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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Kithara in Ancient Greece

The kithara, an instrument of the lyre family, had seven strings of equal length and a solidly built, wooden body, usually with a flat base. Strings of gut or sinew were stretched from a holder at the base of the instrument over a bridge to the crossbar that joined the two sidepieces. The musician (kitharode), who usually stood while playing, made music by stroking the plektron (pick) in his right hand across the strings, sounding all those not damped with his left fingers. During performances, the instrument rested against the musician’s shoulder, and was supported by a sling that wrapped around the left wrist. The musician could regulate pitch by the tension and, perhaps, thickness of the strings. By the end of the seventh century B.C., the kithara found a major niche in Greek public performances. Although similar in form to the tortoiseshell Greek lyra, which any well-bred Greek citizen might play, the kithara with its large soundbox was more suited for virtuoso display. It was generally a professional musician’s instrument reserved for public concerts, choral performances, and competitions.

Very little is known of the precise sound of the kithara in performance. In general, our knowledge of Greek music comes from fragmentary musical scores, some remains of instruments (mostly reed-blown pipes), inscriptions, and depictions in Greek sculpture and vase painting. Nontechnical references in ancient literature, especially the works of poets and philosophers, shed some light on the practice of music, its social roles, and perceived aesthetic qualities. Greek theoretical essays provide insight into the structure of ancient music, and a limited number of essays, most notably passages of Athenaios and the pseudo-Plutarchan dialogue, De musica, describe the nature and history of musical practice. The kithara is known primarily from written sources and from images on black- and red-figure pottery, such as the amphora attributed to the Berlin Painter (56.171.38) in the Metropolitan’s collection. Here, a musician in a long, slim garment accompanies himself on the kithara, his sash swaying with the rhythm of his song. He spreads the fingers of his left hand behind the strings of his instrument and prepares to strike them with the plektron, or pick, in his right hand. The muscles in his neck stretch as he throws back his head and opens his mouth to sing.