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Some notes on meter

Gildersleeve was a sensitive reader of Greek verse and had a very strong feeling for its style. His comments on grammar, dialect, and vocabulary have not been superseded by the work of the following decades. With meter the situation is different. Gildersleeve knew only the metrical theories of his own time, and these have been superseded by more modern scholarship. The present edition reproduces Gildersleeve's metrical introduction as a historical document, but readers should be aware that it reflects an obsolete way of thinking about Greek lyric meter.

Nineteenth-century classicists -- Gildersleeve, Sir Richard Jebb, Gildersleeve's teacher August Boeckh, and the rest -- started from the unarguable idea that Greek meter must have some relation to the music to which the verses were sung, and to the rhythm of the dances. We know that Pindar's epinicia, like the odes of tragedies and comedies, were performed by a singing and dancing chorus. The poets composed not only the words but also the music and the dance steps; it seems clear, then, that all three must have supported each other. Up to this point scholars of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries are all in agreement. It also seems clear that metrically long syllables should have longer musical notes, and metrically short syllables should have shorter musical notes. This logical hypothesis is supported by the existing papyri with musical notation (collected in West 1992). Where the earlier scholars went wrong, however, was in their assumption that ancient Greek music must have consisted of bars or measures of equal length, as does most Western music from the Renaissance to the present. This leads Gildersleeve to lengthen or shorten notes to make them fit an externally-imposed pattern. Moreover, there is no objective way to determine which notes must be lengthened or shortened. Gildersleeve's own example is the simple colon O. 9.27:ἀγγελίαν πέμψω ταύταν,” which is -uu- -- --. To make four measures of 3/8 time, Gildersleeve takes the first three syllables as a "cyclic dactyl" (dotted eighth, sixteenth, eighth), the next two as long and "irrational long" (quarter, eighth), the next one as triseme (dotted eighth), and the last two as long and short. As he observes in his discussion, section 7, p. lxix, this is not the only possibility, and one must determine by observation which reading is appropriate.

But there is no reason this straightforward aeolic colon must be packed into 3/8 time. As West puts it, “"We should not allow our own culturally determined sense of what is natural in these matters to induce us to reject an odd-looking but vital rhythm in favor of a relatively bland one"West 1982, p. 150) . Although 19th-century dance music was made up of measures that were always the same size, as far as we can see from the existing evidence this was not true of ancient Greek music. The colon from Olympian 9 cited above is fourteen morae long, not twelve, and would be danced as fourteen.1

What follows is a description of Pindar's meters from a more modern point of view. For additional detail see West 1982; metrical schemata for all the odes are given in the Teubner edition.

Aeolic meters are the easiest. An aeolic colon consists of a base, a nucleus, and a tail, in that order. The nucleus is normally a choriamb, - u u -, but may be more than one choriamb, or occasionally a choriamb with dactylic expansion: - u u - u u - (so called because it looks like an additional dactyl has intruded into the choriamb before the last syllable). The base is whatever comes before the nucleus, and this is the only position in the colon where anceps positions occur -- positions that may receive either a long syllable or a short one. The tail is whatever comes after the nucleus. One simple aeolic structure (not, however, used by Pindar) is the Sapphic stanza: “ - u - x - u u - u - -
- u - x - u u - u - -
- u - x - u u - u - -
- u u - -
” Here each of the first three lines has a base of the form - u - x, a nucleus consisting of one choriamb, and a three-syllable tail u - -. The fourth line has no base, a one-choriamb nucleus, and a one-syllable tail.2 Pindar's aeolics are more complex and may be mixed with iambic and trochaic lines. Olympian 1 is an example of an aeolic song.

The other major group of odes are in dactylo-epitrite meter. These songs are built up from two basic units, the hemiepes - u u - u u - and the cretic - u -, with link syllables in between. The epitrite or "four-on-three" unit is - u - -; in context this is a cretic plus a link syllable. Pythian 4 is an example of a dactylo-epitrite poem.

About half the odes are aeolic and half dactylo-epitrite. Olympian 2 is neither; although the analysis is disputed, I agree with Gildersleeve that it is fundamentally cretic.

1 This does not mean that all long syllables were the same; the musical papyri do show triseme and tetraseme syllables. But they do not show syllables lengthened or shortened to make regular measures.

2 This is the conventional layout and the easiest way to illustrate the usual form of aeolic lines; in fact the third and fourth lines of a Sapphic stanza should really be treated as one line. See West 1982.

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