Epitaph of Seikilos
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, Volume 1 CD 1 Track 1
This melancholy performance has stayed with me for some time. There is no way to know how the author of this piece sang this tune. From the text we might infer that it should be contemplative and somber, as it is in this recording. But this interpretation is effective not because it is convincing as historical representation. It is effective because we view things this old in a contemplative, somber way. And it is eerie that this particular relic, our oldest example of written music, would speak so elegantly about time passing.
The opening presents an ascending fifth that asks the listener to "Shine...." This leap is followed by three elegant arches that are set approximately within the distance of that opening interval. In this way, the first two notes are the command that the rest of the piece follows and explains. The first arch is hesitant, the second is quick, and the third moves forward but hesitates before resolving the piece on a pitch lower than the bottom of our opening leap. These characteristics are wonderfully apparent in this recording but my guess is that any sensitive rendition would embrace this symbolism.
It is easy to say that the arch is a metaphor for the path a life takes. And that the arches in this piece hesitate and quicken as a way to reinforce the meaning of the text. But what I like most about this piece is that when I first heard it I was unaware of the meaning in the text and nevertheless felt the emotions that the text is capable of evoking.