Music in Assyria and Babylonia Foreword



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Music in Assyria and Babylonia
Foreword

As we well know, the earliest civilization in human history was that of Mesopotamia.

This civilization is known as the Sumero-Akkadian civilization.

"… it seems unwise to refer to the people of either Sumer or Akkad, per se, as the creators or stabilizers of this culture, since we know little or nothing of the earlier history of either."1

Features of this culture have survived from the fifth millennium down to the Christian era.

For example, we observe that Assyrian bells are embossed with symbols of Ea, the divine patron of music, which points to an animistic past. Or, the skin used in the Babylonian drum was made of the hide of a bull, and as late as 312 BC, during the Seleucid era, the temple of Ea, Lumkha, was the place of an elaborate ritual involving the fixing of the skin head of this sacred instrument.

There was symbolism in the Mesopotamian music, with the bull representing strength, reflected in the deafening roar of the drum, and with the reed representing weakness, reflected in the plaintive sigh of the pipe. The sound of the drum was considered as the personification of the essence of god Ea, as was the reed pipe (Khalkhallatu) likened to the breath of god Ramman, who commanded the thunder and the wind, and was conceived as the spirit of sonorous voice.2

Music was not only a means of expression and delight to the senses, but it was also a communal activity prescribed by religion. The Gudea texts from Lagash (22nd century BC) explicitly remind the worshipper how pleasing to the gods, especially to Ningirsu, are the sacred hymns, the psalms and lamentations chanted by trained singers in accordance with a well-defined liturgy, accompanied by lyres, flutes, cymbals and drums.3

Music and mastery of musical instruments was a source of pride even to kings. Shulgi (2095-2048), succeeded his father, Ur-Nammu (2113-2096), and became king of the Third Dynasty of Ur.

The fame of Shulgi was so great that hymns were written in his honor, and he was depicted as an incarnate god. In praise of Shulgi they have described him as a man who could play every musical instrument, even the obsolete ones, a masterly musician, a splendid singer, a writer of incomparable hymns and songs.4

One of the names of goddess Ishtar was 'the soft reed pipe', and the name of her partner, Tammuz, was 'the god of the tender voice'. It was with such fantasies that sound, music, was regarded as the anima of all phenomena, and used to supplicate and summon benevolent and malevolent nature. This was the foundation upon which elaborate temple services of Mesopotamia were built.5

It would be pleasant to be able to translate a written score and hear this ancient music. In this article, a brief mention of efforts by musicologists and Assyriologists, and their recorded music, shall be made.
The Instruments of Music

Our knowledge about the instruments of music in Mesopotamia comes from two sources, the existence of actual specimens and delineations on clay tablets and seals.

These instruments may be classified according to the way they produce sound, as follows:


  1. Percussion instruments,

  2. Wind instruments, and

  3. String instruments.

Among the percussion instruments, there are actual specimens of clappers from Ur (twenty-fifth century BC), and from Kish that consist of a pair of copper blades. Also discovered at Ur is the sistrum or sistra6, but all that remains are the jingling plates.

From Assyria we have a bell and sonnettes (small metallic bell with handle) dating from 600 BC.

Cymbals occur in two kinds: the plate type, seen on a Babylonian plaque (1100 BC) and a cup type of late Assyrian times (eighth-seventh centuries BC). Modern cymbals consist of a pair of concave plates of brass or copper that are each held in one hand and struck together.

There are a variety of drums explained in texts and shown in art remains.

The Akkadian Lilissu was a bronze kettledrum, but a smaller variety was known as uppu.

A grand-daughter of Naram-Sin(ca. 2280 BC) played on a drum called timbutu in Akkadian, which corresponds with tabalu. Timbutu possibly survives in the Persian dunbaq, and tabalu, certainly, in the Arabic tabl. Tambourines, which are frame drums, existed in many sizes. A monster frame drum can be seen on the stele of Ur-Nammu (c. 2070 B.C.), and is now in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Another such drum from the time of Gudea (2200 B.C.) is at Paris.7
Of the wind instruments the woodwind instruments were the most important.

The Akkadian malilu is a long vertical flute, the shorter one being tigu.

There were reed pipes and oboes, and the reed pipe was called Khalkhallatu.

