Ancient Church Music – Old Roman Chant

Ever heard the claim: “Pope Gregory the Great came up with Gregorian chant?”

For centuries, it has become common wisdom that the venerable pope was the source of what we now know of as Gregorian chant, and the assumption that it was the chant tradition of the Roman Church – apparently the sole one – was a given. Many – scholars and laymen alike – repeat this attribution, often without question. However, certain discoveries in the 19th century (which were not given proper attention until the 20th century!) has shook the foundations of centuries of pious retelling.

Before 1890, no serious enquiry had been made into the direct origins of Roman Chant or its forerunners. It was in that year when a monk from the famous Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, Dom André Mocquereau (1849-1930), as part of his research into the manuscript tradition of Gregorian chant, published an account of three books he discovered in the Vatican Library: two Graduals (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Archivio di San Pietro, MS lat. 5319 and MS F. 22) and an Antiphonary (MS B.79), all dating from somewhere between the 11th and the 13th century.

Now what intrigued Dom Mocquereau about these manuscripts was that although the material in these sources covered the same liturgical feasts as did the Gregorian books (showing that they were related to each other in that they were both Roman chants), it was melodically distinct from both it, as well as with Ambrosian chant. He wrote a letter to his abbot:

“I must tell you of a discovery we made at the Vatican, and that continues to astonish us. Perhaps Dom Pothier will be able to explain what I am going to say? It is a 12th-century Gradual, certainly of the Roman liturgy, with the exception of some slight peculiarities, but in which the chant is not the one used in all manuscripts in all countries. This is a singular exception that intrigues me. For a time, I had thought that the Ambrosian chant had replaced the Gregorian chant; but this is not the case, because in this new chant the universal Gregorian chant is easy to recognize, but with constant variations that give it a very special character. This is surely an Italian manuscript, as proven by the notation. One note that I found, I no longer know where, advances the unsubstantiated notion that it belonged to St. John Lateran. We have yet to see the Archives at that Basilica; are surprises of this kind awaiting us there, perhaps? I have no idea. I would be most interested to know what the Reverend Father Dom Joseph Pothier thinks about all this. I have not yet studied this curious manuscript in detail, because I had hoped to manage to get it to Solesmes.”

Dom Pothier wrote a reply dated the 8th of April:

“… bring us as many details as possible. What do the variations in the chant or the text consist of? … we must have a good analysis of it; it is on that analysis that we will base the research needed to understand the nature of the variations, their origins and their cause … the more numerous and the more accurate the details, the narrower the scope of the guesswork will be. … Traditions thrived in prior times; at St. Peter’s they still use not only ancient hymns, but even a special Psalter that dates from far back.”

Eventually publishing the results of his study of the manuscripts, Dom Mocquereau then concluded that this repertory, which he recognized as distinct from Ambrosian and Gregorian chant, seems to date from a “relatively recent period, when the rules of Gregorian composition were beginning to fall into disuse.” (Paléographie Musicale, Volume II, pp. 4-5, footnote 1). In short, it was a later corruption of Gregorian chant.

Contrary to this view, fellow Benedictine Dom Raphael Andoyer, who after analysing the same sources, expressed the opinion in 1911-12 that they actually represented an earlier stage of musical development than that of Gregorian – a stage he defined as ‘pre-Gregorian’ (ante-grégorien). For Dom Andoyer, these melodies are the ones which Pope Gregory the Great organized and revised (thus he views Gregory’s ‘authorship’ of plainchant, rather than composing it outright, in the strict sense) into what would become known as Gregorian chant.

After this, the subject was abandoned and no new or authoritative conclusions were reached until 1950, when German musicologist Bruno Stäblein published several articles dedicated on the subject, declaring these manuscripts to be prime examples of a chant tradition he called Altrömisch, or Old Roman. From his time on the problem of Old Roman chant became the object of wide-ranging investigation, and even today it claims the close attention of many experts.

We must note here a couple of interesting and inescapable questions, for which an explanation was needed: among the hundreds of medieval manuscripts of Gregorian chant, there is not one which is known to have been used or written at Rome before the mid-13th century, and the very few sources of definite Roman origin which date from before that period contain similar material to that of Gregorian books, but are different from a melodic point of view – and these manuscripts happen to be the ones which Dom Mocquereau discovered (and dismissed as late corruptions)!

In Stäblein’s view, both the ‘Old Roman’, which he takes to be the one edited by Gregory the Great, and the newer ‘Gregorian’ – a later revision which he dated from the reign of Pope Vitalian (657-672) – coexisted and were being used simultaneously in Rome. Basing his argument on the evidence of an Ordo Romanus which ascribes an active interest in the revision of chant to eight Popes – from Damasus (366-384) to Martin (649-653) – and to three abbots of the Roman monastery of St. Peter (Catolenus, Marianus and Virbonus), Stäblein held that the three abbots are to be credited for the reformation of Roman chant.

