Greek Lyric

From the Greek word, lyra, meaning lyre, lyric poetry, refers to a short song accompanied by a musical instrument, almost always the lyre. Lyric monody names that form of lyric composedfor a single performer to either sing or read aloud for the pleasure of another or others (including divinities), on mostly secular occasions such as symposia or private invocations that might be erotically charged. Monody is particularly associated with Lesbos in 600 B.C.; a form which poets like Sappho and Alcaeus bring to exemplary heights (see also Anacreon, Praxilla, Hybrias, Corinna, Simonides of Ceos). Choral lyric refers to poems composedto be sung by a chorus, on sacred (i.e. hymns to divinities delivered at temples or cult sites) or ritual (i.e. weddings, maiden-songs, victory odes) occasions for a public or semi-public audience. Examples of choral lyric in our text are represented by Terpander, Alcman, Stesichorus, Ibycus, Simonides of Ceos, Pindar, and Bacchylides. (It is interesting to note that some of these religious festivals or cults, such as the Thesmophoria, the Dionysiac Mysteries (this is a student paper), the cults of Aphrodite and Adonia, orthe Eleusinian mysteries may have reserved special roles for women.) It is thought that monodic lyrics can be identified because they were composed in local dialects, whereas choral lyrics were rendered in more "international" language, such as Dorian (from Sparta)--but such distinctions do not always hold true. Indeed, the question of whether the Greek lyrics represent a new consciousness of the self and the self's desires, a new sense of individuality and private life, or whether they are rather formulaic and conventional means of expressing the needs and practices of a community is at the center of scholarly arguments about their meaning today.

the Lyric Poets

The lyric poets can be divided into two groups. There are those best known for monody, likeSappho and Alcaeus. and those best known for choral composition.

Lyric Genres

Homer and others describe different occasions for lyric song which show us the variety of occasions on and audiences for which lyric poems were performed. From such descriptions we can understand the different genres that the ancients thought specific poems or lyrics belonged to. These genres are named below. Click on the name of the genre for a definition; click on the texts for an example of that genre.









Example from Pausanias:(Paus. 4.4.1).




Example from the Iliad:(Il. 1.472-4) Proper to Apollo; later addressed to other gods or even as memorial hymn to friend.


See Herodotus 1.23 on the origins of the dithyramb.










Example from the Iliad: (Il. 16.182-3)


Examples from the Iliad: (Il. 18.50-1; 314-16, 24.746-7)


Example from the Iliad:(Il. 18.493)

Lyric Meter

Lyrics were generally composed in one of two meters: the elegiac couplet, based on the Homeric hexameter, or the iambic in a six beat verse, called the trimeter. For the ancient Greeks the concept of poetical meter or rhythm was almost indistinguishable from the musical concept of the modes. The most common modes were the Dorian (martial and ardent), the Phrygian (celebrative and joyful), and the Lydian (gentle and seductive). Poetical meters and musical rhythms were thought to have a substantial influence on the human psyche. In thinking about what meter signified to a Greek audience, it is essential to remember that both Plato and Aristotle associate specific meters with the ability to create in the listener a specific mood, even a disposition to engage in certain actions.

Musical Instruments Accompanying Lyrics

Kithara image
Satyrs playing aulos and kithara
Other Greek instruments include the aulos, tympanon, syrinx, seistron, pandoura, trichordon, photinx, salpinx, and kymbol.

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