A double cylindrical metallic reed pipe is at the Philadelphia Museum.

Among wind instruments mention must be made of horns and trumpets. The Aramaic name for horn was qarna. A long metal trumpet can be identified in the hands of a kneeling figure on the stele of Naram-Sin (c. 2280 B.C.). In the late Assyrian period a long trumpet is clearly depicted in two art works from the eight-seventh centuries B.C., and an actual fragment has been preserved.

The Syriac name of the pipe is mashroqitha, and its root is sharaq. Masroqitha is as old as Judges (V. 16), where it refers to the sounds of the shepherd's pipe, an instrument called sharqoqitha in Talmudic times.8


Musicologists are most interested in the string instruments of Mesopotamian music. The most remarkable of these are the harp and the kithara family. The harp has undergone evolutionary stages, such as in lower chested and the upper-chested harps. In the lower-chested harp we see three distinct forms. In the first, from about 2700 B.C., found on a slab from khafaja, now in Chicago, we have an upright portable instrument having a neck and sound-chest graduated in one piece. Different names are given according to the number of strings, such as shibitu for the seven-stringed, shishatu, for the six-stringed and eshirtu for the ten-stringed harp.

The upper-chested harp has been identified with the Akkadian zaggal, thought to be the parent of the Persian chang.

The kithara family has some unique specimens. One example delineated on art remains is a folk instrument from the late Assyrian period of the eight-seventh century B.C. It has an asymmetrical construction, an outline that is seen in the instruments of the professionals. A rectangular type occurs on the Tell Halaf relief from the third millennium B.C., while another one is in the Assyrian art remains from the eight to the seventh centuries B.C. The most outstanding of these instruments was the grand kithara. It is depicted on the standard of Ur and on seals from the twenty fifth century B.C.

Thus we see that for 3000 years before the Christian era at least, ancient Mesopotamia had instruments of music of varied character and of a very high and advanced degree of construction.9


Music of the Temples

The cities of Mesopotamia had their temples in the fourth millennium BC. Within these temples were worshipped the many gods of the pantheon. In this center of intellectual and cultural life, the priests, liturgists, mathematicians and astrologers passed their lives in quiet seclusion.

First among the liturgists was the precentor, known in Akkadian as the kalu. The liturgist was not a priest, that is he was not a consecrated functionary, but it was his duty to chant and intone the liturgy, just like the role of deacons in the Assyrian churches.10

There were three classes of kalu (precentors), during the Sumerian period. The highest position was held by the Akkadian kalamakhu, who held the highest position in the city, a position of sacred significance.

These precentors, it seems were housed in the temple college, and were formed into a guild, just like the vicars-choral in the Christian Europe. Here, they were trained in the chant, kalutu, and taught the mysteries of their sacred office. Similarly, the prae-cantus of the Christian Church was an art that required long training. In this early period, the Sumerian language, like Latin in the Roman Church, was the language of the liturgies, but later, an interlinear Akkadian version appeared. These precentors were well versed in the sciences, but their most important work was as copyists and editors of the temple liturgies.

Next was the ordinary temple musician, called in Akkadian nāru. The duties of this nāru are not quite clear, but he was possibly a singer in the choir, who with others, made the responses in the liturgies. The naru, or chorister, also played upon an instrument. At burial services it was the naru and not the kalu who contributed to the sorrowful psalming and wailing. Later, the naru is seen quite frequently in the secular sphere. Alongside the naru, there was the zammeru, who was also a singer who took part in the liturgy but his specific functions are not easy to determine. The lowest in the category of precentors was counted in a menial grade.11

Generally, the precentor (kalu) specialized in chanting (kalutu), and sometimes accompanied himself on an instrument. In some texts he shall sing is "izamur" and when the patient shall recite it is "immanu". A singer of the choir, a chorister, whether he was a naru or zammēru, had the job of chanting what was called in Akkadian sirkhu. Then there was the penitential psalm called zamāru, which has a derivative in Hebrew in the form of mizmōr. It is possible to match the Akkadian zamar tushgi and zamar sheri to the Hebrew mizmōr shiggaion and the mizmōr shir, as seen in Psalms vii, lxvii, lxviii. The cult wail may have been known as alālu [a word resembling halhalah, cry of exaltation], but some believe it is shout of joy.

