1. Nature of the hymn.
Pindar and Bacchylides connected the term humnos with huphainein, meaning ‘to weave’ or ‘to combine words artfully’ (as in the Iliad, iii.212). In the Homeric poems, however, the term itself refers to a bard’s narrative of the fall of Troy (Odyssey, viii.429, the only occurrence of the noun); in the Eumenides of Aeschylus (306, 331), it is a terrifying incantation; in Sophocles’ Antigone (815), it is a marriage song; in Aristophanes’ Birds (210), it is a lament. Moreover, the dance often formed an important element.
This imprecise and frequently elusive term can be associated, in a great many instances at least, with a liturgy, and during the early classical period the hymn came to represent a special category within a general liturgical context. No longer religious song taken generally (and freed almost wholly from its origins in magic), it became a specific type of such song. Its nature was defined negatively, however, to the extent that it lacked the particularizing characteristics of certain choral songs that also had a part in religious usage and were also called humnoi. These included several important forms, notably the paean (a propitiatory song or hymn of thanksgiving offered to Apollo and later, to other gods such as Artemis, Dionysus, Asclepius or Hygieia), the dithyramb (honouring Dionysus) and the processional. When the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus (5th century ce) defined the hymn proper (‘ho kuriōs humnos’, as he called it) as a composition ‘sung by a stationary chorus to kithara accompaniment’ (Useful Knowledge, in Photius, Bibliotheca, ed. Bekker, 320a19–20), he was attempting to differentiate it from such specialized forms as the processional, in which auletes had early replaced kithara players. The context has often been overlooked. His definition, a highly influential one, nevertheless remains inadmissible if taken to mean that the chorus remained absolutely stationary. Perhaps he intended the word ‘stationary’ in a relative sense, making allowance for the precise and limited choreography of ‘turn’ and ‘counterturn’ (strophē, antistrophē).
The positive feature of the hymn proper was its association with libation and sacrifice; further description must be directed to the broader sense of the term humnos. Taken in this way, the hymn may be said to have existed in both monodic and choral forms from the earliest period of which there is any knowledge. Hesiod referred on many occasions to the singing of hymns, and in Works and Days (654–62), he spoke of winning a prize for his solo performance of a hymn at the games of Amphidamas in Chalcis. Usually clear, the distinction between monodic and choral hymns was never absolute. In the Laws (iii, 700a8–e4), Plato noted that hymns, dirges, dithyrambs and paeans were once distinct genres, adding that over time the distinction was blurred.
Originally, the kithara accompanied the Hellenic hymn; during the early part of the 7th century bce the aulos began to claim a position of importance. The two instruments were at times used together, as in the triumphal odes of Pindar. Broadly speaking, the choice of instrument varied with the conventions and practical demands of the individual religious occasion. The orgiastic liturgies of the non-Hellenic deities honoured in Greece called for a variety of foreign instruments, very generally non-melodic: cymbals, tympana, rhomboi, and crotala or rattles of various kinds. In contrast, followers of the Greek cults usually found the melodic capacities of lyre and aulos adequate for their needs, with occasional recourse to the syrinx or the simple reed pipe (kalamos). As in secular music, until the 5th century bce all instrumental accompaniments were kept subordinate to the vocal melodic line, which is thought to have been uncomplicated.
2. Surviving hymns.
In the surviving examples of cult song, the metres display a comparable simplicity. What may well be the oldest of these songs, a processional ascribed to the Corinthian poet Eumelus (8th century bce; Campbell, frag.1), has only dactyls and spondees in the two surviving lines; the text of Eumelus’s poem would have been set to a solemn melody in the Dorian harmonia, with only one note to a syllable. The only other examples of the hymn that survive from the early period are a number of the so-called Homeric hymns. Representative of epic hymn composition, they differ markedly from the lyric type. They were composed later than the actual poems of Homer and were often used as preludes to the performance of lengthy excerpts taken from them; the metre of the hymns is the Homeric hexameter. Later sources, such as Pausanias's Description of Greece, mention the names of hymn writers, including Olen, Pamphus, Orpheus and Musaeus, who were thought to have preceded Homer. An important truth underlies this seeming fantasy. The pre-Homeric hymn did in fact leave clear traces of its essential constituents both in the Iliad and in the Odyssey: first the god's name, lineage, attributes and cult centres; then various deeds accomplished by the god; and finally the worshipper's request, often preceded by a reminder of past acts of piety or divine aid granted. In varying degrees the Homeric Hymns embody this pattern, which has exerted a powerful influence on the shaping of the classical tradition in poetry.
