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Music of Ancient Rome
Volume 1 - Wind Instruments
Synaulia/Walter Maiolo
Recording dates and venue not given
AMIATA ARNR 1396 [59.28]
Volume 2 - String Instruments
Synaulia/Walter Maiolo
Recording dates and venue not given
AMIATA ARCD 1002 [57.43]


Compare with ‘Music in the Age of the Pyramids - Ancient Egypt

Back in 1998 I purchased a copy of Volume 1 of ‘Music from Ancient Rome’ in Harold Moores’ record shop in London with the intention of using it for teaching purposes; very useful and interesting it proved too. Volume 2 was announced but I never found it. Well, at last here they both are and it's good to have them available. The first volume re-launched in early 2005 is lavishly produced with a superbly illustrated book. More of that anon.

The press release sums it up well: these are "hypothetically reconstructions of the music of Imperial Rome ... using instruments accurately rebuilt by Walter Maioli." So, the first thing you need to know is that no ancient Roman music has come down to us whatsoever. So is this CD a fraud? Well of course not. One thing about these discs is that everything is clearly explained. The composers of each track are listed: Walter Maiole himself, Luce Maioli and Roberto Stanco who is one of the performers; there are other names. Their pieces are based on at least four important considerations:-

1. The writings of Ovid, Horace, Seneca etc

2. Mosaics and other pictorial survivals

3. Archaeological remains.

4. Music and instruments still in use in Mediterranean countries.

Putting these together, Walter Maiole has built the instruments used on these CDs and has even trained the performers. His own biography encouragingly tells us about his many years of study and research into the music of ancient Greece and Rome. Maiole quotes the great classical writers including Ovid in references to music and its effect on listeners. I am mostly left with the feeling that what I am hearing is well-informed and as likely as anything else to be an authentic representation of music I might have heard 2,000 years ago.

Each book comes with, first, a general essay, and then more specific ones about what Synaulia are trying to do. Next there is a section about the reconstruction of the instruments and then the mythology. There follows a description of the instruments and how they have been reconstructed. After that comes a description of each piece of music and the intentions of the musicians. Biographies and more illustrations and photographs make the whole thing a lavish production; a joy to read and work with.

So, what about the music? Is it worth hearing? At a very basic level one can say that each instrument is given a demonstration both on its own and in combination with others. A wide variety of colourful percussion is included. The tracks mix the instrumental combinations in an attractive way so that one rarely gets bored. True, some of the tracks are too long and the composed material not interesting enough to sustain musical satisfaction. For example, track 5 on the second CD does test the patience with its procession, Tibiae, drones, with male voices from Cecil B. de Milne and harp glissandi. The following track for Cithara includes a throaty male voice sounding as if from some cavern. These sounds act as an accompaniment to a poem: quoted and translated in the booklet from Ovid's ‘Ars Amatorio’. There are other examples of poems used on the CDs. These are usually recited by two voices in canon, which was apparently quite a popular thing to do.

Other instruments heard include the Lyra, Cithara and Samabuca (an arched-shaped instrument) in the strings. Wind instruments such as the Tuba (more like a trumpet) and Bucina (more like the kind of ancient horn you find hanging on pub walls) also feature.

Incidentally the first track on Volume 1 is a great start. It is a dance for double flutes and Tibiae with orgasmic sounding females enjoying a brothel type experience. It’s all in honour of the God Pan ... at least it makes a good excuse.

I have enjoyed these discs and will find them useful, but don't take them too seriously.

Gary Higginson

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