If shouts of joy is correct for alālu, then it may have given rise to the name of the sixth month elūl, which was the time for wailing for Tammuz.

The vehicle by which temple music was expressed has come down to us in the form of liturgies, breviaries (summaries). Psalms, and songs, edited by Langdon, Reisner, Ebeling and others. Langdon has said that a full index of this musical material "would rival that of the Roman or Anglican books of devotion".12

When the public services of the temple developed, the music which had hitherto been confined to a single instrument, became based on a wider instrumental conception.

These public services date back from the Sumerian times and consisted of a single psalm or hymn set to a reed pipe and known as eršemma. Other instruments, too, were used to accompany the psalm, such as the flute, drum, kettledrum and tambourine. The eršemma was supplanted by a complete liturgical service called the kišub, before the first Babylonian dynasty (1830 BC).

The kišub was attended by a procession on the part of the choir, a choral march, a real recessional was performed at the end of the litany.13

It is agreed by those who analyzed these works that the antiphon (gišgigal), or alternation between two groups of singers, was fairly common, and there was the Akkadian word enū, meaning 'answer' or 'repeat'.

In a Babylonian antiphonal lamentation in Akkadian of a later period, which is a copy of a Sumerian original from the time of Naram-Sin (c. 2280 BC), the women of various towns participated, and were divided into two groups, each group singing alternately the lines that were appropriate to themselves in the destruction of their land by the Guti. Another example of antiphony is the Liturgy and Prayer to the Moon God. This one dates from the time of Dungi (twenty first century BC), and is an appeal to the moon god Sin to care for flocks and harvests. It has two recurring refrains that are in response to one another.

The harp had an important place in these services, and it was used during the oracles of the high priest.

As to the verbal form and content of the Mesopotamian liturgy it has been praised as 'the greatest system of musical ritual in any ancient religion'.14


Secular Music

The generic Akkadian word for music is nigūtu or ningūtu, which also alludes to merry-making and joy.

In the art remains we have scenes such as the one displayed on a seal showing a peasant playing flute for his herd. There are other similar scenes in the art remains, which testify to the fact that music was part of the life of people. In some instances music in Mesopotamia, was considered as part of education. Some researchers have said, "the old danced while the young made music"15

There were labor songs aimed at facilitating the work, like the picture showing Assyrians felling palm trees while singers and drummers are making music. There is another picture showing Arabs, as prisoners of war, working as slaves in Nineveh, and singing their native songs. The idle Assyrians seem to be begging for more [the irony is that, today, the picture has reversed itself].

The Standard of Ur (twenty-fifth century BC) shows a singer and another one playing the grand kithara [a stringed instrument similar to the harp], performing at a banquet planned to dispel gloom, which shows the magic side of music. From the same period there are several seals showing festive scenes with instruments and dancing, where not only the grand kithara, but the harp, sistrum [a small hand-held instrument that rattles and jingles when shaken], and clappers are used.

It is interesting to see representations of animals, or mummers dressed in animal skin, playing the kithara, harp, pandora, tambourines, drums and the like, in scenes that are not religious.

All these testify to the fact that from the early Sumerian to the late Assyrian times, music was an integral part of life in Mesopotamia.

Assyria, from an early period was fond of religious and secular music. During the war times of Tiglat-Pileser I (c. 1113 BC) there was a grand personage in the royal palace named the rab Zammēre or chief musician. It is also written that the royal musicians gave public performances "to gladden the hearts of the people of Ashur."16 It is worth nothing that when the Assyrians conquered a city they would bring the musicians as part of the booty. Images in stone from the time of Ashur-nasir-pal II (c. 883-859 BC) provide ample evidence of music and musical instruments.

On a sculptured slab in the British Museum we see two players on the lower-chested harp.

Sargon II (c. 722-705 BC) also employed the joyous art of music in the celebration of his victories.

When Sennacherib invaded Syria around 701 BC, he sent one of his generals to lay siege to Jerusalem.