Greek choral lyric and monody came to their full development during the 6th century bce. The encomium, praise of a living man combined with praise of a god or hero, first appeared at this time (see Ibycus). This form became increasingly common; at the very close of the Hellenic period it was exemplified in Aristotle's Hymn to Virtue ( Aretē, virtue deified), where it is actually a device for eulogizing the memory of a friend. Later writers produced works of undeniable majesty; the Hymn to Zeus by the Stoic Cleanthes (3rd century bce) is justly famous. Nevertheless, the abstract and metaphysical nature of such compositions, literary productions in which music had long since ceased to have any part, reveals the vast distance separating them from the Hellenic humnos as a feature of communal worship.
3. Surviving hymns with music.
A few hymns with musical notation have survived from the Greco-Roman period and from late antiquity. The two Delphic hymns, engraved in stone, are essentially paeans in sectional form. The first is given in vocal notation, the second in instrumental. The first paean, composed in 138 bce (although the date has recently been called into question and an author proposed; see Bélis), contains three of the typical sections: an invocation to the Muses, a laudatory epithet to Attica and a description of some of the deeds of Apollo. The sections are articulated by modulations between the Phrygian and Hyperphrygian tonoi. The second section is typical in making specific musical references, in this case contrasting the sounds of the aulos and kithara, while the third section recalls the famous contest between Apollo and the python. The sequence of pitches may suggest the spondeion scale, a special type of gapped scale described in Pseudo-Plutarch's On Music (1134f–35b and 1137b–d) and mentioned briefly by Aristides Quintilianus and Bacchius. The second paean, composed by Limenius in honour of the Artists of Dionysus (see Technitai), also comprises three large sections: an invocation, a narrative of several of the deeds of Apollo, and a final prayer to the god. The sections, subdivided into several smaller sections, modulate between the Lydian and Hypolydian tonoi. The tone of the text is elevated, as would be expected of a paean, and musical allusions abound. The correspondence between accentual and melodic pitch in this paean – as in some other late Greek musical compositions – probably reflects an archaicizing tradition. Five compositions – three short and two longer hymns – by Hadrian's court musician Mesomedes are preserved in several manuscripts, and the so-called Berlin Paean, is preserved on a papyrus of the 2nd century ce, although the piece itself may be older. It is the most obviously archaic in metre, with an unbroken sequence of long syllables, but the choice of Hyperiastian tonos is anomalous.
Genuine aspects of the ancient style may appear in the musical inscriptions found at Delphi, where tradition was uniquely powerful. Perhaps these are the last traces, fading and all but vanished, of the Hellenic hymn.
F. Bellermann: Die Hymnen des Dionysius und Mesomedes (Berlin, 1840)
T.W. Allen, W.R.Halliday and E.E. Sikes, eds.: The Homeric Hymns (London, 1904, 2/1936)
T. Reinach: Les hymnes delphiques à Apollon avec notes musicales (Paris, 1912)
H.G. Evelyn-White, ed.: Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica (London and Cambridge, MA, 1914, rev. 2/1943)
J.U. Powell, ed.: Collectanea alexandrina (Oxford, 1925), 141ff, 160–61
S. Eitrem, L. Amundsen and R.P. Winnington-Ingram, eds.: ‘Fragments of Unknown Greek Tragic Texts with Musical Notation’, Symbolae osloenses, xxxi (1955), 1–87
E. Pöhlmann, ed.: Denkmäler altgriechischer Musik (Nuremberg, 1970)
D.A. Campbell, ed. and trans.: Greek Lyric, ii (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1988), 290
T. Reinach: ‘Hymnus’,Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, ed. C. Daremberg and E. Saglio (Paris, 1877–1919/R), iii, 337ff
H.W. Smyth: Greek Melic Poets (London and New York, 1900/R), pp.xxv ff
M.G. Colin: ‘L'auteur du deuxième hymne musical de Delphes’, Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (1913), 529–32
E. Norden: Agnostos Theos (Berlin and Leipzig, 1913/R), 143ff
R. Wünsch: ‘Hymnus’,Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, ix/1 (Stuttgart, 1914), 140–83
K. Horna: Die Hymnen des Mesomedes (Vienna and Leipzig, 1928)
P. Moens: De twee delphische hymnen met muzieknoten (Purmerend, 1930)
H. Meyer: Hymnische Stilelemente in der frühgriechischen Dichtung (diss., U. of Cologne,1933)
J.A. Haldane: ‘Musical Instruments in Greek Worship’, Greece & Rome, xiii (1966), 98–107
M.L. West: ‘Two Notes on Delphic Inscriptions’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, ii (1968), 176 only
T.B.L. Webster: The Greek Chorus (London, 1970)
W. Anderson: ‘Word-Accent and Melody in Ancient Greek Musical Texts’, JMT, xvii (1973), 186–202
A. Bélis: ‘A proposito degli “Inni delfici”’, La musica in Grecia: Urbino 1985, 205–18
M.L. West: Ancient Greek Music (Oxford, 1992), 288–308, 317–18
T.J. Mathiesen: Apollo’s Lyre: Greek Music and Music Theory in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Lincoln, NE, 1999), 29–58
For recordings see Greece, §I (bibliography, (ii)).