The Oldest Surviving Written Melody in History

01The Oldest Surviving Written Melody in History.jpg

The oldest surviving written melody so far discovered in History which can actually be reconstructed, was Hurrian Hymn Text H6. The musical notation for this amazing 3400 year old melody, was discovered in Ugarit, Northern Canaan (now forming the Southern part of modern Syria) in the early 1950s, and was preserved for 3400 years on a clay tablet, written in the Cuneiform text of the ancient Hurrian language:

“Thought to be 3,400 years old, this relic has been in Damascus since 1955, following its discovery by a group of French archeologists in the coastal town of Ugarit…The artefact records the Hurrian Hymn, a song directed to the goddess Nikkal [wife of the moon god]. Ugaritans worshipped a number of deities, each one specific to the various parts of their lives. Nikkal, meaning “Great Lady and Fruitful”, was the goddess of the orchards….For now, at least, the exact lyrical content of the Hurrian Hymn remains partly concealed, although a translation undertaken by Hans-Jochen Thiel in 1977 is considered closest to the original’s spirit:

(Once I have) endeared (the deity), she will love me in her heart,
the offer I bring may wholly cover my sin,
bringing sesame oil may work on my behalf in awe may I …
The sterile may they make fertile.
Grain may they bring forth.
She, the wife, will bear (children) to the father.
May she who has not yet borne children bear them.”

(Article in “The National”)

The melody of Hurrian Hymn Text H6 was interpreted by Dr.Richard Dumbrill (one of several academic interpretations of the melody), from the ambiguous Cuneiform text of the Hurrian language in which it was written.

This interpretation is by Michael Levy, a multi-instrumentalist & prolific composer, who since 2006, has focused his unique skills, at both intensively researching & recreating the ancient playing-techniques of the lyres of antiquity.

Richard Dumbrill has recently recorded a purely vocal rendition of his interpretation of the Hurrian Hymn, in the original elusive Hurrian language. Here is what he explained to Michael Levy:

“The differences in interpretations of this text mainly come from the
insistence of Western scholars to interpret Semitic (Jewish and non Jewish)
music as if it responded to Western music theory which is essentially
Christian material. Semitic, (Arabian Jewish, Christian and Islamic) music
uses filled intervals called ‘ajnas’ or ”uqud’ which are sets used in
sequential order. West, Kilmer, Krispijn etc. know nothing about Semitic
musicology and therefore understand intervals as being empty and played
together a dyads, or as chords of 2 notes. The same scholars are also
limited by the octave which is the boundary of Western music while Semitic
music is not restricted by the octavial notion. This is why my
interpretation is melodic while others are not.

In respect of the Hurrian language, it is with great caution that we should
apprehend it. Too little is known about it. Was it melismatic or not in the
context of Ugarit, we do not know. Initially my voicing of the Hurrian text
equated to the number of beats in the piece. But that does not mean much.
Recently I recorded my latest version, in Byblos, Lebanon and in Damascus
with the advice of local musicians who felt that it should be ‘maqamised’ as
I have produced it in this version”.

Here is the alternative interpretation of the melody of the Hurrian Hymn Text H6, by Martin R West. Note that the musical mode is the same as Dumbrill’s interpretation and despite the difference in rhythm, the actual “shape” of the melody is quite similar:

Below is Dr Dumbrill’s new purely vocal arrangement of the Hurrian Hymn.


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