Some Mysteries of Ancient Greek Aulets

By Vladimir Kachmarchik

Donetsk, Ukraine


The problem of researching ancient Greek aulet playing technique is one of the most complicated questions in the history of ancient musical culture. It is caused not only by the limited number of preserved ancient manuscript sources but also by the lack of detailed descriptions of performing process on the aulos in them. That's why they are many unexplained things in ancient musicians' playing technique. One of them is aulets' using of phorbeia* - a leather bandage stretched tight around the mouth - which was also called a torba - applied while playing the double aulos (1). The pictures of aulets with the phorbeia are rather often found on the preserved ancient vases, cups, frescoes, wall drawings and stone sculptures (Pictures 1,2).

There is no exact description of the phorbeia's functional purposes in ancient written sources. Plutarch in his Moralia 456 B.C. explained its functions like this "... air pressure was introduced into [the instrument] through the phorbeia [its holes], it gave the face a decent expression and hid its distortion" (2). The meaning of the first part of the phrase is not quite clear, probably the reeds of the instrument were put into the mouth through the holes of the phorbeia and then the air pressure was directed into them. The second part of the phrase is more exact and concrete "... it (the phorbeia) gave the face a decent expression ..." so it is evident that in time of while playing the aulos there arose an excessive inflation of cheeks which distorted the performer's face. In this case the phorbeia's functions may be commented two-digitly:

a) the phorbeia completely blocked the cheeks and did not allow their inflation;

b) nevertheless these arose a slight cheek inflation while using the phorbeia but later on contracting "... it gave the face a decent expression".

Gesihy explained the purpose of the phorbeia little bit differently "... a leather bandage twining the aulet's mouth not to tear his lip" (3). Probably he connected its application with the providing of hermetically sealed lips. It is not difficult to notice that as in the first case the matter is about the considerable cheek inflation but at that case there could arise "tearing a lip".

It is necessary to emphasize that the description of the inflated cheeks while playing the aulos is often found in ancient literary sources. J. Pollux in his

* This term is used in latin spelling

"Onomasticum" described it rather minutely "... they play them (auloses) with blown, inflated, swollen and filled with air cheeks" (4). Swelling the cheeks which distorted the face is connected with Athena's refusal to play the aulos who "... was horrified and threw off the aulos aside, when she saw her reflection in the water" (5). Appolinary Sydony (6) and others also wrote about blowing the cheeks out.

The question is bound to arise if the cheek inflation of ancient musicians took place involuntarily just as it occurs to modern brass instruments' performers or whether it was connected with the definite playing technique. In order to answer these questions at first it is necessary to make clear the principles of sound producing as far as it is possible. Describing ancient aulos playing technique, K. Zaks wrote: "... one point is well known to us: Greeks blew out in the oriental manner so as the double reed could vibrate freely and not being pressed with the lips" (7). Such "untouched" way of playing has been preserved up to nowadays for oriental musicians playing the oboe-type instruments: - zurna, surna-which are constructively similar to the aulos. It would be interesting to mention that oriental performers also play often with inflated cheeks. In most cases it is connected with their using a specific unconventional type of breathing called - permanent or circular (permanent breathing, circular breathing, permanent exhalation [PEI).

The essence of this type of breathing is in creating uninterrupted exhaling stream of air achieved the following way: at the end of exhaling there occurs a reservoir or air in the mouth cavity by inflating the cheeks, and after that the mouth cavity is blocked (with the help of the soft palate and the mouth occlusion) and the nasal breath in and the cheek breath out are performed simultaneously (squeezing the air out of the mouth). Thus it is possible to play without pauses for inhaling. The playing technique of the musicians who are able to use such type of breathing may be compared to some extent with playing the bag-pipe.

Most likely ancient Greek musicians used permanent breathing while playing the aulos. Two terms "monoklonon" and "monokolon" which were employed for characterizing the playing process on the aulos by J. Pollux in his "Onomasticum" (8)

witness it in some way. The first term is translated by E. Gertsman as performing by the help of continuous breathing and it is actually equal to the term "permanent breathing".

The second one is interpreted as ... an expression

meaning an indivisible unbroken movement like a complete instrumental passage (9).

or a performer using the permanent breathing the meaning of a complete passage is well known. Playing long continuous, passage like fragments with non-stop liga which may cover the considerable part of musical creation is rather spread and typical performing device while using permanent breath. It looks like playing with continuous breathing because the pause necessary for inhaling is absent. The performers who in the position are using the permanent breathing employ it rather often for playing unbroken legato; especially it is characteristic of oriental musicians (10). That's why the terms "monoklonon" and "monokolon" used by J. Pollux most likely could be interpreted as playing long fragments united by common liga using the permanent breathing.

