The Sounds of Sappho

Photo: An image of the ancient Greek poet Sappho

The Sounds of Sappho

By Catherine Sorrentino


When the Library of Alexandria went up in flames, so did the nine volumes of Sappho’s collected works, leaving only pieces and fragments for scholars to sift through in search of her remarkable voice. And yet, against all odds, from only a handful of lines and verses, Sappho rose from the ashes to become a cornerstone of women’s poetry and right to expression, perhaps the inventor of the love song, and certainly a pioneer of queer love. To Plato, she was the ‘Tenth Muse.’ However, even when we have her famous words, we are missing a key component of her artistry — her music. 

In ancient Greek poetry, the ‘lyric’ part of lyric poetry meant the same thing it means to us today: musical lyrics. Verses were composed of melodies accompanied by a lyre. Her ancient contemporaries called Sappho ‘the Poetess,’ but she was much more Joni Mitchell than Emily Dickinson. She wrote her own music and lyrics and spent her life performing for the public. Sappho is most heavily associated with the monody, or the solo performance, although she is attached to some choral songs that would have been for weddings. Monody poets often performed at parties or banquets, and while we know much about male poets, we know very little about Sappho’s performances. Some scholars envision Sappho as the lead singer of a chorus of women, while others believe she was a soloist who performed as the only woman in male-dominated spaces. However, there is equally little evidence for both claims. Trying to create an accurate picture of Sappho’s life and work involves a serious commitment to guesswork: think of trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with three pieces. 

Although modern research and excavation has yielded music on ancient papyri, and classicists are recreating more and more Greek music, the melodies of Sappho are mostly lost to history. While most ancient Greek literature comes to us in translation, lots of poetry has been lost in the process of cultural, temporal, and physical degradation. Translators don’t just have the responsibility to provide modern audiences with accurate renditions of the original work, they also have to convey ancient ideas and themes that can seem, at best, dated and, at worst, alien. In the case of poetry, scholars are faced with the additional challenge of translating meter; do they keep to traditional forms, or is even ancient poetic structure up for interpretation? When scholars do try to recreate the sounds of ancient lyric poetry, the challenges are steep. However, the allure of Sappho to classicists can not be overestimated; who doesn’t want to hear the songs of the ‘Tenth Muse?’ Most notably, the late classical scholar Stephen Daitz devoted his career to intersections of classic drama and music. His early work on Euripides forced him to confront meter, drama, and music, and he began to devote himself to the question of pronunciation in the ancient language. By 1978, he had a unified theory of classical Greek pronunciation, which he called the “restored pronunciation,” and he put his theories into practice. Daitz painstakingly translated and sang several of Sappho’s poems alongside hours of other recordings of Homer, Plato, and Aristophanes in a series he called “The Living Voice of Greek Literature.” You can listen to several of his renditions here

The largest challenge in reconstructing a classical Greek melody is the tonal complexity of ancient Greek. Since Greek is a tonal language, pitch could affect both the meaning and pronunciation of a word. Instead of stressing a syllable, like an English speaker, a native Greek would have raised or lowered the pitch of the syllable. Since most native English speakers learning Ancient Greek aren’t used to tonal languages, it’s a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. The tonal elements of ancient Greek are most similar, in my experience, to Chinese, another language difficult for native English speakers to pick up. 

Additionally, there are two schools of thought on ancient Greek pronunciation: Erasimian and Modern. Erasmian pronunciation takes its cues from Renaissance scholars and their schools of thought, while Modern pronunciation comes from modern Greek. Daitz used Erasmian pronunciation, which includes the pitch shifts. Neither method is more ‘correct’ than the other, but hopefully, this demonstrates the complexity of these reconstructions.  

Still, learning by hearing is the best practice. You can hear the tonal pronunciation in Sappho’s Fragment 1, performed above by Daitz. There’s even a recognizable word for non-ancient Greek students; the last word of the first line of Fragment 1 is Aphrodite. It’s pronounced by modern English speakers as Ah-phroo-die-tee, although a resident of Lesbos certainly wouldn’t love those tones. They, and Daitz, would have pitched the second syllable (phro). When you listen to it, you realize the name lilts delightfully. It’s music.

There are plenty more academics and students rewriting Sappho’s melodies. Some recreate her songs on authentic lyres or barbitons. There’s even a musician who sets Sappho’s poetry to Bach’s cello suites. That might seem blasphemous to a classicist trying for a ‘pure’ excavation of Sappho’s sound, but the idea of a literal Sappho recreation is impossible. We have no concrete idea of what a true “authentic” recreation could even be; there are only classicists snatching at wisps of Sappho’s music, hoping to understand the sounds that captivated continents. All efforts to understand the past are brought to us through translation. While it is admirable to strive for accuracy, experimenting with new and interesting musical translations of Sappho keeps her voice alive and evolving. 

Classical art belongs to both those who study it and those who find beauty in it. As long as the ‘Tenth Muse’ continues to inspire art and music, her truest ideals will live on.


Catherine Sorrentino (College ’25) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in History and minoring in Classical Studies.