Oldest written music in history
The Hurrian songs are a collection of music inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets excavated from the ancient Amorite–Canaanite city of Ugarit, a headland in northern Syria, which date to approximately 1400 BC. One of these tablets, which is nearly complete, contains the Hurrian hymn to Nikkal (also known as the Hurrian cult hymn or A Zaluzi to the Gods, or simply h.6), making it the oldest surviving substantially complete work of notated music in the world. While the composers’ names of some of the fragmentary pieces are known, h.6 is an anonymous work.
The complete song is one of about 36 such hymns in cuneiform writing, found on fragments of clay tablets excavated in the 1950s from the Royal Palace at Ugarit (present day Ras Shamra, Syria), in a stratum dating from the fourteenth century BC, but is the only one surviving in substantially complete form. An account of the group of shards was first published in 1955 and 1968 by Emmanuel Laroche, who identified as parts of a single clay tablet the three fragments catalogued by the field archaeologists as RS 15.30, 15.49, and 17.387. In Laroche’s catalogue the hymns are designated h. (for “Hurrian”) 2–17, 19–23, 25–6, 28, 30, along with smaller fragments RS. 19.164 g, j, n, o, p, r, t, w, x, y, aa, and gg. The complete hymn is h.6 in this list. A revised text of h.6 was published in 1975.
The tablet h.6 contains the lyrics for a hymn to Nikkal, a Semitic goddess of orchards, and instructions for a singer accompanied by a nine-stringed sammûm, a type of harp or, much more likely, a lyre. One or more of the tablets also contains instructions for tuning the harp.
The Hurrian hymn pre-dates several other surviving early works of music, e.g., the Seikilos epitaph and the Delphic Hymns, by a millennium, but its transcription remains controversial. A reconstruction by Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin may be heard at the Urkesh webpage, though this is only one of at least five “rival decipherments of the notation, each yielding entirely different results”.
The tablet is in the collection of the National Museum of Damascus.