ancient music: Hurrian Hymns

We played music, we wrote down stories, it’s inevitable that we would start trying to preserve music in a written form too. Once the novice starts digging, there is a surprising amount of ancient evidence to be found, even if scholars can’t agree on the interpretation.

The Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal is the oldest surviving near-complete notated music we have. The Hurrians lived in Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia (i.e. modern Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) during the bronze age (in evidence very roughly between middle of third millennium, and the thirteenth century BC). The hymn, along with other song fragments carved on clay tablets in cuneiform script, was discovered in the 1950s during excavations of the ancient city of Ugarit, in modern-day Syria.

Hurrian 6 tablet. (Image credit)

The Hurrian language is not completely understood, and the Akkadian notation is open to interpretation. Consequently, there are many different approaches taken to this piece of music. It is a hymn to the goddess Nikkal who is associated with the orchard, and is wife of the Moon god Yarikh.

Numerous responses to the song can be heard online. Martin L. West, a prolific classical scholar, published a version in 1993, which has been performed by Ensemble De Organographia:

This version, like several others, is marked by a staccato stateliness which effectively evokes the ritual clichés of the twentieth-century pop-cultural attitude to ancient civilisations. I don’t mean that as a criticism by any means — only that it perfectly recreates my imagined (and historically-uninformed) atmosphere of bronze-age court music. But it is beautifully performed, and I recommend the album it appears on. You can find more interpretations along the same lines (one, two, three, four).

It’s no surprise to find that the Hymn to Nikkal has inspired modern variations: among them, a project in New York and a modern orchestral setting by Syrian composer and pianist Malek Jandali. Jandali’s piece owes its melodic inspiration to the recent interpretation by archaeomusicologist Richard Dumbrill — an interpretation which has also been set to an ancient lyre by Michael Levy. In addition to his scholarly publications, Dumbrill has argued for his interpretation across a number of You Tube videos (one of the most recent of which is here). Here, he concludes that the hymn is a song without instrumental accompaniment: ‘an instrumental accompaniment to this song — prayer, as far we understand it — would be incongruous with the private nature of this young woman’s prayer: asking the goddess Nikkal to make her fertile’. He makes a convincing case, and the resulting recording is freed from the staccato style of the other versions. In comparison, these other versions sound tentative and restrained — almost mechanical — as if afraid to allow emotions and feelings to obscure the text. Instead, we hear the song as something far more arresting and human.