A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
The earliest surviving musical document preserves a few bars of sung music from fifth-century BC tragedian Euripides’ play Orestes. You can see the papyrus fragment below, written around 200 BC in Egypt and called “Katolophyromai” after the first word in the “stasimon,” or choral song. Above the words, notice the vocal and instrumental notation scholars have used to reconstruct the music. The lines describe Orestes’ guilt after murdering his mother:
I cry, I cry, your mother’s blood that drives you mad, great happiness in mortals never lasting, but like a sail of swift ship, which a god shook up and plunged it with terrible troubles into the greedy and deadly waves of the sea.
Euripides’ songs were very popular in the ancient world. Plutarch recounts a story about thousands of Athenian soldiers held prisoner in Syracuse. Those few who were able to sing Euripides’ latest songs were able to earn food and drink from their captors.
The Stasimon is sung here by the musical group Aulites. It is combined with images of traditional European art portraying Orestes’ guilt and punishment.