The Oldest Known Melody–from Assyria, 1400 B.C.

Hurritische_hymne (1)

Scholars translating clay cuneiform tablets from ancient Assyria have discovered musical notations.  Musician Michael Levy has performed the melody on a lyre.  So we can hear a piece of music from over 3400 years ago, the oldest that has been recreated today.  I’ve embedded the YouTube performance.  But go to the link to read about the background in which Levy explains the discovery, gives its historical and archaeological context, and gives further links to more scholarship.

The melody is known as “Hurrian Hymn No. 6.”  The Hurrians were not Assyrians, as such.  Just as the Israelites were not Assyrians in their time of captivity there.  That was around 740 B.C., so this music predates the siege of Jerusalem and the obliteration of the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 17-18) by some 700 years.  For more information, go here.  The song is identified on the tablet as a hymn to the Moon Goddess, Nikkal, wife of Yrikh.

Because this was a hymn in a religious culture that changed very slowly, there is the possibility that this music is far older than when it was written down on these particular tablets, which have been dated to 1400 B.C.  The musical transcription is a form of tablature, showing the intervals on each string of the lyre.

Yes, I know that there is some speculation about how the music would have sounded and various interpretations.  And, yes, I know this isn’t exactly new information, the YouTube performance dating from 2009, but it’s new to me, so maybe it’s new to you as well.  (HT to  Mary Moerbe for showing this to me.)

One wonders if the style and the sound might be similar to the music the ancient Hebrews played.  As in this lament on the occasion of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews:

By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows[a] there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord‘s song
    in a foreign land? (Psalm 137)

That last poignant question is one that Christians may well ask again if we find ourselves in another cultural exile.  But, in the meantime, enjoy the haunting beauty of this ancient music.

Illustration:  Copy of the music cuneiform, by Juni at nl.wikipedia (Transferred from nl.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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