Do you know how old is the oldest song we know both its lyrics and its music?
And did you know that you actually listen to it?
There is a youtube channel by Peter Pringle that has amazing information on the issue including the song itself, performed by archaeomusicologist, Dr. Richard J. Dumbrill.
This song to the Hurrian goddess Nikkal, is the oldest piece of music for which we have both the words and the accompanying musical notes. The work was written on clay tablets around 3500 years ago, and was discovered by archaeologists in the 1950’s in the ruins of the ancient city of Ugarit.
The tablets, which are written in the Hurrian language using Sumerian cuneiform script, have been studied for years by a number of eminent scholars, and several theories have been advanced as to how the music should be interpreted. In my opinion, the most thorough and convincing interpretation (and by far the most musical), is that offered by archaeomusicologist, Dr. Richard J. Dumbrill, and that is the one which you hear in this video.
The long-necked lute you see me playing is a cross between the Turkish baglama and the Persian setar. I made this instrument myself as an experiment. It has four strings but the bass notes are a double course. It is tuned F-C-F. Lutes of this type have been played since the most ancient times throughout Mesopotamia and Anatolia.
The pipes you hear are replicas of the 5000 year old silver pipes discovered in the Sumerian city of Ur in the 1920’s. These are reed instruments but since I cannot play wind instruments and sing at the same time, I sampled the pipes and I am playing them by means of a pedal keyboard, similar to the kind of pedalboard used by organists. My left foot controls the lower register pipe, and my right foot the higher register. Players of these instruments used the technique known as “circular breathing”, which is still used today for wind instruments like the Armenian duduk, and the Australian didgeridoo. This song was performed live, in a single pass. Nothing was added or overdubbed.
The text of the song is not well understood because the Hurrian language has not been thoroughly studied and the original tablet has bits missing. The goddess Nikkal, like most lunar deities, was associated with fertility and childbirth. Here is a very rough idea of what experts believe is being sung by the singer. I have tried to make this poetic rather than literal.
I have made offerings to the goddess
That she will open her heart in love,
And that my sins will be forgiven.
May my jars of sweet sesame oil please her,
That she may look kindly upon us,
And make us fruitful.
Like the sprouting fields of grain,
May women bring forth with their husbands
And may those who are yet virgins
One day be blessed with children.