To save his own life, the king of Judah sent his wives and his daughters, and also his musicians, both male and female, as a gift. In a bas-relief dating from this same period, now in the British Museum, two musicians are playing the upper-chested harp and the diagonal kithara, while two court functionaries are facing them with batons of office in their hands, as time-beaters.17

When Esar-Haddon (680-669) ascended the throne, he entered Nineveh while musicians were playing the lower-chested harp.When Teumman, the king of Elam, invaded Assyrian territory, Ashur-banipal sought counsel from Ishtar, who quieted his fears and advised him to turn to music and feasting. Ashur-banipal obeyed the counsel of Ishtar, and in the midst of these pleasures came the news of the defeat and death of Teumman. The joyous scenes of the victory celebrations with music have been recorded in stone.

Assyrian kings were quick to understand the purpose that music might serve in warfare and employed it to stimulate the passion of the soldiers. In a relief from Nineveh, now in the British Museum, we see a military band and procession, indicating the origin of our military band.18

About the orchestra of King Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 BC) it is said to be comprised of qarna (horn), mashroqita (pipe), kithara, or cithara, similar to harp, sabbeka (a triangular lower-chested harp), and the upper-chested harp. It is said that when Holophernes, the Assyrian general descended upon Syria, the petty kings, in order to appease him, received him with crowns, illuminations and dancing to drums and reed pipes.19

With the Assyrians the court poet and singer of verses (minstrel) held a high position as his apparel denotes. His place among the elite was the top one, coming immediately after gods and kings.



"During the period of Assyrian rulers (1270 to 606), however, secular music becomes more prominent. It was important in the various festivals, and musicians were attached to the royal households. The court minstrel was held in high regard, and musicians performed not only for the royal household at banquets and on other occasions but also gave public performances which the people at large could hear, and played for marshal occasions. Such performances no doubt influenced music in its more popular forms."20

Later, Achaemenians too had a minstrel at the court, and it was him that warned the Median king Astyages [585-550 BC] of the aims of Cyrus II [559-529].

At this period crowds of singing girls graced the palaces of Achaemenian kings, as testified by Xenophon.

The singing girls later became the Arabian qainat, a word denoting both singing girls and female attendants. The parent word for qainat is the Akkadian kinati (female attendants).

Ctesias, the Greek historian, who was also the physician of Artaxerxes II (404-358 BC), writes that one of the Babylonian king's lieutenants had 150 of these female singers at his table. Furthermore, when Parmenio, the Greek general, conquered Damascus, he took 329 of the singing girls from the court of Darius III (d. 330 BC). When Alexander the Great entered Babylon, he was greeted by a crowd of magi chanting hymns, followed by Chaldean diviners and astrologers and musicians with string instruments.

How this music sounded we do not know21, but we know there were workers' and shepherds' songs, youth songs, love ballads, expressing lofty thoughts.22


Secular Music

Chaldean Traditions

In the book of Daniel reference is made to the band of king Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.).

The famous passage may probably be interpreted as follows: As soon as ye shall hear the sound of the horn (qarna), the pipes (masroqitha), the lyre (qatros0, the lower-chested harp (sabbeka), the upper-chested harp (psantrin), the full consort (sumfonyah), and all kinds of instruments, ye shall fall down and worship the image which Nebuchadnezzar the King has set up. (Daniel 3:4)

The mention of the instruments first separately and then together suggests that prominence was given to solo instruments before they performed together as an ensemble.

In Chaldean times the tradition of astrology emerges more clearly, and musical theory was closely connected with astrology and mathematics. The astronomers who watched the motion of stars held that there was perfect harmony throughout the universe, and that the motions of stars affected the destinies of people. Since man and the universe were so closely interrelated, man could come into tune with the universe by making music whose principles reflected this perfect harmony.

Mathematical symbolism played a large part in these studies, leading to a number of correspondences between the cosmos and the harmonic divisions of a stretched string.

Thus the primary division s of a string-length gave four intervals which can be expressed in mathematical ratios as follows:

1:1 (unison),

1:2 (octave),

2:3 (fifth),

3:4 (fourth).

These they correlated with the four seasons: spring, summer, winter, and autumn.

Numbers, too, had important properties, especially numbers 4 and 7, and number 7 was, most probably, the number of notes in the ancient Chaldean scale.

