Michael Levy | The Ancient Roman Lyre

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The Ancient Roman Lyre

by Michael Levy

An evocation of the lost music of ancient Rome, arranged for solo lyre in the just intonation of antiquity...
Genre: World: World Traditions
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  Song Share Time Download
1. Cogitatio (Reflections)
2:52 $0.99
2. Amatores (Lovers)
4:11 $0.99
3. Tranquillitas (Serenity)
2:54 $0.99
4. Contemplationis (Contemplation)
3:14 $0.99
5. Desiderantes (Yearning)
3:38 $0.99
6. Tristitia (Sorrow)
3:23 $0.99
7. Gloria Belli (Glory of Battle)
2:20 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
This album is the third in my series of ancient Roman-themed albums, the sequel to “Echoes of Ancient Rome” & "Ode To Ancient Rome". Like the first two albums in this series, "Art of the Lyre" comprises of a series of original compositions for an ancient lyre in authentic ancient musical modes, to evoke once more, the lost music of ancient Rome. These set of compositions for my replica Kithara-style lyre is my attempt to restore a precious remnant of the music of ancient Rome, which for the most part, is now forever lost...

Unlike ancient Greece, tragically, virtually no surviving written music has survived from ancient Rome. These set of composition for my replica Kithara-style lyre is my attempt to restore a precious remnant of the music of ancient Rome, which is now forever lost - so far, all that has been discovered, is one pitiful fragment by Terence:

TERENCIO, HECYRA 861 (Terence). Versus 861. Hecyra of Terence. Codex Victorianus Laurentianus XXXVIII-24, saec. X

This piece can be heard track 19, on the recording "Musique de la Grece Antique". Here are some more details from the notes for this unIque album, about the only surviving fragment of written music ever found from ancient Rome:

"We have added the only surviving musical fragment of
Imperial Rome: four mutilated measures from a work by Terence. It is as if nothing were
left of the Acropolis but a few scattered bits of columns and a pair of ruined capitals"

Even this tiny fragment is no longer deemed to be authentic, according the musicologist Thomas J. Mathiesen). However, since Rome borrowed so much from the culture of ancient Greece, in attempting to recreate an evocation of the lost music of ancient Rome, it is most likely that the Roman composers of antiquity also used the ancient Greek musical modes...


Due to the known prominent influence of Ancient Greek culture in the Roman world, in order to create an authentic-sounding evocation of what the solo lyre music of ancient Rome may have once sounded, I decided to base the compositions in a selection some of the original Ancient Greek modes, with melodies inspired mostly by a "Musical Adventure in Time Travel" of the gods of Ancient Rome.

The names of musical modes in use today, (e.g. Dorian, Mixolydian etc) although having the same names as the original Greek musical modes, were actually misnamed during the Middle Ages! Apparently, the Greeks counted intervals from top to bottom. When medieval ecclesiastical scholars tried to interpret the ancient texts, they counted from bottom to top, jumbling the information. The misnamed medieval modes are only distinguished by the ancient Greek modes of the same name, by being labelled “Church Modes”. It was due to a misinterpretation of the Latin texts of Boethius, that medieval modes were given the wrong Greek names!

According to an article on Greece in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the original ancient Greek names for species of the octave included the following (on white keys):
B-B: Mixolydian
E-E: Dorian
A-A: Hypodorian
D-D: Phrygian
G-G: Hypophrygian
C-C: Lydian
F-F: Hypolydian

For what Plato & Aristotle had this to say about these ancient musical modes, please see this fascinating link:



In antiquity, lyres were tuned either cyclically, in perfect 5ths, the 3rds & 6ths then being fine-tuned by ear (Pythagorean tuning) or divisively (using exact mathematical ratios to precisely divide a musical string into specific pitch ratios) to achieve what is called "Just Intonation".

The modern tuning system of equal temperament was devised to enable music to be performed in any of the 12 keys of the chromatic scale whilst keeping exactly the same equal ratio of pitch between each of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale...which sadly has sacrificed the essential purity of tone, which can only be heard in the just intonation once used in antiquity.

Divisive tuning was the most natural way to tune the ancient lutes, or any fretted instrument, which uses frets to divide the vibrating portion of each string into the required precise ratio of pitches. Although more often cylically tuned when played solo, Lyres were also often divisively tuned in antiquity, as they were quite often played in ensemble with other instruments which were in turn, divisively tuned.

