Polyhymnia?



That is the unavoidable question for all upon first seeing the name of our ensemble, "Piano Duo Polyhymnia."  I'll explain briefly.

When considering a name, I immediately excluded any incorporation of "Thompson," since that name is far too common, and, in fact, associated with many musicians of genres that contrast utterly with our classical focus.  While it might prove beneficial in attracting potential audience members who already know us, I do not believe that it would be helpful beyond that.  "Thompson Piano Duo" sounds colorless to me --  just another husband and wife team, but without the impact of, say, "Klien," or "Casadesus."  Given that our programs are not typical, I inclined to something more exotic.  The Greek Muses were an obvious place to start looking. 

With reference to language, the most striking gift of the Muses is the term mousikē. Once descriptive of all that was thought to come within their varied domain, it underwent a reductive process to become the modern conception of ‘music’. 1

With nine muses to consider, it may seem at first glance that I chose the "wrong" muse.  Euterpe is most often associated with music in modern descriptions. However, the lines between the muses are very gray, and the music with which Euterpe is most frequently associated is folk song, and her instrument, the aulos, or the flute.  The music that we most often perform demands a special respect, and, in fact, qualifies as sacred to us.  Hence the choice of Polyhymnia, muse of "many hymns."  Note in the excerpt below from Grove's that all but two of the Muses are associated with music in some fashion.

The Muses were worshipped at Pieria in Thessaly (near Mount Olympus) and Mount Helicon in Boeotia; similar cults were found elsewhere in Greece. They had particular fields of activity attributed to them principally in the literature and art of the later Roman Empire, although the distinctions among the fields are somewhat blurred: Clio (history, shown in representational art with the kithara), Euterpe (lyric, shown with the double aulos), Thalia (comedy, light poetry, the idyll), Melpomene (tragedy, Aeolic poetry and songs of mourning), Terpsichore (choral lyric and dance, shown with the lyre), Erato (song and the dance, and erotic lyric, sometimes shown with the lyre), Polymnia or Polyhymnia (hymns, dance and mime, shown with the barbitos), Urania (astronomy) and their chief, Calliope or Calliopea (heroic poetry and playing on string instruments) – the true leader of the Muses being of course Apollo Mousagētēs.1

As a final note of interest, although I did not know about Polyhymnia's association with the barbitos when I chose the name, it so happens that the barbitos is another appropriate association to be made with our ensemble.  The first recital we gave after having formally become "Piano Duo Polyhymnia" was one of our "Music and Wine Series" recitals, and the barbitos is typically associated with wine parties.

Greek instrument of the Lyre family (a Chordophone ). In Greek literature and vase painting it is generally associated with the Eastern Greek poets (including Terpander, Sappho, Alcaeus and Anacreon) of the Archaic period (7th and 6th centuries bce ), and with drinking parties.2

Our "Music and Wine Series" recitals are a specialty of ours, given every three months, and a favorite of many of our regular audience members.  They are parties, and they involve the moderate drinking of wine, so the association is reasonably appropriate. 

I now include a more thorough description of the barbitos for those who are curious.

The barbitos is usually portrayed as having a tortoise-shell soundbox, long curved arms (probably made of wood) joined together by a crossbar at the top, and five to seven strings supported by a bridge and sounded with a plectrum attached to the instrument by a cord. The strings are attached at the crossbar by means of tuning devices called kollopes (pegs). The arms, which diverge as they leave the soundbox, curve towards each other near the top of the instrument, forming a distinctive shape. Rare profile views indicate that the arms curved forwards as well as outwards. The longer string length as compared to the schoolboy's tortoise-shell lyre suggests a relatively lower pitch.2






1 WARREN ANDERSON/THOMAS J. MATHIESEN: 'Muses', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 25 September 2006), < http://www.grovemusic.com>

2 JANE McINTOSH SNYDER: 'Barbitos', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 25 September 2006), < http://www.grovemusic.com >

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