The transformation, according to him, would have taken place before 680, when John the archicantor of St. Peter’s was sent by Pope Agatho (reign 678-681) to England, ostensibly to teach singing there. This dating, in Stäblein’s opinion, is confirmed by what certain sources relate about the work of Vitalian, during whose pontificate the chant in the Papal liturgy was apparently performed by the group of cantors named Vitaliani after their founder.

By the 11th to the 13th centuries, Stäblein continues, the situation was such that the Old Roman style of plainchant continued to be employed in the monasteries of the Lateran, while the Papal palace used the ‘Gregorian’. The substance of his argument went largely unchanged as time went on, though Stäblein was compelled to make slight adjustments due to the criticism of other scholars (for example, about the mission of the cantors to England).

In brief, he hypothesizes the idea of a transformation at Rome of Old Roman into Gregorian, and the coexistence of the two traditions (respectively, as the chant of the Papal liturgy and the chant of the other Roman churches) until the 13th century.

A similar position was taken up by Joseph Smits van Waesberghe, who believed however that the monastic institutions of Rome used Gregorian chant, while the secular clergy kept using the Old Roman style of plainchant.

His idea was criticized, however, by other scholars due to his excessive dependence on the Liber Pontificalis (which has undergone intense modern scholarly scrutiny) and for making an over-strict and historically unfounded distinction between Roman monks and secular clergymen. His critics also raised an objection used against Stäblein’s thesis: that there is no incontrovertible proof either that a reform of chant took place in 7th-century Rome or that the two repertories existed side-by-side there until the mid-13th century.

Allowing for more or less personal emphases, other scholars (such as Fr. Stephen J.P. Van Dijk O.F.M., and Ewald Stammers) accepted Stäblein’s idea of the coexistence of the two repertories, and also took into account a fact confirmed by liturgical historians, according to whom Rome had witnessed over a long period the coexistence of the Papal liturgy (which was undergoing a continual, yet gradual, process of reform) and the liturgy of the presbytal tituli, i.e. the parish churches served by non-Curial clergy.

In 1954, Michel Huglo published an exhaustive directory (Le chant ‘vieux-romain’: liste des manuscrits et temoins indirects, Sacris Erudiri 6) of Old Roman sources both direct – that is, Graduals and Antiphonaries – and indirect, demonstrating thereby that this chant was the official repertory at Rome towards the mid-8th century, in about 1140, and in the 13th century.

Old Roman was thus to be seen as a local repertory of specifically Roman origin (like the Ambrosian chant of Milan or Beneventan chant) which had nonetheless spread into central Italy and had even left traces in the monastic centers of the Carolingian Empire (Stäblein has shown that it was in use as far away as St. Gall in present-day Switzerland in the 9th century) before Gregorian chant had gained the upper hand.

Although he came to no conclusion regarding the origins of Gregorian chant, Huglo was prepared to state that Old Roman was the only form of chant familiar to the entire Roman clergy of the period; and this was a clear enough indication that the origins of Gregorian should be looked for outside Rome.

Musicologist Helmut Hucke took up the challenge, when developing an alternative line of argument to that of Stäblein. In Hucke’s view, the point of departure of Gregorian is Old Roman, which underwent a transformation in Frankish territory during the Carolingian era.

As everyone who has studied the history of the Roman Rite pretty much knows, the Roman liturgy starting from the Middle Ages is actually a hybrid between the Gallican family of rites and the original liturgy in use at Rome.

It all started in 754, when the first King of the Franks, Pepin the Short decreed the adoption of the Papal liturgy in his kingdom. It was the time when the Roman liturgy, which until then, apart from the Anglo-Saxon mission Church, had possessed and laid claim to recognition only for Rome and its environs, advanced in a short time to becoming the liturgy of a great empire.

Of course, as soon as the Roman way of worship was introduced in Frankish territory, its started to absorb local elements. It is often related that Charlemagne, Pepin’s son, once asked Pope Hadrian I to provide an authentic Roman sacramentary for use throughout the empire, which the latter sent to the court at Aachen around in the year 785-786.

The intention was to preserve it as the authentic “standard” of the text attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great and to disseminate it throughout all of Charlemagne’s domain through copies, thereby unifying the whole empire under one liturgy – that of Rome. However, the sacramentary the Pope sent soon proved to be ill-suited to the Emperor’s plan: it only contained the liturgy for certain feasts, which would make it ill-adapted to the daily liturgical needs of a parish!

When complaints reached the ear of the Pope, his excuse was saying that he merely picked from the Lateran library what seemed to him to be the best sacramentary he had! Recognizing the obvious unsuitability of the book, the court liturgists decided to correct the text (especially its rather mediocre Latin) and then to augment it with a supplement – derived from the local traditions – so that it could serve for the daily liturgy. The result of this work is the Hadrianum, aka the Hadrian Sacramentary.

Eventually, this hybrid Roman-Frankish liturgy started creeping its way into the Eternal City itself, eventually supplanting its own parent altogether. Church life in Rome was stagnant during the saeculum obscurum of the first half of the 10th century; there was a liturgical vacuum, which the Gallo-Roman liturgy refilled.

