Home heritage Listen to world’s oldest surviving song

Listen to world’s oldest surviving song

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Songs have a way of transporting you to a different time – listening to a song from your childhood for example can bring up old memories almost as if they happened yesterday.

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But now we can be transported far further back in time by listening to the world’s oldest known song, which has captured a glimpse of life in the Middle East almost 3,500 years ago.

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The song is a cult hymn, also known as the the Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, that was discovered on a set of tablets found in the ancient northern Syrian city of Ugarit in the early 1950s.  The site lies on a hill near the modern village of Burj al-Qasab, whose predominantly Alawite population was particularly targeted by Islamist rebels until the Syrian Army secured most of Latakia last year.

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A drawing of one side of the tablet on which the hymn is inscribed. The song is a cult hymn that was discovered on a set of tablets found in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit in the early 1950s.  The top part of the tablet contained the words and the bottom half was instructions for playing the music

WHAT IS THE HURRIAN HYMN?

The song is a cult hymn, also known as the the Hurrian hymn to Nikkal, and was discovered on a set of tablets found in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit in the early 1950s.

Nikkal was the Akkadian goddess of orchards.

There were 29 tablets unearthed during the mission, but only one text, (text H6), was in a sufficient state of preservation to allow for modern academic musical reconstruction.

Nikkal was the Akkadian goddess of orchards.

The version in the first video below is played by Michael Levy, a musician and composer, who focuses on intensively researching and recreating the ancient playing-techniques of the lyres of antiquity.

Mr Levy says his musical mission is to ‘reintroduce the beautiful lyres of antiquity back into the bland and soulless modern “musical” world.’

‘Over the last few years, I have recorded several of my own arrangements for solo lyre of the Hurrian Hymn,’ Mr Levy said.

The tablets had markings called cuneiform signs, which were a form of musical notations in the Hurrian language.

There were 29 tablets unearthed during the mission, but only one text, (text H6), was preserved well enough to allow modern reconstruction.

‘H6 is the oldest substantial fragment (almost complete) of an actual melody, so far discovered in history,’ Mr Levy told MailOnline.

‘Naturally, music, being the expression of aesthetic emotion through sound, probably even predates even our use of language, but up until this piece of music was actually discovered, no other written melodies from this period and before were ever found.’

‘The music of the Hurrian Hymn Text H6, therefore, is the oldest known example of a piece of actual written music dating from about 3,400 years ago, which can be interpreted and performed again today; over 3,400 later!’

In 1972, Professor Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, who is professor of Assyriology at the University of California, and a curator at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley, developed an interpretation of the song.

‘We are able to match the number of syllables in the text of the song with the number of notes indicated by the musical notations,’ Professor Kilmer said.

This approach produces harmonies rather than a melody of single notes.

But the chances the number of syllables would match the notation numbers without intention are astronomical, Professor Kilmer said.

The top part of the tablet contained the words and the bottom half was instructions for playing the music.

The music was also transcribed from the tablet by Dr Richard Dumbrill, expert in the archaeomusicology of the Ancient Near and Middle East.

‘There were 29 tablets unearthed during the mission,’ Dr Dumbrill explained in a YouTube video.

‘All these texts were written in the Hurrian language, and they all date about 1,400 BC.’

He added: ‘The scribes who wrote these texts were quite surely Akkadians.’

The Akkadians were a Semitic people living in what is now Syria during the Bronze Age.

The song is a cult hymn that was discovered on a set of tablets found in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit (sjhown on the map) in the early 1950s. The Hurrian tablets, including H6, are now on display in the National Museum of Damascus

The Entrance to the royal palace at Ugarit, picutred, where the Hurrian songs were found. There were 29 tablets unearthed during the mission, but only one text, (text H6), was in a sufficient state of preservation to allow for modern academic musical reconstruction

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