April 08, 2007

A New Vocal Interpretation For The World's Oldest Song

Oldest_Song.jpgIn the early fifties, a broken, slightly burnt 3,200 year old clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform writing was unearthed in the Northern Syrian site of the Bronze Age Canaanite city of Ugarit. The tablet turned out to be the missing half of another fragment unearthed nearly 25 years before, and together, these tablets formed one of the most exciting finds in ancient musicology – the world’s oldest song.

The inscription on the tablets (pictured below) was divided into two halves.


The top half contained the lyrics of the song which turned out to be a heart-rending prayer addressed by an infertile woman to the moon goddess Nikkal. Here’s a sample (which unfortunately loses a little in translation):

She [Nikkal] let the married couples have children,
She let them be born to the fathers,
But the begotten will cry out, ‘She [the infertile woman] has not borne any child.’
Why have not I as a true wife borne children for you?

Interestingly enough, the lyrics are not in the language of the city where they were found, but in a language from Mesopotamia called Hurrian. It was a language that was, at that time, in serious decline, so maybe this tablet was an early attempt to preserve a dying culture undertaken either by emigrants from that culture, or the local equivalents of “world music fans”. (In either case, there may have been some bowdelerisation for local sensitivies as the goddess that the song is addressed to is a Canaanite one.)

The bottom half of the tablets contains instructions for accompanying the prayer on a lyre. Unlike the words, the translation of these “instructions” into music has been far more difficult. The instructions don’t, for instance, provided a precisely notated melody for the song, but merely the names of strings on the lyre, combinations of strings and a cryptic set of numbers. After decades of work, which have produced varying interpretations from a number of scholars; it seems that, at best, these “instructions” provide only chord progression charts, similar to the sort of thing you would find in a book on learning to play rhythm guitar. The vocal melody, however, remains something that we can only speculate on.

This is the interpretation, at least, of one of the leading experts on the tablets, Dr Theo J H Krispijn. His conclusions, however, haven’t stopped him from imagining what the lost melody of this ancient song would have sounded like. And recently, Krispijn, who is an accomplished vocalist, even gave a performance of his “version” of that melody at the Chicago Oriental Institute. The performance was captured on video and posted on the web as part of this article in the Chicago Tribune.

We’ll never know if this is what the song truly sounded like, but this version is certainly a beautiful piece which comes across as sensitive to the source material. (via Metafilter)

Posted by Warren at April 8, 2007 03:54 PM | Ancient Music