Hurrian Hymn Text H6 (circa 1400 BCE) - Performed in the Just Intonation of Antiquity

Michael Levy
Ancient Mesopotamian Musical Fragment


The first track featured on my 2nd compilation album, "Musical Adventures in Time Travel"  - my most recent arrangement for solo lyre, of one of the oldest known written musical fragments so far discovered in History, in my performance of Dr Richard Dumbrill's interpretation of the 3400 year old Hurrian Hymn (Text H6) from ancient Ugarit in Mesopotamia.

Hurrian Hymn (Text H6) was discovered in Ugarit in Syria in the early 1950's and was preserved for 3400 years on a clay tablet, written in the Cuneiform text of the ancient Hurrian language. Although 29 musical texts were discovered at Ugarit, only this text, (text H6), was in a sufficient state of preservation to allow for modern academic musical reconstruction. In short, the Cuneiform text clearly indicated specific names for lyre strings, and their respective musical intervals – a sort of “Guitar tablature”, for lyre!

Although discovered in modern day Syria, the Hurrians were not Syrian – they came from modern-day Anatolia. The Hurrian Hymn actually dates to the very end of the Hurrian civilisation (circa1400 BCE). Indeed, the ancient Hurrian civilization dated back to at least 3000 BCE. The evocation of the ancient Kinnor Lyre from neighbouring Israel, on which I perform the piece, is almost tonally identical to the wooden asymmetric-shaped lyres played throughout the Middle East at this amazingly distant time...

The melody is an interpretation by Richard Dumbrill, from the ambiguous Cuneiform text of the Hurrian language in which it was written. Although many of the meanings of the Hurrian language are now lost in the mists of time, it can be established that the fragmentary Hurrian Hymn which has been found on these precious clay tablets are dedicated to Nikkal; the wife of the moon god. There are several such interpretations of this melody, but to me, the fabulous interpretation by Richard Dumbrill just somehow sounds the most "authentic".

My first arrangement of the Hurrian Hymn originally featured in my album, “An Ancient Lyre” & a remixed version of the same arrangement, as track 1 on my 1st compilation album, "Ancient Landscapes". In my new arrangement fo the Hurrina Hymn featured in this 2nd compilation, I play the melody on my new hand-made lyre, tuning my lyre as the ancients once did, using the pristine purity of the just intonation of antiquity... 

In just intonation, to achieve absolute purity of each musical interval in a scale, the ratio of every single musical interval is precisely calculated in rational numbers. As the ratio of each interval is very slightly different in just intonation, since the time of Bach, modern equal temperament eventually came to predominate - as all the intervals in equal temperament are artificially made equal, this enables the seamless transposition to different keys, without any change in the ratio of the intervals. 

However, although seamless transposition & modulation between keys is therefore possible in equal temperament, the terrible consequence of equal temperament is that apart from the octave, all the other intervals are all artificially made slightly out of tune! Indeed, out of tune “wooowooowoo” sounding beat waves can clearly be heard, whenever a triad is played on a piano.

The effects of hearing music in the lost purity of just intonation, is a much more serene, yet at the same time, inspiring feeling, with much more intensity of the emotion. Music performed in poor compromise of equal temperament is, in comparison, like a rose without its scent...

In this new arrangement of the melody, I also use much more authentic-sounding natural fibre strings on my lyre, for the finishing touches to the ancient timbre I wish to convey. The strings of my lyre were made of wound silk by ancient musical string technology expert, Peter Pringle – the nearest match in tone, to the unpolished wound gut strings once used in antiquity.

In the repeat featured in my arrangement of the melody, I explore a heterophonic development of the 3400 year old melody deciphered by Dumbrill, featuring an ancient Mesopotamian percussive style of lyre playing, whereby the strings of the lyre, instead of being plucked with either the fingers or a plectrum, are hit with a wooden baton (similar to a modern hammered dulcimer). This technique can be seen on the famous Bas Reliefs of musicians from the ruins of the Palace at Nineveh - these reliefs date back to c.700BCE.

In my arrangement of the Hurrian Hymn, I have attempted to illustrate an interesting diversity of ancient lyre playing techniques, ranging from the use of "block and strum" improvisation at the end, glissando's, trills & tremolos, and alternating between harp-like tones in the left hand produced by finger-plucked strings, and guitar-like tones in the right hand, produced by use of the plectrum. In all my solo lyre playing, I also experiment some basic homophony – contrary to the “urban myth” of the monotony of monophony in the ancient world...

There is also a fascinating modern arrangement for piano & orchestra of Dumbrill’s interpretation of the melody of Hurrian Hymn Text H6, by the Syrian pianist & composer Malek Jandali, entitled “Echoes of Ugarit”. However, to my knowledge, my arrangement of the melody in this compilation is quite possibly, for the first time in 3400 years, that the Hurrian Hymn has been authentically performed on an actual lyre with natural fibre strings, in the pristine purity of the just intonation of antiquity...


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