This took place both through the direct intervention of the Holy Roman Empire and by the settlement of the Cluniacs in monasteries of Rome or its neighborhood.

Hucke’s idea was that Old Roman chant would have shared the same fate as that of the Roman liturgy, to which it is tagged: it would have encountered the Gallic repertories and would have been transformed into what would be known into later ages as ‘Gregorian’ not only by an inevitable process of ‘contamination’ but above all by being deliberately adapted for aesthetic reasons.

Whatever the value of the latter motive, it should not be forgotten that musical notation did not exist yet, and the repertory would have been handed on by memory.

Hucke’s idea received support from writers such as Willi Apel and Robert J. Snow, while Walther Lipphardt, although claiming that Gregorian chant was the Frankish version of a Roman original, maintained that the melodic material exported from Rome was accepted in Frankish domains without any modification; thus Gregorian would be nothing more than the Roman chant of the 9th century.

Apart from this detail, these are the broad lines of the second hypothesis: the birth of Gregorian in what is now France as a result of the impact of Roman chant on the local Gallican traditions.

Part of the reason why Gregorian chant succeeded in gaining the upper hand, it seems, was facilitated by two factors: the invention of a process of writing the melody, which represents a turn in musical history, and its being attributed to one of the most famous characters in Christendom – Pope St. Gregory the Great.

There are now various alternative theories as to how Gregorian chant got its name, aside from the standard interpretation that it was named after Gregory the Great, and not without their own critics.

One proposes that the name actually refers to a different Gregory (one popular candidate here is the 8th-century pope Gregory II) – a theory that already existed even before Old Roman chant was actually discovered – while another says that the name was actually the result of (Carolingian?) propaganda by appealing to higher authority to give vindication for the abandonment of local chant traditions in favor of the (Frankish-) Roman style of chanting.

After all, who could go wrong with Gregory’s music?

Patrick lives in Japan. He supports the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite according to the Missal of Bl. Pope John XXIII.

The photo shows an early medieval illuminated manuscript, ca. 12th-century.

Music Of The Renaissance

The spirit of change that was transforming so much of art and culture in the Renaissance also touched the musical styles of the period, the most important of which was polyphony, or the blending of several individual melodies, which ultimately led to the development of harmony.

By about 1500, polyphony included vocal orchestration, or the grouping of contrasting voices. This gave not only depth to the music and the singing, but also a rich texture, since various melodies could enter, depart and re-enter in a piece of work.

As well, this interaction of melodies was given greater color by the use of different rhythms for each of these melodies. This combination of various individual melodies to form a single musical mode reflected the ideals of the Renaissance, which always sought perfection and unity.

During this time, choirs were relatively small and consisted of 26 singers, exclusively male, in which the soprano parts were sung by boys or men who could sing falsetto, or a higher pitched tenor. Also, instruments began to be introduced as accompaniments to the choir. Only the choir of the Sistine Chapel was strictly forbidden to use instruments in its choral singing.

The Renaissance also saw the separation of music into religious and secular forms. The most important religious styles were the Mass and the Motet.

The Mass referred to the musical setting of that part of the Church worship known as the Ordinary, which consisted of five sections for which music was needed. The words of the Ordinary provided the text that Renaissance composers could set to music.

The Motet was the musical setting of those parts of the Church service that were not part of the Ordinary. Usually, the words used for Motets were familiar to the worshippers and provided composers with the opportunity to reach a profound expression that would be both moving and meaningful.

In fact, the composer sought to interpret the truth of the words through music. It was the motet that brought about a unique change in music – the unity of words and melody. It is something that we take for granted today, but we have to keep in mind that before the Renaissance, music always took a secondary role to the words. In the sixteenth century and onwards, both words and music were equally important.

The secular version of the Motet was the Madrigal, which was an intimate form of music, performed by a small group of singers, both male and female, accompanied by a lute. The Madrigal was in a sense chamber music, since it was created to provide entertainment for members of the aristocracy. Some famous madrigalists are Carlo Gesualdo (ca. 1560-1613) and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) in Italy; while in England we have William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1558-1603), and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625).

Many important composers flourished in this era, such as Guillaume Dufay (ca. 1400-1477), who was a popular French composer, and was the first one to write large-scale Masses for four voices. These massive works, which often reworked a famous melody, began a style that was to remain popular throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

He is also famous for writing beautiful instrumental pieces, such as “Se la face ay pale” and “L’Homme armé. “When, in 1420, the dome of the cathedral of Florence, built by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), was dedicated, it was Dufay who was commissioned to compose a special a dedicatory motet, which he called “Nuper rosarum flores” (“The Flowers of Roses”).

Josquin des Prez (ca. 1440-1521) was born in what is now Belgium, but moved to Italy, where he became the court musician to the Dukes of Milan and Ferrara, and later served in the Papal Chapel at Rome. He was very famous in his own time, and was often called the “Michelangelo of music,” and Martin Luther referred to him as “the master of notes.” Josquin’s music was effortless, which made full use of the flexibility of polyphony, while creating beautiful melodies. His most famous work is the “Missa Pange Lingua.”

