the satyr who first formed the instrument using the hollowed antler of a stag, was a Phrygian follower of Cybele. He unwisely competed in music with the Olympian Apollo and inevitably lost, whereupon Apollo flayed Marsyas alive and provocatively hung his skin on Cybele's own sacred tree, a pine.
This note from Theoi adds context to the differences between Apollo's instrument and that of Marsyas which we were talking about:
The fable evidently refers to the struggle between the citharoedic and auloedic styles of music, of which the former was connected with the worship of Apollo among the Dorians, and the latter with the orgiastic rites of Cybele in Phrygia.
For an ambitious article that pursues this line of thought, see: Seeing Sound: The Displaying of Marsyas.

This from Pausanias:
The Phrygians in Kelainai (Celaenae) hold that the river [Marsyas] passing through the city was once this great flute-player, and they also hold that the Song of the Mother [Rhea-Kybele], an air for the flute, was composed by Marsyas.
"Note that at Kelainai (Celaenae) if someone plays a Phrygian tune in the vicinity of the Phrygian's [Marsyas'] skin, the skin moves. But if one plays in honour of Apollon, it is motionless and seems deaf."
"Foolish one, who taught you to strive with your betters? Another Seilenos (Silenus) there was [Marsyas], fingering a proud pipe, who lifted a haughty neck and challenged a match with Phoibos; but Phoibos tied him to a tree and stript off his hairy skin, and made it a windbag. There it hung high on a tree, and the breeze often entered, swelling it out into a shape like his, as if the shepherd could not keep silence but made his tune again. Then Delphic Apollon changed his form in pity, and made him the river which bears his name [the Marsyas which flows into the Maiandros river]. Men still speak of the winding water of that hairy Seilenos, which lets out a sound wandering on the wind, as if he were still playing on the reeds of his Phrygian pipe in rivalry."
Much more Midas here.
. . . a change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard of all our fortunes. For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions. (Rep. 424b-c)

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