Syrian tablet fragment shatters long-held beliefs about origin of music

The Ugarit tablet offers a glimpse into an age once thought to be silent, even if its meaning remains elusive.

The Ugarit tablet, one of the earliest and most primitive forms of musical notation to today's sheet music. Courtesy Dan Carmody
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The tablet sits in a quiet corner of the National Museum of Damascus. To the casual visitor it could be nothing more than another artefact housed in an institution brimming with such relics. Indeed, at the time of my visit, the ancient tablet of the Hurrian Hymn barely distracts any of the trickle of tourists who journey through the institution's west wing.
It is, nevertheless, a deeply significant fragment from Syria's past. Possibly even the most important point on the trail that leads from the earliest and most primitive forms of musical notation to today's sheet music.
Thought to be 3,400 years old, this relic has been in Damascus since 1955, following its discovery by a group of French archeologists in the coastal town of Ugarit.
"This is," according to Muyassar Fattal, the museum's curator of Ancient Syrian Antiquities, "the only [tablet] that dictates the possibility that music was a part of people's lives at that time."
But what would that music have sounded like and what would its lyrics have told us about ancient life?
The artefact records the Hurrian Hymn, a song directed to the goddess Nikkal. 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.
After this the waters of research become a little more cloudy.
Several world-renowned scholars - including professor Anne D Kilmer from the University of California at Berkeley - have tried to interpret the lyrics and melody of the hymn, without producing a definitive version. This is due, in part, to the tablet being badly damaged by the time it was unearthed in the Fifties, making it difficult to comprehend some of its more complex notation.
It is also due to the conventions of ancient language, according to Richard Dumbrill, an expert at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London and author of The Archaeomusicology of the Ancient Near East.
"Anyone attempting the decipherment of an ancient text of music is, above all else, a code breaker," he says. "In this case, mathematicians, can be as good as musicologists in breaking the code."
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:
(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.
Several musicians have also begun to experiment with improvisations of the tablets, including Malek Jandali, who grew up close to Ugarit.
Jandali, an award-winning pianist, now lives in the United States, but says he has always felt strong ties to the ancient musical forms of his homeland.
He is also the first Arab person to have transcribed ancient Syrian music into a modern musical form. His album, Echoes from Ugarit, broke briefly into the international music charts in the UAE.
The main goal of this work, he says, was to attempt to shed light on this important discovery and to present Arabs and their history in a positive light.
"This ancient music was pivotal, inventing the musical scales and notation one thousand years before Pythagoras [who legendarily discovered the mathematical basis of harmony]. It is very significant.
"It is vital that this historic fact be spread to listeners in the Middle East and also around the world. Music is, after all, a humanising force that binds us all, and we should not lose that important connection to our common past.
"This [tablet] is really part of our history as Syrians and citizens of the world.
"It reminds us that the people of ancient times were just like us. They had the same fears, sorrows and happiness and the music connects us to them in a very real way.
"That is what draws me to [the tablet], the deep connection with the past. Music was an integral part of these ancient civilisations and was a part of every aspect of their daily life, from building temples, libraries and theatres to the beat of the drum, to praying and singing beautiful hymns."
Meanwhile Michael Levy, an ancient music expert and self-taught musician, describes his own arrangement of the tablet's melody as "much slower than the academic interpretation."
The academic interpretations to which he refers (by Kilmer and Dumbrill in particular) imagine the hymn as a tranquil and calming movement in which the lute takes the lead.
Levy says he "wanted the improvisations of the theme to stand out, and to better illustrate the use of lyre techniques using a more rubato approach [speeding up or slowing the tempo as the musician wishes]."
The most popular musical instruments around the time the hymn was composed would have been small pipes and the lyre, a stringed instrument with a wooden frame, played in a similar fashion to the harp.
"I stated the basic melody, then embellished it with a variety of lyre-playing techniques, ranging from simultaneous use of finger-plucked and plectrum plucked tones, and blocking certain strings with the left hand to form basic chords which can be strummed," added Levy, who developed this technique after hearing the Krar lyre, an instrument still played today in east Africa.
A project to renovate and breathe new life into the National Museum is now also underway. Part-sponsored by the Italian Institute for Culture in Damascus, the intention is to refurbish the facility to international standards.
The scheme will eventually replace the museum's dated wooden display cabinets with more attractive units, in an effort to attract more visitors, as well as to foster recognition among Syrians and international tourists of the importance of the Hurrian Hymn tablet and other artefacts.
To this end, the tablet has previously been exhibited in Canada, France and Vienna, although the museum is now keen for it to remain on home soil: "Many places have asked to take the tablet out on loan but I have refused," said Fattal, protective and mindful of the tablet's significance. "I [now] only let it go out to exhibitions for short periods."
Stephen Starr is the editor-in-chief of the Near East Quarterly.