Palestrina (ca. 1525-1594) was another renowned composer whose name is often used to illustrate the music of the Renaissance, since he was regarded, in his own time, as creating the purest and the most perfect melodies and songs. A careful balance of ascending and descending phrases that gives a smooth flow to his music marks his work.

A famous contemporary of his was Lassus (1532-1594), a prolific composer,  who created some two thousand works, both religious and secular. He transformed the contrasting melodies of polyphony into expressive harmony. He was a master of matching the mood of the words with appropriate music, and he could write songs that were deeply moving as well as those that were humorous.

His fame was such that the Emperor Maximilian II made him a noble, and he was much favored by Pope Gregory XIII and King Charles IX of France. One his most famous works is the religious piece entitled, “Tristia est anima mea” (“Sorrowful is my soul”), which was published in 1565.

It is often said that the Renaissance was a time of immense musical variety and richness, and it was one of the few times in musical history that so many acknowledged masters flourished at the same time.


The photo shows, “The Concert” by Gerard van Honthorst, painted ca. 1623.

First Melody: The Earliest Written Music

Music and history are closely intertwined. Music answers an innate urge in humanity – that of transcendence. How can we rise beyond the mundane, and how can we commune with ideas far greater than us – ideas such as, perfection, beauty, truth, goodness.

Language can only meet us half way because by its very nature it is expository and therefore “teacherly”; We speak and think so that we may learn and know. Language cannot become what it explains. Language is the bearer of ideas, of culture; it is not ideas or culture.

Music, on the other hand, is not expression, because it does not explain. Rather, music is what words seek to describe: Music is idea. Music is not about perfection, beauty, truth, goodness. Music is itself perfection, beauty, truth, goodness. We have only to deliver, for example, a violin into untrained and unskilled hands, and we will immediately know truth from falsehood – music can only exist as perfection.

Humanity has always understood music as transcendence – which is why we have evidence of music far earlier than any evidence of writing.

For example, there are more than thirty bone flutes and whistles found in France, Germany, and England. The most recent ones come from the Geissenklöterle cave, in southern Germany and date to the early parts of the Upper Paleolithic (around 43,000 BC).

Inside the Trois-Frères cave, in the Ariége region of France, there is a faint image of a man, dressed in the hide and head of an animal perhaps playing a flute.

The current work of Iegor Reznikoff, at the University of Paris, suggests that cave paintings were intimately linked to music, since he found that the greatest density of images was always located in those parts of a cave that had the greatest resonance. The graphic representation of music, therefore, is far older than the need to write.

Humanity and music are inseparable.

The earliest confirmation of writing, on the other hand, does not emerge until the latter portions of the Neolithic era, with the Dispilio Tablet (5000 BC); the Tartaria Tablets; the Vinča symbols (5000 to 4000 BC); and the Gradeshnitsa Tablets (4000 BC).

These pieces remain enigmatic since we cannot read any of them. In order to decipher an ancient script, we need a lot of it; frequency and repetition are crucial in the decoding process; otherwise, it is like playing “hangman” without any clues and without an alphabet. True writing did not emerge until the Uruk period (4000 to 3100 BC), in Mesopotamia, with cuneiform, those wedge-shaped graphemes that remained in use well into the first century AD.

Given humanity’s deep connection with music, why did so many ancient civilizations that were literate not also create a system of writing music?

Ancient Egypt is mute about its music, although we have so many depictions of musical activity as well as actual musical instruments.

Even ancient Rome has left no music behind – so much so that some historians even suggest that the Romans were a particularly unmusical bunch.

It is all a puzzle as to why music remained firmly and deeply tied to an oral tradition, as evidenced in India, for example; and therefore we cannot say that the music of India is very old, despite the assumption of great antiquity.

The Indian melodic structures (the ragas) can only be traced back to the courts of the Mughals and provincial princes with any degree of certainty. The three important theoretical treatises are relatively recent – the Natyashastra and the Dattilam are from the third century AD; the Sangeet Ratnakara was written sometime in the thirteenth century AD. We cannot go any further back with any degree of certainty. It was V.N. Bhatkande (1860 to 1936), who devised a notational system for Indian music.

In China, there are tablatures (finger-positioning, tuning, and strumming methods) for various melodies. These date from the Tang (seventh century AD) and the Song (tenth to the thirteenth centuries AD) Dynasties.

These tablatures constitute the Gongche system that employed the wenzi pu (full ideogram notation), which is not overly accurate as it can indicate several possibilities. In other words, clarity is a problem, since notes have to be guessed – we can never be certain.

One such tablature survives (written in a scroll discovered in Kyoto, Japan), for a melody called, “You-Lan,” (“The Secluded Orchid”); the scroll dates to sometime before the tenth century AD.

The melody is for the guqin, the seven-stringed long zither. There have been many attempts at guessing and playing “You-Lan” from the finger-positioning and the strumming techniques indicated – but none have yielded satisfactory results.

