Although the Seikilos Epitaph, dating from the first century A.D., is the oldest surviving full song with musical notation and text, and we know its author, Seikilos, there are some older compositions.

The Delphic Hymns to Apollo, found inscribed on fragments of the outer wall of the Athenian Treasury at the sanctuary of Delphi, are about three centuries earlier. The first dates from 138 BC, and the second from 128 BC.

We also know their authors, and both include musical notation. Therefore, although not complete, like the Seikilos Epitaph, they are considered the earliest unambiguous examples of notated music from anywhere in the world, whose composer is known by name.

In 1893, the French archaeologist Théophile Homolle found stone fragments inscribed with unusual symbols in the sanctuary of Delphi, which had belonged to the southern wall of the Athenian Treasury. After studying them, he recognized them as part of two ancient musical compositions dedicated to the god Apollo.

The philologist Henri Weil restored the Greek text of the fragments, and the archaeologist and musicologist Théodore Reinach transcribed the music into modern notation. He discovered that the first hymn used vocal notation, while the second used instrumental notation.

The first hymn dates from 138 BC, and although the inscription’s heading is damaged and difficult to read, researchers agree that it mentions its composer, Ἀθήναιος Ἀθηναίου, Athēnaios Athēnaiou (Athenaios son of Athenaios). The second hymn is ten years later, in 128 BC, and also preserves the name of its composer: Limenios, son of Thoino, Athenian.

Both were professional musicians; in Limenios’ case, he was also a kithara player (a string instrument of ancient Greece, similar to the lyre but with a larger resonating box), and therefore members of the Guild of Dionysian Artists.

The hymns were composed to be performed during the procession of the Pythiads (Πυθαΐδες), which the Athenians carried out to the Sanctuary of Delphi in memory of the mythical journey of Apollo from the island of Delos, passing through Athens.

The first is divided into two parts, a paean or prayer to Apollo, and a hyporchema, a type of song accompanied by a mimetic dance of a playful or comic nature, also called by the same name. The first verse, in which the singers invoke the Muses to join in the song in honor of Apollo, goes like this:

Listen, you whose domains are the Helikon of deep woods, daughters of Zeus of beautiful arms, come with songs to celebrate your brother Phoebus, he of the golden hair, who over the twin peaks of this mountain, Parnassus, accompanied by the famous maidens of Delphi, comes to the streams of the Castalian spring when he visits his oracle on the mountain.

The second verse describes the presence of the Attic delegation and the sacrifices of incense and calves, while the aulos (an ancient instrument, also called a double oboe) and the kithara sound.

Behold, Attica with its great city (Athens) is in prayer, inhabitants of the unconquered land of the armed goddess Tritonian (Athena); and on the sacred altars, Hephaestus (that is, fire) consumes the thighs of bull calves; and along with the smoke, Arabian incense rises to the heavens. And the aulos, shrill and sonorous, weaves a melody with fluttering notes, and the kithara, golden and sweet-voiced, blends with the song of praise.

The third verse is incomplete, with several gaps, although the general sense is understood. It describes how Apollo seized the prophetic tripod of Delphi after killing the Python and thwarted a Gaul invasion.

The second hymn is preceded by the title Prayer and Prosodion to the god, and has ten sections in total. Some lines have been preserved more than the first, although there are also gaps in the areas where the stone broke.

The first verse also begins with a call to the Muses to come to Delphi:

Come to this slope of twin peaks of Parnassus with distant views, (where dancers are welcome), and (guide me in my songs), Pierian goddesses who dwell on the snowy rocks of Helikon. Sing in honor of Phoebus Pythius, with golden hair, skillful archer and musician, whom blessed Leto bore by the famous swamp, grasping with her hands a sturdy branch of grayish-green olive in her time of labor.

The hymn continues to describe how the sky and the sea rejoiced at the birth of Apollo on the island of Delos and his visit to Attica. Like the first hymn, the god is asked to come, and his arrival at Delphi and the defeat of the Gauls are recalled.

Modern interpretation of the First Delphic Hymn to Apollo

It ends with the request to Apollo and his sister Artemis to protect Athens and Delphi, and concludes with a prayer for the continuity of Roman rule (Greece had become a Roman protectorate in 146 BC, about 18 years before the composition of this second hymn).

The music of both hymns explores various modes such as Phrygian, Lydian, and Hyperphrygian, varying tonality between sections. Their poetic structure follows the Cretan rhythm, as well as Glyconic and Iambic for the final part of the Second Hymn.

The musical symbols used, arranged on the lines of text, can be interpreted thanks to the treatise written by Alipius of Alexandria around the year 360 AD. Alipius was a Greek writer and composer who wrote an Introduction to Music (Εἰσαγωγη Μουσική) in which he included the symbols used by the Greeks in musical notation for voice and instruments to designate all sounds in the 45 scales (15 modes and 3 genera), as well as a complete account of the Greek system of scales and transpositions.

Modern interpretation of the Second Delphic Hymn to Apollo

Two different musical notations were used. One consisted of the 24 letters of the Ionic alphabet, the other mixed letters, reversed or flipped letters, archaic and half letters, allowing for a much wider tonal range. The first hymn uses simple notation, while the second uses the complex symbols of the second notation. However, cases have been found where both notations were combined.

The reason specialists believe that the author of the first hymn, Athenaios, was a singer is that the notation symbols are placed above the vowels. In the second hymn, that of Limenos, who was a kithara player, they are mostly placed above the consonants that initiate the syllables.

Since their discovery, both hymns have been the subject of numerous musicological studies seeking to reconstruct their original interpretation using replicated instruments. In fact, just a year after they were found, the first modern performance of the First Hymn took place in 1894.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 16, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los Himnos Délficos a Apolo son las primeras canciones con notación musical cuyo autor es conocido


Egert Pöhlmann, Martin Litchfield West, Documents of Ancient Greek Music | Théodore Reinach, La musique des hymnes de Delphe. Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique (1893), 17, pp. 584-610 | Barnaby Brown & Armand D’Angour, Delphic Paean by Athenaios Athenaiou | Wikipedia

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