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Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal

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The oldest surviving written melody so far discovered in History which can be reconstructed, was the Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal - catalogued by archaeologists as 'Hurrian Hymn Text H6'. This is the newest arrangement of the several others I have recorded over the years (and is hopefully my most authentic arrangement to date).

The musical notation for this 3,400-year-old melody was discovered in Ugarit, Northern Canaan (now forming the Southern part of modern Syria) in the early 1950s and was preserved inscribed on a clay tablet; written in the Cuneiform text of the ancient Hurrian language:

"Thought to be 3,400 years old, this relic has been in Damascus since 1955, following its discovery by a group of French archaeologists in the coastal town of Ugarit...The artefact records the Hurrian Hymn, a song directed to the goddess Nikkal [wife of the moon god]. Ugaritans worshipped a number of deities, each one specific to the various parts of their lives. Nikkal, meaning "Great Lady and Fruitful", was the goddess of the orchards....

For now, at least, the exact lyrical content of the Hurrian Hymn remains partly concealed, although a translation undertaken by Hans-Jochen Thiel in 1977 is considered closest to the original's spirit" (Article in "The National").

In short, the tablet had the text of a song, which was an invocation to the Ugaritic goddess Nikkal, goddess of the orchards and wife of the moon god, Yarikh, to bestow her fertility upon barren women - here is a partial translation of the song, from the surviving portion of the original Hurrian text:

"(Once I have) endeared (the deity), she will love me in her heart,
the offer I bring may wholly cover my sin,
bringing sesame oil may work on my behalf in awe may I...
The sterile may they make fertile.
Grain may they bring forth.
She, the wife, will bear (children) to the father.
May she who has not yet borne children bear them."

The melody of Hurrian Hymn Text H6 was interpreted by Dr.Richard Dumbrill (one of several academic interpretations of the melody), from the ambiguous Cuneiform text of the Hurrian language in which it was written. Although discovered in modern day Syria, the Hurrians were not Syrian – they came from modern day Anatolia. The Hurrian Hymn dates to the very end of the Hurrian civilization (c.1400 BCE). The origin of the Hurrian civilization dates to at least 3000 BCE.

In short, the lower part of the text which Dumbrill transcribed (the Hurrian musical notation below the words of the song), was in a corruption of Akkadian Babylonian, in which the specific names of 9 lyre strings represented the specific changes in pitch - which according to Dr Richard Dumbrill, clearly showed the outline of a 3,400 year old Bronze Age melody which distinctively features descending 5ths and ascending 3rds.

There were also numerical values given next to some of the lines of the text of the song - when Dumbrill added up the number of syllables in the text of the song in relation to the number of notes in his interpretation of the melody, remarkably, the curious numerical values written after some of the lines of the text actually precisely added up to the sum of the extra notes required which were not indicated by the syllables of the text! There are several such interpretations of this melody by other musicologists, but to me, the interpretation of Dr. Dumbrill just intuitively somehow sounds the most 'authentic'.

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, as Richard Dumbrill recently explained to me via direct email correspondence:

"Altogether, in the Library of the Royal Palace of Ugarit, 29 music tablets were found, all in pieces. Only one could be reconstructed, H6. This is the one I have used for my interpretation."

In 2013, Richard Dumbrill arranged and recorded a purely vocal rendition of his interpretation of the Hurrian Hymn, in the original elusive Hurrian language. Here is what he kindly explained to me, when I asked about how his interpretation of the melody differs from similar attempts made at interpreting the melody of Hurrian Hymn Text H6, made by the musicologists, Martin R West, Kilmer & Krispijn:

"The differences in interpretations of this text mainly come from the insistence of Western scholars to interpret Semitic (Jewish and non-Jewish) music as if it responded to Western music theory which is essentially Christian material. Semitic, (Arabian Jewish, Christian and Islamic) music uses filled intervals called 'ajnas' or ''uqud' which are sets used in sequential order. West, Kilmer, Krispijn etc. know nothing about Semitic musicology and therefore understand intervals as being empty and played together a dyads, or as chords of 2 notes. The same scholars are also limited by the octave which is the boundary of Western music while Semitic music is not restricted by the octavial notion. This is why my interpretation is melodic while others are not.
In respect of the Hurrian language, it is with great caution that we should apprehend it. Too little is known about it. Was it melismatic or not in the context of Ugarit, we do not know. Initially my voicing of the Hurrian text equated to the number of beats in the piece. But that does not mean much.

Recently I recorded my latest version, in Byblos, Lebanon and in Damascus with the advice of local musicians who felt that it should be 'maqamised' as I have produced it in this version".

According to Dumbrill, Maqamian microtonalism is the only way to understand the tablets. In short, whereas most other academic interpretations of the melody sound too 'Western', Dumbrill, in his musicological studies of Semitic (both Arabic and Jewish ancient Middle Eastern music), realized that the actual musical outline of the melody could be 'Maqamised' in the ancient traditional Middle Eastern style.
Regarding whether the Hurrian Hymns were originally meant to be accompanied or sang solo, we will probably never know for sure, but since the lyre was quite literally, 'the guitar of the Bronze Age' in being the most commonly used instrument that was used to accompany the human voice in these distant times, a typical asymmetrical Canaanite form of lyre would be the most likely type of lyre that may have once accompanied the Hurrian Hymns – exactly the same type of lyre featured in this recording!

Circumstantial evidence for the performance of a similar Canaanite style of lyre to accompany the Hurrian Hymns, can be found at Ugarit itself - there is a carving of a female musician from Ugarit, playing this very same type of lyre:

The 'Leiden Lyre' upon which my replica Bronze Age lyre is based, actually dates to more or less precisely the time of the Hurrian Hymns; which in conjunction with the exotic Middle Eastern mode used in this arrangement in my attempt to 'Maqamize' the melodic line interpreted by Dumbrill and the distinctive buzzing timbre of this lyre, for me, brings both the 3,400 year old text of the song and the melody, more truly 'back to life'...