The “Hymn to Apollo”: “the most important musical find of the nineteenth century”
[The Musical Times. Vol. XXXV (June 1, 1894):584]
In May 1893, the École Française d’Athènes unearthed, at the Athenian Treasury in Delphi, two of the oldest surviving musical compositions, the hymns to Apollo. The discovery sparked great interest and contributed in the late nineteenth century to a growing awareness of ancient Greek music and a desire on the part of some composers to seek inspiration therein. This awareness is reflected, for example, in Felix Mendelssohn’s Antigone and Camille Saint-Saëns’s Antigone and Hélène.
In this month’s Curios, News, and Chronicles we focus on how the discovery of the first of two Delphic hymns was reported in the musical press and Gabriel Fauré’s arrangement of it.
After the German classical scholar Otto Crusius, the philologist Henri Weil, and French archeologist Theodore Reinach restored, analyzed, and transcribed the hymn, the first public performance of this melody took place on March 26, 1894 in the presence of King George I and Queen Olga of Greece at a soirée organized by the French School. Based on a comment in The Musical News, it did not generate a great deal of enthusiasm.
[Musical News, Vol.VI, No. 162 (Saturday, April 7, 1894):327]
Later the work was performed in several European cities, after which the same journal underscored its importance, the ‘stir’ it was creating and published photographs of the ashlar blocks containing the inscribed hymn.
[Musical News. Vol. VI, No. 173 (June 23, 1894):579]
[Musical News. Vol. VI, No. 173 (June 23, 1894):582]
The Musical Times went as far as to refer to the hymn as “the most important musical ‘find’ of the nineteenth century,” and published a transcription of it in modern musical notation in an extra supplement to one of its issues.
[The Musical Times. Vol. XXXV (June 1, 1894):386]
[Transcription of the Hymn to Apollo, The Musical Times. Vol. XXXV (June 1, 1894):386-7]
On April 12, 1894 Reinach presented the discovery at the École des Beaux-Arts to the members of the Association pour l’Encouragement des Études Grecques en France. After the presentation there was a performance of an arrangement of the work by Gabriel Fauré with the composer himself at the harmonium.
The hymn continued to be discussed years after it was discovered. For example, Music: A Monthly Magazine, published in 1897 a translated version of an article by the Czech Ludvik Kuba, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, in Prague. In the article, Kuba discussed the significance of the hymn’s discovery and the difficulties of deciphering ancient Greek music, given the very few surviving examples of music from this period.
[Music: A Monthly Magazine. Volume XI, Number 4 (February 1897):398]
In the video below, you can listen to Fauré’s arrangement of the Hymn for voice and piano, performed by the French soprano, Renée Doria. From today’s perspective does it still merit the title the most important musical find of the nineteenth century?
[From left to right: the French archeologist Théodore Reinach, 1913 / the composer Gabriel Fauré, photographed by Paul Nadar, 1905 ]
RIPM Search Tip: To read what the French musical press wrote about the discovery of the Hymne à Apollon, search for it in the RIPM index and e-Library.