In the end, we have to acknowledge that Chinese music, like the Indian, was essentially oral in nature. In addition, this is likely true of ancient Egyptian and Roman music as well.

Therefore, aside from the Greeks, did any music from the ancient world survive?

Until about 1968, the answer would have been a resounding, “No.”

Things changed when a rather obscure book came out in Paris, with the curious title – Ugaritica 5: nouveaux textes accadiens, hourrites et ugaritiques des archives et bibliothèques privées d’Ugarit (Ugaritica 5: New Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic Texts from the Private Archives and Library of Ugarit).

It was another volume in the continuing series of publications of ancient texts that had been discovered in Syria, some forty years earlier. It has been a monumental task cataloguing and transcribing these texts.

The discovery of thee texts was made back in the early summer of 1929 by two French archaeologists.

They had begun the trek in two automobiles, heading north from Beirut and into the Alawite State that hugged the coast of Asia Minor, hard by the Mediterranean Sea.

This territory, including the States of Aleppo and Damascus and Greater Lebanon, were under the French Mandate, following the First World War.

The previous masters of this area, as well as of the entire Middle East, the Ottoman Turks, had been swept away after the defeat of the Germans, with whom they were allied.

The narrow road that the automobiles of the two archaeologists followed, at the dizzying speed of 25 miles per hour, was newly built by the French; and it was only a partial one because it soon vanished in a wasteland of rock, scrub and hillock; to the east rose the Al-Alawiyin Mountains.

The two men realized that their cars were no match for the terrain – and they would have to go back to Beirut and return with transport better suited – camels.

The two men were Claude Schaeffer and Georges Chenet, archaeologists who had built a reputation for themselves in Europe.

Schaeffer was an assistant at the Museum of Prehistory and Gallo-Roman Archaeology in Strasbourg; he had published extensively on the Neolithic Alsace and played a leading role in the “Glozel Affair” of 1925 (a cache of antiquities was purportedly found which Schaeffer and others proved to be forgeries). Chenet was an expert in Gallo-Roman ceramics and a master tile-maker.

An unlikely pair, but they had been sent by the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, the venerable society dedicated to the study of ancient and medieval culture.

Schaeffer headed the mission whose purpose was to begin digging at Minet el-Beida, a little harbor on the Mediterranean, in the Alawite State.

Back in the spring of 1928, a farmer named Ibrahim, while plowing his field, had unearthed a flagstone. Beneath was a tomb built of cut rock that still many artifacts, not only of ceramic, but of gold and ivory.

When Ibrahim began to sell what he had found to antique dealers, the word got out of a new site. Eventually the French authorities got involved and Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres became the official sponsor of an expedition.

Minet el-Beida was in fact a necropolis. This meant that a city had to be nearby. The obvious choice was a mound, some sixty-feet high, which lay a few hundred yards to the east. The locals called the mound, Ras Shamra (“Fennel Hill” because of the abundant fennel that grew on it).

When Schaeffer and Chenet turned their attention on this mound, they did indeed find an ancient city. Before long, they began to find cuneiform clay tablets that named the city they were digging – Ugarit – a name well known the late Bronze Age.

Luckily, Ugarit has largely escaped damage at the hands of Isis, who have destroyed many ancient sites.

In May of 1929, the city yielded its greatest treasure. In a pillared-room, later identified as the royal palace, thousands upon thousands of clay tablets lay piled. They were copies of royal correspondence, trade records, religious stories and myths, poetry, land deeds, and international treaties.

It was a treasure trove of historical data. We are still working through the vast amount of information contained in these documents. The dig would last a lifetime for Schaeffer. Chenet, sadly, would die early in 1951. Work at the site would continue until 2000. Much has been discovered; much lies buried still, to be dug up at a later, and safer, time.

Ugarit flourished during the Amarna Age (1550 to 1290 BC) – that rich period of the Bronze Age when trade flourished and four great powers vied for supremacy with Egypt.

There were the Hittites to the northwest; the Mycenaeans in Greece and Crete; the Hurrian kingdom of the Mitanni in the upper reaches of the Euphrates; Babylon to the south under Kassite rule; and Assyria to the northeast.

Ugarit was a harbor city through which flowed goods from the then known world – ceramics and weapons from Mycenae, gold and ivory from Egypt, silver, copper and tin from Assyria and beyond, horses and chariots from the Mitanni and Hittite kingdoms.

The kings of Ugarit kept close ties with all the neighboring monarchs; we know of eight, whose reigns lasted from 1350 to 1200 BC.

The international character of the city is demonstrated by the presence of all the major languages current at the time – Egyptian hieroglyphics, Phoenician, Akkadian, Sumerian, Hurrian, Hittite, Cypro-Minoan (similar to Linear A), as well as the city’s native tongue – Ugaritic, which belongs to the larger Northwest Semitic family. Curiously, so far, we have not found any evidence of archaic Greek (Linear B); perhaps one day we shall find Linear B tablets as well.