There is reason to believe that, the philosopher Pythagoras (sixth century B.C.), after a long period of study in the Mesopotamian schools of learning, brought back the science of harmonics and the principles of the musical scale to Greece. There he and his followers formulated their doctrines relating to the harmony of the spheres, the ethos, or magical effects of modes, and the efficacy of numbers, which were later handed on to Europe. Thus it may be in Mesopotamia that the origins of our musical scale and much of our theory of music had their beginning, though there have been many changes during the successive stages of transmission.23


The Theory of Music

With regard to the theory of music of Mesopotamians nothing has been unearthed, but we know about it from Greek writers. As we saw above, the heaven and the stars had become a source of wonderment, and this led to the deification of the planets as protectors of man. From the Greeks we learn that the fame of Babylon for its mathematical and occult accomplishments had reached the western world, and had become a center of attraction for scholars who would converge toward Mesopotamian centers of learning. One of those attracted was the famous Pythagoras24. There, that is in Babylon, according to Valerius Maximus, Pythagoras learned about the motion of stars, their native properties, and their effect and influence on mankind.

The peoples of the Fertile Crescent had an elaborate cosmic system based on the belief that there is a spiritual relationship between the stars and the people. It was this belief that gave birth to such tenets as the 'harmony of the spheres', the 'doctrine of the ethos', and the 'theory of numbers'. According to Babylonians, music was a cosmic ingredient that possessed qualities and sensibilities, which could evoke similar effects if the right kind of music was used. For example, one kind of music could banish depression, another alleviate grief, and a third one could put a check on passion while another would eliminate fear.25

"One wonders whether the Mesopotamian kalū or precentor petitioned those 'Lords of the Heavens', as they called the planets, through their appropriate musical ratios."26

Pythagoras taught that the universe was constructed according to musical ratio, and that the seven planets emitted consonant sounds producing exquisite music.

On the other hand trust in the theory of numbers was an integral part of the theory of music.

In Mesopotamia number was believed to have an active force, having properties that were sacred.

Philo Judaeus writes that "the law of the Chaldeans, taken symbolically, is mathematical speculation, and he saw that these people, by availing themselves of the principles of music, had imagined the most perfect harmony existing throughout the universe."27 According to this cosmic scheme some numbers had greater efficacy than others, and so the numbers seven and four were believed to be among those. It was believed that nature itself had made both numbers sacrosanct, by making the number of planets equal to seven and the sum of the sides of the quadrangle and the triangle, both of which were used in the divinations, also equal to seven. It is no wonder that the Babylonian scale was based on seven tones [heptatonic scale], and linked to the planetary system as the manifestation of the will of gods.28
Musical Notation

When a certain number of cuneiform tablets, dating from 800 BC, were published in Berlin in 1896 they were proclaimed to reveal a musical notation. The claim for a notation was based on certain vocal characters, or vowels, in the tablets, placed in the beginning, the middle and at the end of a line, rather than over words. For this reason these vocal characters were thought to represent tonalities, rather than notes.29

Attempts to transcribe the music notation failed to produce a commonly accepted solution, until quite recently.
The Musical Heritage

Both Greeks and Romans have acknowledged their indebtedness to the Orient.

Strabo says that ancient music is from Thrace [Greece, between River Danube and the Black Sea], and that considering its melody, rhythm, and instruments, all Thracian music is supposed to be Asiatic.30

The legend of Orpheus, the father of songs, is also Thracian. It is accepted that all these refinements came through Asia Minor to Thrace.

Hyagnis and Marsyas, the two semi-mythical originators of the flute and reed pipes, were both Phrygians [west of modern Turkey]. "The shades of Babylon, learned and wise, may be discerned over the shoulders of many of these reputed founders of the arts and sciences in Greece, mythical though they may be."31

Cleonides [Greek theorist 2nd century AD], on behalf of Terpander [Greek poet and singer 647 BC] says that the lyre had four strings until he made them seven, which Strabo seems to confirm.



