18 September 2010

The Water Organ

I’ve been reading Lindsey Davis’s Falco series, and as the Roman History Reading Group is due to read Last Act in Palmyra in December, I thought I’d blog a few items. (book cover copied from librarything)

One reason for our hero travelling to the Eastern edges of the Empire is to track down a missing hydraulis player. The hydraulis or water organ is said to have been invented by Ctesibius in the 3rd century BC. In Ctesibius’s version, water was used to regulate the flow of air through pipes to produce music from a keyboard, but as time went by the use of bellows became as popular as water. Both versions of the instrument died out in the West after the fall of the Western Empire, but survived in the East. In 757, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Copronymus presented Pepin the Short, King of the Franks and father of Charlemagne, with a bellows-operated version which was further developed over time to become the church organ as we know it today.

The article on hydraula from the LacusCurtius edition of the 1875 Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities provides links to the textual evidence about the hydraulis. We do not have to rely purely on textual evidence, however. The hydraulis is shown in mosaics.

This part of a mosaic comes from wikicommons, which does not give any information about the source, but it appears to be based on a mosaic found in Nennig in 1852.

This part of a mosaic comes from wikicommons, who have taken it from the page on the Villa Dar Bur Ammera mosaic at livius.org.

The remains of a hydraulis were found in excavations of Aquincum (modern Budapest) in 1931. The pamphlet guide to the Aquincumi Múzeum in Budapest shows a display of excavated pieces and a modern reconstruction.

Parts of another hydraulis were found at Dion, near Mount Olympus, in 1992. archaeologychannel.org has a rather old page with a radio interview about the hydraulis and a video interview and demonstration. The page does have other links to information, but unfortunately they are all broken. The video dates back to the early days of streaming (the radio interview thoughtfully explains what streaming is) and is rather small and jerky. You can see a rather better video of the hydraulis in action below:

Musica Romana, a modern group specialising in the recreation and performance of Roman music, include an extract from a piece called Aulos et Hydraulis on their myspace page. (except where noted, illustrations in this post come from wikicommons).


Unknown said...

fascinating stuff rwmg!

I have several of Davis' Falco series in audio book - historical sleuthers make the transition to this format well.


RWMG said...

I've never actually listened to an audiobook. iTunes won't sell them to Indonesia. I do enjoy listening to podcasts and iTunesU lectures while on my constitutional, though.