The acknowledgement of using that complicated type of breathing by ancient Greek aulets is also the fact of applying the phorbeia.

Applying it for playing the double aulos the performers actually lost the possibility to inhale the air through the mouth because the leather phorbeia was tightened firmly against the lips. In that case only nasal inhalation effective for usual performer's breathing was possible obligatory for the PE, but was less. Because of too high air resistance in nasal passages the air volume inhaled through the nose per unit of time is three times less in comparison with the inhalation through the mouth. If you take into account that playing the double aulos was actually simultaneously playing two instruments and demanded an increased expenditure of air, using only the PE in that case becomes obvious.

What functions were set on the phorbeia, in that case? If it only hermetically sealed the mouth and "gave the face a decent expression" as Gessihy and Plutarch stated or whether its function, while playing the aulos, was quite different. In our opinion the principal function of the phorbeia was in mechanization of the process of "squeezing the air out" of the oral cavity, so is it was similar to function performed by the elbow while playing the bagpipe. In playing the aulos without the phorbeia all functions of squeezing the air out of the oral cavity were set on cheek muscles, while the phorbeia was only a device which greatly simplified that process and released the

muscles from excessive tension (Il). The phorbeia acquired special significance for playing the aulos over a long period of time when the lips' and cheeks' muscles were tired of prolonged tension. It is known that in Ancient Greece playing the aulos for a long time was rather spread. The example of it could be Olympic competitions of professional aulets in the open air when the musicians showed the art of playing the aulos during the long period of time. In that case applying the phorbeia was most expedient. At the same time using it for playing for aulos was not obligatory at all. The preserved pictures showing performers with and without the phorbeia can prove that fact. Only the aulets who were able to use that complicated type of performer's breathing - the permanent exhalation - could apply the phorbeia.

I . Cited after Gertsman E.U. Instrumental catalogue by Pollux, In: From the History of Instrumental Musical Culture. Leningrad, 1988, p. 22.

2. The same.

3. The same.

4. The same.

5. Aristotle mentions that ancient parable in his "Politics" UI 8, though he gives another explanation of refusing Athena to play the flute. Cited from "Antique musical aesthetics", Moscow, 1960, p. 201.

6. Eshevski S.U. Collection of works, Part 3. "Apolinary Sydony", Moscow, 1870, p. 91.

7. Zaks K. Musical-theoretical thoughts and Ancient Greeks' instruments. In: Musical Culture of Ancient World. Leningrad, 1937, p. 154; Levin S.Y. Wind Instruments in the History of Musical Culture. Leningrad, 1973, p. 37.

8. Gertsman E.V. Instrumental catalogue by Pollux. In the book: "From the History of Instrumental Musical Culture". Leningrad, 1988, p. 22.

9. The same 10. It is significant to mention the characteristic given by F. Karomatov for performers playing the koshnai - Uzbek and Tagik double clarinet.
"... playing the koshnai the chromatic tones is however difficult, and it leads the repertoire mainly to drawling singing melodies. In connection with that fact "long legato" covering very long melodic lines - complete periods acquires special importance. In order to achieve it the performers use special means of blowing air, allowing simultaneously to inhale the air through the nose and to exhale it through the mouth, providing thus continuity of blowing the air". F. Karomatov. Uzbek Instrumental Music. Tashkent, 1972, p. 74. 11. We have carried out an experiment for determining possible functions of the phorbeia. For that purpose we used two oboes and a leather band as a model of double aulos and the phorbeia. In the course of the experiment our suppositions of the extrusive function of the phorbeia were proved.


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1. Auletist at the Competition. The British Museum.

About 480 years before new era.

2. A Cyprian playing the double aulos. About 600 years
before new era. New York. A Collection of Kesnol.

Kachmarchik Vladimir, was born in 1956 In 1975, he gradua

ted from the Drogobich Musical College as a flutist. From 1977

until 1982 he studied flute under Professor Eutodienko F.I. in

Kishinew Musical Institute From 1989 he has been a teacher at

the Sergi Prokofiev State Conservatoire, Donetsk, Ukraine



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