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[Marsyas Music was established in 2010 to serve as a catalyst for new and innovative musical ventures. This includes publishing musical scores, recordings and filmed performances, sponsoring concerts and music education programs, promoting performers, and organizing competitions for musicians.]

The Story of Marsyas

Marsyas was the greatest aulos virtuoso the world has ever known, and possibly the greatest musician of ancient times. He was a satyr, a man with the legs, tail, horns, and pointed ears of a goat. Satyrs were known for their wild, pleasure-seeking lifestyles, forever in pursuit of nymphs. Considered unpredictable and even dangerous, satyrs were creatures generally best avoided (citation needed). However, Marsyas was no typical satyr; he was wise, talented, and possessed an admirable self-restraint. Some compared Socrates to Marsyas for the same virtues, but the god-like skills of Marsyas were downplayed over time, rather than inflated as with Socrates. And it was this immense skill that would ultimately lead to his cruel, agonized death…

When he was young, Marsyas studied the bagpipes. It was not long before his mastery over the instrument was unrivaled, yet Marsyas grew weary of its limitations and harsh tone, eventually giving it up completely.

Years passed. One day, as Marsyas wandered down an unfamiliar path, he noticed a fleeting glimmer of light in the hollow of a nearby tree. He approached the tree cautiously, and leaning closer to the hole, made out what appeared to be finely polished wood. Reaching in carefully, he removed the object and was astonished to find himself holding some sort of exquisitely crafted musical pipe. This was the first aulos.  

Unknown to Marsyas, Athena herself had only recently created the instrument. The aulos was a double reed instrument, similar to the oboe, but instead of a single hollow wooden pipe, two pipes were joined together at an angle. Where the pipes met, they were fitted to the double reeds. Each pipe was bored with a set of finger holes, so with a single breath, not one, but two notes could be made to sound in harmony. This was an amazing design; two instruments in one, but requiring considerable skill to play. Athena was very pleased with its excellent tone and capability, but when she showed it off to the other gods, they fell over laughing at how she resembled a bullfrog, puffing her cheeks as she played. Enraged, she cursed the instrument and cast it away.

After a careful examination, Marsyas lifted the aulos to his lips and with the first breath sounded as if he had practiced a lifetime, as if this instrument and he had been carved from the same material. He was mesmerized by the aulos, and spent many months in solitude, enraptured with the instrument, practicing endlessly.

When he finally emerged, word quickly spread of Marsyas and the transcendental beauty of his new music. It was not long before every satyr and nymph had fallen in love with his serenades.  

Even the gods and goddesses were astounded by his skill, including Apollo, who up until now had been regarded as the greatest musician of all. Jealousy, which he had never before known, began to swell deep inside him. He took up his lyre, practicing night and day in feverish resolve.  Once his technique had plateaued, Apollo rested one day, then appeared to Marsyas, challenging him to a competition.

At first Marsyas declined to compete, but Apollo made it clear that there was no choice in the matter, and so Marsyas was forced to consent. The terms of the competition were simple, the victor could do anything he wished to the loser. Apollo appointed the muses to judge, as they would surely favor him.

With all in attendance, Apollo played first. His performance was amazing, perfect in technique, rich in color, and truly inspired. And yet he knew that in his nervousness, he had not played at his absolute best. But everyone there was in agreement that never before had they heard such marvelous music come from the strings of a lyre.

Then played Marsyas. The music flowed from his aulos like the sweetest fragrance from distant jasmine carried on a warm breeze. He had never played better. Truly, it was divine. Even the muses could not deny that Marsyas’ music was superior.

However, before they could declare Marsyas victorious, Apollo called for a rematch, insisting that he still had more to show. And this time Apollo did play his best, his music was every bit as fantastic as what Marsyas had played just before. Then, as he strummed the golden strings of his lyre, he began to sing the most ethereal melody which no one had heard the likes of before.  It was more than anyone could believe, such beauty had never before existed on Earth or in Heaven.

At this the muses were ready to declare Apollo victor. Marsyas’ followers protested that it was not fair that Apollo should be allowed to sing while playing, for the competition was to determine who was most skilled at their instrument alone. Apollo argued that Marsyas was already using his voice as he breathed air through his aulos.

Just as the muses seemed to be siding with Apollo, Marsyas stood up, put his instrument to his lips, and improvised the most astonishing music. With his left hand he played the most intricate, florid musical line, weaving in and out, through darkness and light it described every worldly emotion. Then with his right hand, Marsyas introduced a single note which soared out, above everything else. Suddenly, the note dove down, raced back up, and began to play the same new melody which Apollo had sung moments earlier, all in perfect harmony with the dizzying figures played by his left hand.

When he had finished, everyone was silent in amazement. Even Marsyas was shocked by the splendid beauty of what he had just played. But it was a tough call, Marsyas’ followers shouted that he should be crowned champion, while others, along with Apollo, shouted that his music was superior. In the end, the muses declared it a draw, but Apollo suggested yet again that he was not finished.

Apollo then turned his lyre upside down, and played and sang just as exquisitely as before.  When he had finished, he offered that if Marsyas too could play equally well with his aulos upside down, then we would accept the competition as a draw. Of course this was simply not possible with the aulos. Though the satyrs and nymphs protested this unfairness, Apollo insisted that he was the superior musician, for he was even able to perform with his instrument upside down, which Marsyas was incapable of.

With this, the muses knew Apollo would not settle for a draw, and so declared him victorious.

As if to show him how he could have drawn, Apollo bound the hands and feet of Marsyas and hung him upside down from a tree. With a sharp knife, Apollo proceeded to flay the skin from his body. As the blood ran down, burning his eyes, Marsyas uttered not a sound. Apollo eventually finished separating the last piece of flesh from the body, and by this time Marsyas was dead, having bled to death. Apollo ordered the flesh to be made into a wineskin.

Apollo then picked up the aulos, and holding one pipe in each hand snapped the instrument in two. As the aulos split, it let fly such a deafening, piercing cry that Apollo jumped back, dropping the broken instrument to the ground; his hair on end.

The satyrs, the nymphs, and even the other gods and goddesses wept bitterly at the loss of Marsyas. They were beside themselves with grief. Their tears flowed and flowed; so much and for so long that, converging with the blood of Marsyas, they created a mighty river which flows to this day in Phrygia. The Marsyas River.

After a time, even Apollo grew to regret his cruelty, and began to understand what a grave loss Marsyas’ talent was to the world. It was years before he would again take up his lyre.