The texts discovered also make clear that this thriving city had developed a far more efficient system of writing – an alphabet that used cuneiform signs for sound values; in other words, an alphabetic cuneiform, which is entirely different from other types of cuneiform being used at the time.

It is a matter of debate whether the innovative Ugaritic writing system is the world’s first alphabet. As well, the religious texts show many parallels to the literary aspects of the Hebrew Bible, such as the story of Daniel.

Ugarit came to a violent and sudden end sometime after 1196 BC when it was burned to the ground. It was part of a general destruction pattern which first becomes evident around 1200 BC, and is known as “the Bronze Age Collapse,” or simply, “the Catastrophe.”

For those alive at the time, it was a calamity of untold proportions. Cities in the Near East, Greece and the Aegean were put to the torch – forty-seven in all were burned to the ground. Civilization itself was snuffed out.

Troy (Hissarlik in Turkey) went up in smoke at this time, which perhaps suggests a historical basis for the legends told by Homer. Only Egypt managed to repel the attacks, although, it would never regain its former glory.

We know that Ugarit’s end was swift because, dramatically, at the very moment when it was attacked and burned, about a hundred letters from the king were baking in an oven (to get them ready to be “mailed”). They would never be sent. Their urgent pleas for help would remain unread until our own era.

Who was behind all this devastation? The historian Robert Drews has very convincingly shown that the Catastrophe cannot be explained by recourse to impersonal forces, such as, drought, earthquakes and a systems collapse; rather, human agency is involved.

The Catastrophe was the result of the development of a new mode of warfare – infantry, foot-soldiers equipped with javelins that had different shaped heads (tanged and elliptical) and an entirely new type of sword, the long Naue Type II, that had a blade some 70 centimeters in length – excellent for slashing and thrusting. Both the javelin and the sword entirely neutralized the super weapon of the Bronze Age – the horse-drawn chariot, the basis of defense for all cities. The chariot was no match for infantry tactics.

The Egyptians named these marauders, “Sea Peoples,” because they arrived suddenly in ships.

A different world would re-emerge – the world of the Iron Age – without great palaces, smaller settlements and villages, parochial in nature, community-based, hardly international. The period is also commonly known as a Dark Age.

Such is the world from which emerged those texts published in Ugaritica 5 in 1968.

In a review copy, one scholar, named Hans Güterbock, noticed something peculiar about a section in which thirty-one hymns were printed – beneath each one were words that the editors said were unknown and therefore untranslatable.

However, Güterbock, who was an expert in the study of cuneiform, instantly recognized these as Akkadian musical terms. His inquiry continued until he and several others established the fact that underneath these thirty-one hymns were the very melodies to which they were to be sung.

Thus was discovered the earliest written music.

The original versions of these hymns were on baked clay tablets, oblong in shape (to fit neatly into the hand). The writing on the surface of each tablet was in three sections.

On the top were the lyrics. In the middle was the musical notation. At the bottom were the names of the scribes who wrote out these tablets, followed by the names of the composers. Each section was marked off by a double line, and the text was demarcated by a double winkelhaken, or hooks (they look like over-sized quotation marks).

From these tablets, we now know the names of two scribes (Ammurabi and Ipthali – both are good Semitic names; Ammurabi being the more familiar Hammurabi, although our scribe is not to be confused with his more famous namesake – the king, known for his law code). And we know the names of four composers (Tapthikhun, Pukhiyanna, Urkhiya, and Ammiya – all are typical Hurrian names).

The lyrics are in Hurrian, which is noteworthy, since Ugaritic was the “mother-tongue” of this ancient city. Ugaritic is a Semitic language, rather close to Hebrew.

But Hurrian is a very different language, and we do not entirely understand it. (It is of great personal interest to me, and I have been closely studying it for over two years). The people who once spoke this language, whom we call “Hurrians” for the sake of convenience, were at one time a highly influential nation in the ancient Near East. Their ideas and their culture had a deep and lasting impact upon their neighbors, particularly, the Hittites, the Assyrians and the Hebrews.

The very fact that Semitic scribes in Ugarit were busily transcribing hymns in a language not their own suggests that things Hurrian were held in high regard. This is especially true of religious rituals whose traces can be found in the Hebrew Bible.

The Hurrians were also renowned horse trainers (this expertise stemmed from a close association with the Indo-Aryans, who in the Bronze Age were regarded as the masters of the horse and horsemanship). The earliest horse training manual is written by a Hurrian named Kikkuli (the text of this manual is in the Hittite language, and dates from about 1345 BC). The Hurrians together with the Indo-Aryans established the formidable kingdom of Mitanni, which endured from about 1500 BC to 1300 BC.

Hurrian is also interesting because it has no genetic link to any other language in the Near East. It is not Semitic, or Sumerian, or Indo-European. Rather, it is an ergative, agglutinative language, which simply means that the idea of a subject in a sentence is entirely absent, and cases, tenses, and attribution are expressed by adding particles and suffixes to word-roots. Likely, Hurrian originated in the Caucasus region, where such languages were and are common.

