Skip to main content

ANOTHER TRIUMPH OF RESEARCH, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 26th November 1955

Cuneiform music has long been a topic on everybody’s lips. A Babylonian clay tablet dating from about 800 b.c. has been variously interpreted by C. Sachs and F. W. Galpin—a landmark in human history. The Ziggurat at Ur has attracted a stream of enthusiastic souvenir-hunters far exceeding expectations. And at last we must extol the crowning triumph of modern musicology.

Dr Tungsten Gross has announced, in a strikingly original publication (drawing as it does on the work of every previous Assyriologist),* his successful decipherment of a number of tablets not only in non-semitic Sumerian but in Semitic Akkadian embolograms. He has, he claims, established, to a degree of certainty hitherto doubted, a basis for further progress on the corpus of musical texts of ancient Assyria.

One of the main texts transcribed by Dr Gross purports to be a choral song from Abû Habbah, and contains several wonderful musical flourishes in what Dr Gross assures us must be the 16th and 17th Assyrian Modes. Especially enchanting, perhaps, is the setting of the phrase “te-ir ki-ishtum gi-ig marsu na-am na-ammu shi-imtu.” The elevation of poetic thought not only in the verse but in the music, (which is indicated by a series of ancillary symbols on a separate tablet—as in the case of our psalms and psalm-chants), makes us wonder if the Assyrians of about 900 b.c. were not of a higher culture than we have hitherto believed:—(a thought surely refreshing to a man in the street full of diesel fumes).

We may poo-poo the ancients’ malleable glass, their astronomy, their dehydration of wine, or their craftsmanship in ivory-work and inlay, but faced with melismas like these, and the shadow of Dr Tungsten Gross’s scholarship, we must silently take off our hats, and tie on our thinking-caps.

According to Dr Gross, there are abundant indications of orchestral requirements on the tablets—or at least there were, until his assistant Miss Simpaji Singh (Mus. B. (therapeutic) Broadmoor) “accidentally” erased them. Seven tablets rescued from the acid solution in which they were being washed had no trace left on them whatsoever; fifty-two other tablets inadvertently left soaking over-night are now in the museum at Sippar, where archaeologists may inspect their Venerable remains, though this consists only of four carboys of slate-coloured sludge. Luckily three tablets and a fragment escaped the ministrations of Miss Singh, and it is upon these mainly that Dr Gross has been able to base his work, which in the musical field appears to supersede Boissier, Dumon, Küchler, Öfele, Virolleaud, Zehnpfund, Ebeling, Woolley, Wallis Budge, Hall, Gadd, and Smith.

Among the instruments called for in the text are 15-stringed harps without fore-pillar, to be played largely with both hands, reed-flutes single and double, and the natural trumpet. Percussion indications require not only drums, bells, cymbals, tambourines  and sistra, but a large body of children employed musically in the temples (when their religious duties of prostitution permitted) clapping their hands in a poly-rhythmic refinement with the ensemble already envisaged.

It would have been interesting to compare these findings with the transcription of some contemporary Egyptian papyri undergoing investigation on the Continent. Unfortunately the electronic brain employed in transcribing them, while laudably working at the speed of light, became overheated, and reduced the papyri to ashes.

We owe it, nevertheless, to Dr Gross’s enterprise and learning that we now possess a watertight theory, of cuneiform musical notation against which no evidence can be found to militate. If conflicting evidence did turn up, we should certainly consign it to an acid grave after the best traditions of respectable musicology.

Let such scholarship lead us forward, that is backward. We have been pottering too long this side of the Annus Domini when we should have been seeking the solution of the musical scripts of the Minoan, Mycenean, Etruscan or Hittite civilizations. Let us then avidly await the publication of scholarly editions of such fine old musical sources as “The Golden Treasury of Atreus,’ “Tunes Tarquinius taught me” or “Musica Hyperboreana,” which Everyman, wherever he may be, is longing to hear and think beautiful.

This book should be of wide appeal, printed as it is in delightful three-point klopstock. It should not even hurt children, unless dropped on them. My one regret is that the index, for which Miss Singh  gets credit, should somehow have been omitted. It might have been interesting.

Peter Tranchell

* Cuneiform Music. (Dabchick and Flea). 97s.