"Whence did this inspiration come? Could it have been Babylon? If we can trust pseudo-Plutarch it would appear that the Greeks at this time were most conservative in musical matters. Boëthius [Roman scholar, AD 470-524] says that it was the seven planets which suggested this number of strings to Terpander, a statement which agrees with a Mesopotamian origin."32

The Linus myth in Greece, which represents a god musician and the creator of the Linus song, is simply the older Mesopotamian legend of Tammuz.33

From the Orient instruments of music found their way into Greece. Strabo says ' And those who have consecrated the whole of Asia, as far as India, to Dionysus [also called Bacchus, god of wine and ecstasy], derive the greater part of music from there.'34 The word 'kithara' may not be Greek. At one time it was called 'asias kithara', but sometimes it was simply called 'asias'.35

Horace 36 tells us about Oriental female reed-pipers in Rome, that is Syrian ambubaiae, who, as their name reveals, they played the Akkadian reed-pipe imbubu, in spite of the Syriac equivalent being abbūba.

The most marked effect of Mesopotamian musical culture on Greece is discernible in the Pythagorean traditions. Both Greek and Persian writers claim that Pythagoras himself was born in Syria, and that later went to Egypt, was taken captive by Cambyses and carried to Babylon. There, says Iamblichus37, he was instructed by the priests 'in their venerable knowledge, and learned from them the most perfect worship of the gods. Through their assistance likewise, he arrived at the summit of arithmetic, [the theory of] music, and other disciplines.'38 After twelve years at Babylon he settled at Samos [Greek Island in the Aegean Sea], where, because of his learning, he was immediately dubbed a sophos (Akkadian āšipu).39

It was through Pythagoras and his disciples that Greece became acquainted with the 'harmony of spheres', the 'principles of the ethos', and the theory of the 'efficacy of numbers', already mentioned above.

Plutarch [Greek biographer and author] writes that the Chaldeans connected musical intervals with the seasons, that is the fourth (3:4) was Autumn, the fifth (2:3) was Winter, the octave (1:2) = Summer and the tonic (1:1) = Spring). We must not forget that Iamblichus, the Syrian philosopher mentioned above, had testified that it was the people of Babylonia who discovered the harmonic proportion, which Pythagoras introduced into Greece. It seems therefore not unlikely that our present system is based on the theory of music possessed by Mesopotamia.40

Although the peoples of Mesopotamia never had a permanent hegemony over the lands of eastern Mediterranean, their culture dominated Syrian, Phoenician, and Hittite lands, and it was from there that it infiltrated into Greece and Egypt, to become the seed for the intellectual development of the West.

We can dimly recognize the germ of our own religious practices, not only in the liturgy, the penitential psalm, the antiphon [singing a psalm or anthem, responsively], the precentor [leader of singing of a choir], the incense, but also in the Mater Dolorosa [Grieving Mother]. One cannot doubt the great influence of the Mesopotamian temples upon the late Jewish Church and upon Christianity. Suffice to recall that the Mesopotamian kalu or temple precentor had to be skilled in the eight-day liturgy, each day having a different tone. The Hebrew sheminith in the captions of the psalms refer to an eighth mode, as Isaac ben Abraham ibn Latif (13th century) affirms. Could that practice have been the reason for the Syriac ikhadias of the Jacobite Church, the octoëchos of the Byzantine Church, and the eight Gregorian tones of the Roman Church?41
Sounds From Silence

"Some literate musically expert Sumerians, presumably kalus, had even devised a musical notation. This notation, which comprised a series of terms for musical intervals interspersed with numerals, has been recognised and interpreted in recent decades by the very few specialists who combine expertise in Assyriology and musicology; we have to thank them for giving us an approximate idea of how Sumerian music sounded. A record of the music has been published, with an accompanying explanatory booklet: A.D. Kilmer, R.L. Crocker and R.R. Brown, Sounds From Silence (Berkeley, Calif., 1976).42

Among the cuneiform tablets found in Mesopotamia and Syria, there are some that have attracted the attention of musicologists. How did the music of the ancients sound? Did they have music notation?

Four tablets have enabled musicologists to reconstruct the scale and the tuning system in Mesopotamian music. These tablets, from 1800 BC, are written in the Akkadian language, and come from Assyrian and Babylonian cultures. Of the four tablets, two are from Ur, one is from Assur and the fourth is from Nippur.