Since all the thirty-one clay tablets published in Ugaritica 5 are fragmentary, only one hymn could be reconstructed into a complete version; this was possible because this one hymn showed up on three of the thirty-one tablets. It must have been a very popular and important piece.

So, what was missing on one tablet could be completed by reference to the other two. The complete version is known as “Hurrian Hymn 6,” and the lyrics suggest that it is a song of supplication to the goddess Nikkal, who was specifically worshipped at Ugarit. She was the goddess of fruit orchards and fertility and was married to the moon god Yarikh (or Yorah in Hebrew; commonly Anglicized as, “Jorah,” mentioned in Ezra 2:18). The famous city of Jericho is named after this good.

The words of the hymn are difficult to interpret with precision, but generally, they are the prayer of a woman imploring Nikkal to grant her a child.

Following the transcription of Theo Krispijn, we hear the woman’s plaintiff voice – unalt akli samsammeni, says the original, “I have come before you, imploring.”

There is divine promise – kaledanil Nikalla nikhrazal khana khanodedi attayatal – “for it is Nikkal that strengthens them and permits the married couples to bear children; and the fathers bring forth children.”

Being barren is a curse – assati veve khanokko – “why as your wife have I not born a child?”

The hymn in the original is called a zaluzi. We do not know what this word means. Perhaps it has something to do with a chanted plea – a song of supplication, perhaps.

The melody of this hymn (to lyre accompaniment) is explained in the original as being in the nidqibli mode. This has recently been understood (by Richard Dumbrill) to be the enneatonic scale of E. The rhythm is 2+3+2/4, a pattern that is heard even today in the folk songs of the Caucasus region (the original homeland of the Hurrians).

There have been ten attempts at interpreting the melody over the years, the most important being that of Anne D. Kilmer, David Wulstan and Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin (in the 1970s); M.L. West and R.J. Dumbrill (in the 1990s); and Theo Krispijn (in 2000).

The most lyrical version is by Dumbrill. Recordings have been made by the Ensemble de Organographia and by Michael Levy. Recently, Dumbrill’s version has also been made available, sung to the lyre.

The tune has a soft, rueful lilt that still has the power to move, for it carries the deep pathos of a time long lost, of hands that plucked the harp long turned to dust, of faces lost to oblivion, and voices lost in the great hush of vanished millennia. Yet from the silence, there bursts forth a song.

And suddenly we become one with the scribes Ammurabi and Ipthali; we become the audience of the composers Tapthikhun, Pukhiyanna, Urkhiya, and Ammiya; and with tender hearts we listen to the mellifluous voice of a woman, who shall be forever nameless, chant her plea, until the last note quivers and fades on the strings of the lyre.

The hymn may be heard here.



The photo shows, “By the Waters of Babylon,” by Arthur Hacker, likely painted in 1888.

The Music Of Ancient Greece

The past comes to us fragmented and silent. We seek to reconstitute it in many ways – through collections in museums, through the uncovering of artifacts, through the preservation of manuscripts, and through individual curiosity and interest.

This is the grand ritual of history – to get beyond the inherent muteness of yesterday and of millennia – we the living must give voice to the dead that they might speak again, though briefly, though in faded whispers.

Lost is the noise of antiquity – the cadence and exuberance of conversation, the scurry and skitter of trade and industry, the jangle and din of ceremonies.

History truly is the great leveler, as Guiderius and Arviragus sing in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust…
The sceptre, learning, physic must
All follow this and come to dust.

And yet an echo of this ancient noise can still be heard in the fragments of music that have survived from Greece of long ago. They are snatches of melodies that once soothed the spirit and delighted the ear.

Similar shreds of music remain also from the ancient Near, Middle and Far East; but by far the largest selection comes from Greece. We have sixty-one melodic pieces, and new ones continue to be found.

These are but remnants of a once grand musical tradition that pervaded much of the civilized world.

Understanding ancient Greek music is important, since so much of our own musical vocabulary and traditions stem from this antique period.

Essential words, such as, “music,” “rhythm,” “tone,” “melody,” “chord,” “scale,” “harmony,” and many technical ones (“chromatic,” “diatonic,” “enharmonic”) are all derived from Greek – as are our scale and tuning classifications, our consonance and dissonance structure, and our use of the octave modal scale.

The Greeks were great theorizers of music. They saw its obvious link to mathematics, and extended this connection to explain ideas of perfection, of morality and even of healing.

In fact, our notions of “musical therapy” are nothing than the rediscovery of their system of modes (or melodic behavior), each of which was seen to positively affect the emotional and spiritual make-up of a person.

There were fifteen such modes. For the ancient Greeks, sound was not something inert which we might receive or ignore without consequence – rather, sound was an active principle – even an entity – that entered our body and altered our interaction with reality.

Music for the Greeks was far more than entertainment (or worse, “relaxing” – an odious way to describe music) –it was a moral force – a process of civilization – a structure for goodness – an ideal of perfection.

The story of the recovery and then the decipherment and the ultimate performance of ancient Greek music is a fascinating one.

