Sappho wasn’t a modern poet; rather, she was a singer-songwriter, in the ancient lyric tradition. Her poetry was meant to be performed, and the scholars who wrote down her lyrics likely did so with their associated melodies ringing through their heads. Even without tunes, ancient Greek has a very different, more sonic quality, than modern English. In English metered verse, like Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, stress is determined by accenting certain syllables. In ancient Greek, stress and meter was determined instead by the length of syllables, which was fixed. Additionally, the language was tonal. The same syllables could mean different things if spoken in different pitches. All this meant that spoken Greek sounded more varied and musical than the English translations of Sappho we read today. And then there’s the fact that we now usually read poetry silently to ourselves, a practice that didn’t exist in Sappho’s Greece.
While we know something about the sonic quality of spoken Greek, its impossible to know much about the nature of the music that once accompanied Sappho’s poetry. The songs were performed on the lyre, an instrument similar to the modern harp. Traditionally, scholar labeled Sappho a “monodic” poet, or a poet who performed her music alone, singing while playing her lyre. These scholars argue that the emotional confessions and personal intimacy that Sappho describes mark her work as intended for solo performance.
Other, more recent scholarship has argued against the strict division these thinkers draw between monodic and choral poetry. They insist that Sappho’s “I” is not necessarily singular, but might instead have contained a group of women, or “multiple consciousness.” The first-person singular might symbolize communal experience, a group of people speaking with a single voice. The strongest arguments for the choral nature of Sappho’s work surround her wedding songs and religious hymns, which were traditionally performed by groups. Those works, like “Fragment 1,” in which Sappho refers to herself, seem like the most likely candidates for solo performance, although it wasn’t unheard of for ancient Greek poets to refer to themselves in choral poetry.
Beyond the chorus, Sappho’s songs may have been part of larger performances. The festivities she references would have involved dance, and her lyrics would have had gestural as well as musical resonances for their listeners. Sappho herself refers to dance in her poetry, and ties it to female sensuality and musical expression.
Regardless of whether or not they were performed by one woman or a chorus, as music alone or as part of a broader performance, Sappho’s lyrics were informed by their intended context. Her wedding songs were celebratory, while her religious hymns were devotional. Many of her works feature incantation, which suggests that these were not just accompaniments to religious practice, but active spiritual aids. Audience is another important factor. While some poems were performed for large, mixed-gender groups in ceremonial settings, others were made for more specific audiences. Some of her poetry was likely written for friends in informal settings, others for private religious ceremonies of exclusively women. The long lyric tradition may have justified the writing and performance of songs for their own sake, even as they often took an important ceremonial role.