In addition to the mentioned four tablets, there is another tablet excavated in the ancient city of Ugarit, modern Ras Shamra on the Syrian seacoast. This tablet contains the complete text of a Hurrian43 cult hymn, whose lyrics are written in the Hurrian language, but the musical instructions and notation are terms borrowed from Akkadian, which became known as a result of the translation of the four tablets mentioned above. It is this Hurrian tablet, from around 1400 BC, that has provided the musical notation of a hymn with its words.

The first Babylonian tablet was studied by the Assyriologist Benno Landsberger of the oriental Institute, University of Chicago and by Dr. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, first at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, then at the University of California, Berkley.

The first musicologist to examine these texts was Marcelle Duschesne-Guillemin (Liege, Belgium).

Dr. Kilmer conceived the idea of building a working model, a replica, of the ancient instruments in order to demonstrate the Babylonian music system, also to perform the oldest music known as the Hurrian hymn.

Professor R.R. Brown, of the Berkeley Physics Department, constructed two replicas of the ancient silver lyre from the royal tombs of Ur. Professor Richard L. Crocker, a musicologist from the Music Department of the university of California, Berkeley, presented the hymn as a song with accompaniment played on the lyre replica.

Dr. Kilmer translated and arranged the Hurrian hymn from the text on a tablet that is now in a museum at Damascus.

The work of Dr. Kilmer, Dr. Crocker and Dr. Brown was published, in 1976, under the title "Sounds from Silence", on a vinyl record of 33 rpm, and a 23 page booklet with pictures, the music, the history and an explanation of their work. Today, a CD has been added to the package that includes the song, once sung by Dr. Anne Kilmer, then by Dr. Crocker, and an explanation about tuning.

Later Janet Smith, a musicologist from Berkeley, joined Dr. Kilmer in an effort to study the procedures for rough tuning and adjusting of the ancient musical string instruments, such as the lyre.

In the course of this cooperation Dr. Kilmer, who is often called to give lectures about the ancient near eastern music, asked Smith to prepare examples of music in the seven modes, offering her own replicated lyre to be used in the project. Smith developed musical pieces from her original melodies used in the Kilmer lectures, plus melodies from the Near East. One such melody is from the Church of the East and is called "Hal lebba Maaria", meaning, "Lord, Give strength" and is titled "The hymn for the departed".

These songs, a total of twenty, led by the lyre, are recorded on a CD, titled "Seven Modes For an Ancient Lyre.44


Appendix
Music written on Assyrian and Babylonian Historical Figures

Great composers of classical music have written important works on Assyrian and Babylonian historical figures that are widely performed throughout the world. On Assyrian personalities the following two are listed below:



  1. "Semiramide" [Semiramis], an opera in two acts by Giaocchino Rossini (1792-1868).

This opera is a strong and melodious work, and one of Rossini's greatest dramatic operas.

Other than Semiramis, the other important figures are Ninyas, the son of Semiramis and Ninus, Assur the head of the army, and Oroe, the high priest. One of the glorious scenes is the entrance of Semiramis with representatives from various countries, including the Medes, Persians and Indians in the audience.

The scene of the appearance of the deceased King Ninus, the husband of Semiramis, is one of the most dramatic and moving scenes.


  1. "La Mort de Sardanapale", a cantata by the French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).

This is a cantata for tenor, male choir and orchestra, written in 1830. With this work Berlioz won the Prix de Rome award.

The death of Sardanapalus is the fate of Shamash-shum-ukin (668-648), the brother of Ashurbanipal (668-627). Assarhaddon (680-669 BC) divided the patrimony between his two sons - Babylonia for Shamash-shum-ukin, and Assyria for Ashurbanipal. Shamash-shum-ukin revolted against his brother, and Ashurbanipal had to send an army to defeat him. According the legend by Diodorus Siculus, Shamash-shum-ukin set fire to the palace, and to himself dying in the flames with his concubines.

Sardanapalus is a legendary king of Assyria, which is an amalgam of three kings: Ashurbanipal, Shamash-shum-ukin, and Sin-shar-ishkun (622?-612). It is a story told by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (First century BC).45 But according to Georges Roux, Diodorus Siculus has confused Ashurbanipal with his brother.46 In the Persica of Ctesius () Sardanapalus is Sin-shar-ishkun, the last king of Assyria, who was besieged in Nineveh by the Medes for two years, at the end of which time he set fire to his palace and burned himself and his court to death. Lord Byron wrote a tragedy on the theme.47 "La Mort de Sardanapale", the subject of a painting by the French painter Eugène Delacroix, is in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
On Babylonian historical figures the following are very popular:


  1. "Nabucco", an opera in four acts by the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).