Although described in the writings of Pythagoras in his experiments at dividing a musical monochord, the divisive tuning system predates Pythagoras by thousands of years and may have evolved along with the origin of the long-necked lute in ancient Babylonia some 5000 years ago, according to John Wheeler (editor of Suzanne Haik Vantoura’s book, “The Music of the Bible Revealed”):

"The long-necked lute (according to Curt Sachs) was invented in Babylonia, and indeed thanks to that fact divisive tuning was invented there also. Cyclical tuning was also known there (and that got documented long after his death by the famous theory and hymn tablets from Babylon and Ugarit), but there is this curious fact: the Babylonians used divisive tuning as the basis for their symbolic correlation of the pillar degrees of the octave (e.g., C-F-G-C') with the four seasons, while the Chinese used cyclical tuning as the basis for the symbolic correlation of the same. This (wrote Sachs) is consistent as Babylon was the "home" of the lute and China the "home" of the harp (even though Babylon knew of harps and lyres too and China, if memory serves, also knew the lute from very early times). Divisive tuning is the "natural" tuning of the lute, as cyclical tuning is the "natural" tuning of the harp and lyre, according to Sachs. By that he meant that it's easiest and most natural to tune, and then to play, folk instruments of those genres that way - as I can vouch as a working musician"

I have used divisive tuning throughout this album, in my attempt to recreate the purity of the just intonation used in antiquity, which like the music of ancient Rome, has now sadly been forgotten...


All the various lyre-playing techniques heard in this album, are authentically based on lyre-playing styles which have remarkably survived from Antiquity & which still can be heard today in the amazing lyres still played throughout the continent of Africa, where unlike the rest of the Western world, a precious remnant of the cross-cultural influences from the around ancient world have miraculously survived.

Some of these lyre-playing techniques include the “block & strum” method, still practised today by the Krar Lyre players of Eritrea in East Africa – this technique allows the player to strum rhythm & basic chords on the lyre, similar to an acoustic guitar. This technique entails blocking strings with the left hand which are not required and leaving open only the strings which form the required intervals, which then can be strummed with a plectrum in the left hand.
Ancient illustrations of Kithara players seem to infer that this technique was also prominent in Ancient Greece – many illustrations clearly depict the left of the lyre player blocking/dampening the strings with the left hand whilst strumming the open strings with a plectrum in their right hand.

Other lyre playing techniques include the use of tremolo (based on the style of Egyptian Simsimiyya Lyre Players still heard today), alternating between harp-like finger plucked tones played with the left hand, and guitar-like plectrum-plucked tones with the right hand, using basic finger-plucked intervals/chords with the left hand to form a basic harmonic background for the melodic line being played with the plectrum in the right hand.

I also explore the rare percussive hammered lyre playing technique, where the stings of the lyre are hit with small wooden baton (like on a hammered dulcimer), instead of being plucked with either the fingers or a plectrum...


1. Cogitatio (Reflections) - this piece uses the introspective ancient Greek Hypodorian Mode.

2. Amatores (Lovers) - this piece uses the wonderfully dream-like, feminine-sounding ancient Greek Hypolydian Mode

3. Tranquillitas (Serenity) - this piece features the ancient Greek Hypophrygian Mode. This mode, for me evokes feelings of inner contentment, serenity and tranquillity...

4. Contemplationis (Contemplation) - this piece is composed in the ancient Greek Dorian Mode - intensely introspective, this mode enhances the feeling of concentration in the listener.

5. Desiderantes (Yearning) - this composition features the ancient Greek Phrygian Mode - the Mode seems to create a sense of beautiful poignancy, longing & yearning...

6. Tristitia (Sorrow) - this piece explores the mournful quality, also inherent in the sound of the ancient Greek Hypodorian Mode.

7. Gloria Belli (Glory of Battle) - as well as the intense, concentration-increasing qualities of the ancient Greek Dorian Mode when played slowly and softly, (as explored in track 1 of this album), according to Plato & Aristotle, the ancient Greek Dorian Mode was also the most "manly" of all the musical modes - they even went so far as to suggest that it could inspire bravery in battle! In this piece, I attempt to explore the war-like quality of the the ancient Greek Dorian Mode, which is most evident when played in a vigorous piece such as this.

For full details of all my releases on iTunes & Amazon for solo lyre, please visit my offical website:




to write a review

Emily Devenport

More Than King David
Back in the days that I ran a music department at Borders, I had a customer come in with a special request: he wanted to know if I had any CDs that featured harp music. “I love the harp more than King David,” he said. How I wish we had carried Michael Levy's albums back then. I could have sold him every single one.

I would have added those albums to my own collection, as well. Up until recently I've only owned a few harp albums, including Harps of the Ancient Temples and Debussy's Harp, performed by Yolanda Kondonassis. Now I've been able to download Michael Levy's album, The Ancient Roman Lyre, and it's a wonderful addition.

No language speaks more clearly to people than music, and the ancient lyre is music in its purest form. Listening to The Ancient Roman Lyre is as close to time travel as I'll ever get – I can imagine the Roman baths, or gardens, or courtyards where diners have finished their meal and are enjoying wine and contemplation. The fidelity of the recording is beautiful and the performance is a salve for the soul.

Lovers of the harp and the lyre, (and possibly even the lute), rejoice. You can download this album or buy it on CD (or both). Sample it and judge for yourselves . . .