Musicologist Goes on Safari, Ends Up in Ancient Rome

It’s a dangerous business, going out your front door…

Today was Römertag, or Roman Day in the Rhein Valley.  Essentially, a number of towns and parks got together and decided it would be a brilliant idea to have a day where they all put on events dedicated to the region’s Roman history.  They were right.  Bingen’s contributions were free admission to the Museum am Strom, lots of children’s activities, and a reconstructed villa in the Binger Wald (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to make it to).  Upon opening the predictably red-and-black leaflet describing all the exciting events I could attend, it didn’t take me long to figure out where I needed to go.

Konzert des Ensembles ‘Cornu et Hydraulis’; Musik mit Instrumenten aus römischer Zeit…”

And off I went to Heidesheim, about 17 kilometres eastward.

Despite the chapel location not being on any map anywhere in Heidesheim itself, I eventually made it to St. Georgskapelle thanks to some friendly locals.  At first I wondered why a small outbuilding in the middle of an apple orchard seemed to be the best place for a concert, but then I learned it was built in the year 40 AD by a family of Romanized Celts [romanisierte Keltenfamilie] as part of a small villa.  Yes, 40 AD as in the year Caligula supposedly appointed his horse as a senator.  The 40 AD that happened almost two millennia ago.  Whoa.  During the Migration Period, the Franks came in and transformed this particular hall into a chapel, and it’s been incredibly well-preserved since then – apart from an unfortunate encounter with the 30 Years War and general neglect until 1980.  I say ‘incredibly well-preserved’ because large chunks of the original Roman (Romanized Celtic?) frescoes remain visible on the inside walls, and though they may not be pristine, they are unmistakable.

In other words, of course it was the perfect place to perform Roman music.

First up came the Hydraulis, or water organ.  These things are a pretty outstanding invention.  They use raising water levels to push air through the organ pipes.  Here’s a nifty diagram:

Hydraulis - Water Organ - Wasserorgel

It takes three people to play; two handle the pumps on either side while the third plays the keyboard.  Additionally, there are a set of levers to one side (not shown in this diagram) that adjust the timbre of the pipes and also which set of pipes is being played.  The model these heroic musicologists were performing on had two sets that were a half-step apart, allowing them to modulate (!) between two sets of tetrachords.  (That’s really exciting.)

The Hydraulis in action!

Next up, the Cornu.  As the name suggests, it’s a horn.  This horn has a number of notable features; first and perhaps most noticeably, it has a large vertical beam and a crossbar for holding/marching with the instrument.  This suggests that, unlike the hydraulis, its function was military.  Mosaics, frescoes, and other depictions of the time frequently show armies with cornu players.  Second, its shape (long, thin, very slightly conical) allows the player to manipulate the overtone sequence so that scalar passages (not just bugle-call-like arpeggios) can be played by adjusting the embouchure for each note.  This is very similar to natural horn technique, still used today.  It appeared to have a cup-shaped mouthpiece, but I’m not completely sure.

This is a replica of a cornu found in Pompeii.

Perhaps the most instantly recognizable of the ancient instruments is the Cithara, or lyre.  Due to  its soft sound, it was most likely used to accompany singing.  In this picture, the cornu is playing a sustained drone note – notice how his hand is over the bell, muting the sound.

A hymn to Helios

Next came some more brass instruments, two Tubae.  These aren’t tubas in the modern oom-pah sense, they are literally ‘tubes’.  One is bronze, the other came from a very large bovine.

Tuba #1

Tuba #2

Cornu and tuba play some fanfares!

Next, the Aulos.  I love the aulos.  (A lot.)  It consists of two double-reeded pipes usually of the same length that the player plays simultaneously.  One pipe has finger-holes on the bottom half, the other on the top-half, allowing a whole scale to be played between the two but also allowing the possibility for a drone or harmonization.  For some reason I’d always imagined the tone to be quite strident – like two mediocre oboists with hard reeds – but it’s actually very warm and round, somewhat like an extra-reedy clarinet.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to look at the reeds up close, but from a distance they appeared to be rather squat and wide.

Aulos are thought to have been used mainly for dance and ceremonial music.

After about an hour and a half of Roman musical bliss, the concert ended and I lingered to talk to the musicians.  We ended up having a fairly lengthy discussion about musical notation (in German, I’m pretty proud of myself), specifically how rhythm was recorded.  With songs/hymns/vocal music, it wasn’t.  Rhythm was based entirely on the rhythm of the text, which the performer was expected to have an innate sense of.  Instrumental music, on the other hand, did notate rhythm – just not in the same structured way we do today.  The last note in each small rhythmic chunk had a dot over it, while the end of a rhythmic phrase (made up of multiple chunks) had a line over it – indicating it was to be lengthened.  Here’s the example of notation they showed during their presentation:

Roman musical notation. Only a handful of samples survive

Which would come out to something like:

[DA da DA da DA da da daaa / DA da da da DA da da daaa / DA da DA da DA da da daa / DA da da da da DA da daa]

 We may not be able to know each note’s exact duration, but at least we know where the accents and stress patterns fall.

Another thing we talked about is the importance of multi-disciplinary scholarship when it comes to ancient and early music.  The vast majority of information we have about these times isn’t in musical notation, it’s in contemporary literature and art as well as archaeological findings.  To assemble all these sources into a musical picture requires knowledge of the languages and cultures at hand, and in the case of historic instruments, the craftsmanship to reproduce a working instrument from partial findings and artistic depictions.  Musicianship is also critical, but it needs all of the scholarly support to bring this music to life.

I went home a very happy camper.

Here’s a link to their website!  (It’s in German.)

Things to listen for:  the beginning has both tubae and corni – 0:32 hydraulis and various percussion – 2:27 cornu and hydraulis.

Things to listen for:  multiple notes sounding at once… and how beautiful the aulos is.

Things to listen for: the cithara and percussion, and how they interact with the voice.  This recording uses quite a variety of instruments, some of which may or may not be historically accurate.  Also, it’s Greek…. but still relevant.


This adventure wasn’t directly related to my current project.  This adventure was related to what I want to do in the field of musicology – to research and reconstruct ancient-to-early music, using performance as a means of education and bringing light to otherwise forgotten/lost traditions.  I’d never encountered an ensemble in person before which specialized in pre-Renaissance music, let alone one that dared to venture into the great unknown of Classical Antiquity.  These badasses brilliant individuals are living my musicology dream, and that’s pretty inspiring.

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Musicologist Goes on Safari, Ends Up in Ancient Rome

  1. Philip Parr

    Hi Erika
    Sounds like you’re having far too much fun!
    You shoudl have a look at this website – wish I’d made the link with John Kenny for you while you were here in London. But feel free to contact him and mention my name
    have fun

  2. Philip Parr

    of course it does make sense to post the link!

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