59 Picking up the Pieces: Imagining Sappho’s Music

by Philip Duchild

After reading If Not, Winter, I was struck by the amount of Sappho’s work that has been lost. The gaps within her verse seem to contain a world of possibility. Although Anne Carson’s skillful translations of the fragments ensure that the gaps have what I can only assume to be a beauty and significance equal to that of the surviving words, I can’t help but wonder how reading an entirely intact poem might feel. Do the reader’s projections onto the intermittent silence of these fragments make them more profound than they might feel in their original form? Would the original poems be even more incredible than they are in their current state?


One element of Sappho’s work that has been set firmly in the past is the musical element of her verse. Her work was traditionally sung and accompanied by the lyre, but this additional and magical dimension of her work cannot be gleaned from papyri fragments. With this in mind, I tried to envision what her work might be like if her lyre music survived instead of the words to her poems. While I realize that this is impractical (why would music be recorded on papyri in a time of oral tradition, how might scholars read music written before conventions established around the Baroque era of composition), the notion was still interesting to entertain, and it even led to some profound questions. Would her current audience still praise her work if only fragments of music remained instead of words? How might this change her reception? Would people ever be able to infer that she was queer based on musical notes alone? Would musical fragments even sound as profound as lines of poetry punctuated by blank space and brackets?


I explored these ideas by experimenting with a few lines of music on the viola. I decided to play a part of the Sarabande from Bach’s third cello suite. The Sarabande struck me as a tonally and thematically similar dance to the fragments of Sappho’s work. The music itself is very intimate, and it evokes the image of a slow breeze passing through an open window on a summer day. It reminds me in particular of fragment 20 in If Not, Winter:

]gladness and
]with good luck
]to gain the harbor
]of black earth
]in big blasts of wind
]upon dry land
]the freight
]dry land

In the first recording, I played the two lines in their entirety. Then, I began to experiment and fragmented the music until it somewhat resembled the tone of fragment 20. I’ve included these recordings below! I think that the presence and absence of certain parts of the piece created subtle changes in the tone and direction of the music, which makes the prospect of reading a full poem of Sappho’s all the more tantalizing.

video 1

^this is the full, unfragmented phrase

video 2

^these fragments include the main tonal ideas, minus the start of the phrase, which sets the phrase off on a sort of strange footing.

video 3

^these are fragments that are mostly antecedent chunks (antecedent followed by consequent = a full idea!), which creates a sort of lonely and unfinished feeling, sort of like a series of calls with no response.

video 4

^these are fragments that are not really tonally related! Although the intact ending creates a feeling of resolution, so much of the original idea of the phrase has been lost. The fragments are very discrete and don’t feel impactful.

video 5

^these fragments are tonally similar, but give the impression that the phrase in its entirety might sound more positive and have a simpler texture (there are more rolled chords in the original phrase).

video 6

^these fragments are sort of the opposite of the ones in the previous video. There are more rolled chords and double stops, which aren’t an accurate reflection of the diverse textures in the original phrase. The “surviving” fragments also mostly represent wider, harsher intervals.

video 7

^these fragments are more discrete, which makes it appear as if they belong to an original phrase that lacked any sort of direction or main idea.






Gender & Sexuality in Ancient Greece Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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