Nabucco [Nebuchadnezzar, or Nabu-Kudurri-usur] is the opera that made Verdi the voice of the Italian people. Although the story is set in Jerusalem and Babylon in 586 BC, its theme of an oppressed people's yearning for freedom touched a responsive chord in the Italy of 1842.

It is the story of Nebuchadnezzar conquering Jerusalem and the captivity of Jews in Babylon. 48



The music of the victorious entrance of Nebuchadnezzar is grand. The famous chorus 'Va pensiero' of the Hebrews in captivity in Babylon, is a very popular one.

  1. "Belshazzar's Feast", is a work for choir, baritone solo and orchestra, by the British composer William Walton (1902-1983). Belshazzar is Bel-shar-Usur, the son of Nabu-naid, who, in the absence of his father, was regent of Babylonia. It is the Biblical story of the "Handwriting on the wall" when Bell-shar-usur had thrown a big party and was drinking out of the vessels taken from the Temple at Jerusalem [Daniel 5:5]. A beautiful painting, by Rembrandt Van Rijn, on this theme is in the National Gallery, London.

  2. Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), the Finnish composer, has also written a musical piece on Bel-shar-usur, titled "Belshazzar's Feast" Suite.49


1 Egon Wellesz, The New Oxford History of Music (London, Oxford University Press, 1979), Vol. 1, p. 228

2 Ibid, p. 230-231

3 André Parrot, The Arts of Assyria (Golden Press, New York, 1961), p. 297.

4 H.W.F. Saggs, The Babylonians ((London, The Folio Society, 2000, page 51-2)

5 Egon Wellesz, p.231.

6 A percussion instrument consisting of a looped metal frame set in a handle and fitted with loose cross-bars that rattle when shaken. Usually, each is held in one hand. Different varieties of this instrument exist in modern orchestra and music bands.

7 Egon Wellesz, p. 239-240.

8 Ibid, p. 241-245

9 Ibid, p. 242-245.

10 Ibid, p. 231.

11 Ibid, p. 233

12 Ibid

13 Ibid, p. 234

14 Ibid, 234-236

15 Ibid, p. 236

16 Ibid, p. 237

17 Ibid

18 Parrot, p. 310

19 Wellesz, p. 238

20 The Pelican History of Music Volume one, Penguin Books, The Chausser Press, Bungay, Suffolk, G.B., 1974, page 15.

21 Below the efforts of a group of Assyriologists, and musicologists headed by Dr. Anne Kilmer of UCB, to translate clay tablets into music will be explained.

22 Ibid, p. 239

23 The Pelican History of Music, p. 15-16.

24 Pythagoras is better known by his law of the right-angled triangle, where the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

25 Ibid, p. 246-247

26 Ibid, p. 247

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid, 249-250

30 Ibid, p. 250

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid, p. 250-251

33 Ibid, p. 251

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 65-8 BC, great Latin lyric poet and satirist under Emperor Augustus.

37 Iamblichus (250-330 AD), major figure in the philosophical school of Neoplatonism and founder of its Syrian branch.

38 Ibid, p. 252

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid, p. 253

41 Ibid, p. 254

42 H.W.F. Saggs, The Babylonians, p. 271-2.

43 H.W.F. Saggs writes that Hurrians, who probably came from the highlands of Armenia, were in Mesopotamia as early as the Agade period [2371-2230]. They spoke a language different than Akkadian and Sumerian. See The Might that was Assyria (Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1984, page 37-38).

44 To listen to a sampling visit WWW.BELLAROMAMUSIC.COM

45 Encyclopedia Britannica, CD 2002.

46 Georges Roux, La Mésopotamie (Éditions du Seuil, 1995), p.531.

47 The Columbia Encyclopedia, Third Edition, Columbia University Press, 1967.

48 In "The Babylonians", mentioned in footnote 38, Saggs refers to this work in page 412.

49 Ibid.


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