But how did it survive, and how are we able to read it? The sixty-one pieces, mentioned earlier, are found on two types of material – stone and papyrus, with papyrus comprising the majority.

But since this ancient form of paper is very fragile, all we really possess are torn bits and pieces on which are transcribed scores that we can work out as parts of melodies – only parts because the whole is lost.

Most of these shreds of papyrus come from Egypt, which is only fitting since the city of Alexandria once housed the famed library, in which the entire learning of the ancient world was said to be contained.

Sadly, the Arabs destroyed this library when they conquered Egypt in the seventh century AD. An eye witness account tells us that it took six months to burn all the books.

The fragments that we possess are those that escaped this conflagration because they had either been thrown onto garbage heaps, or even used as “stuffing” for mummies in the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

The most famous piece of music on papyrus is the Stasimon Chorus from Euripides’ play, Orestes. It’s a haunting melody, in the chromatic scale, of a chorus sung just after Orestes has killed his mother. This piece of music survives on a papyrus fragment that dates from about 200 BC.

These musical papyri are rustling whispers from an antique age.

Three pieces of music are also preserved in stone. There are two hymns to the god Apollo, inscribed onto a piece of the wall of the Athenian Treasury at the temple in Delphi. They were discovered in 1892 by the French archaeologist, Théophile Homolle. These hymns, though fragmented, preserve a substantial portion of the melodies, and they date from the second century BC.

The third piece is the Seikilos Epitaph, which is chiseled onto a marble gravestone. It’s a touching song of dedication by a man named Seikilos to his dead wife named, Euterpe.

The gravestone was discovered in 1883 by William Ramsay during excavation at the ancient city of Tralles (modern-day Aydin, in western Turkey). It’s now housed in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. All three are elegant echoes in stone.

We are able to read this ancient music because we know the notational system that the Greeks used – they had one set of symbols for voice and an entirely different one for instruments. We have gained this knowledge because we possess two remarkable documents.

One is a small fragment on which all two sets of symbols are inscribed and also explained. This is the Table of Alypius, a musician who lived in Alexandria, in the fourth century AD. We can rely on his information because he had access to the vast library in his city.

The other work is more extensive – it’s an entire book on Greek musical theory and practice written by Aristides Quintilianus, who lived in the second century AD. We have also fragments of a work by the fourth century BC philosopher Aristoxenus of Tarentum. These valuable documents have allowed us to return a little sound to antiquity.

The reason why we have these three valuable sources in the first is because of the efforts of one man (whose son would become both notorious in his time and later famous).

His name was Vincenzo Galilei (1520–1591) – the father of Galileo Galilei. Vincenzo was a renowned musician and intellectual of his time, and he was a member of the Florentine Camerata, which was a group of thinkers, philosophers, musicians and writers who met regularly at the house of their founder and patron, Giovanni de’ Bardi.

These men sought to veer music back to its classical roots, which they believed had been abandoned in their day. The result was the creation of musical drama, or what we now call, “opera.”

In 1581 Vincenzo published a few scores of ancient Greek music that he had deciphered. The scores consisted of three hymns to the Muses, to Nemesis, and to Helios (the sun god), which had been composed by Mesomedes of Crete (who lived sometime in the second century AD and who was the court musician of the Emperor Hadrian – he of the Wall in England)).

Vincenzo was the first to decode ancient Greek music by using the information given by Alypius, Aristides and Aristoxenus.

Vincenzo also effectively launched the field of study that now is known as “archaeomusicology” – or the study and reconstruction of ancient musical traditions.

A few decades later, Giovanni Battista Doni designed instruments that might properly play the music of Classical Greece. And in 1652, there appeared the extensive study of such music by the Danish historian Marcus Meibomius.

On the strength of this study, Meibomius was invited to the court of Queen Christina where he gave a concert of this music.

The concert ended badly, however, because in the middle of it, Meibomius struck Pierre Bourdelot, the Queen’s physician and favorite (who famously healed the Queen’s melancholia by making her laugh by reading Pietro Aretino’s satires and sonnets). Bourdelot was scoffing at what was being played and sung.

Meibomius beat a hasty retreat from the royal court and before long found gainful employment in Denmark.

In the Baroque era there appeared, in 1721, a study of ancient Greek melodies authored by Jean-Pierre Burette, physician, book-collector, and a man of great erudition.

Like Vincenzo Galilei, Burette again transcribed the three hymns by Mesomedes, to give them greater currency; and he even organized a concert in Paris for these three ancient pieces.

In the nineteenth century, musicians such as, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie and Camille Saint-Saëns, were involved in reviving ancient Greek music. Their interest was given impetus by the discovery in 1892 of the three Delphic Hymns, mentioned above.

These hymns were studied and transcribed by the polymath Théodore Reinach (who built the Villa Kerylos on the French Riviera) along with two other scholars (the classicists, Henri Weil and Otto Crusius).

Reinach also asked Gabriel Fauré to compose an accompaniment to one of the hymns; and this hymn and accompaniment were performed to much public acclaim in France, England, and the United States.

This hymn was also played at the very first meeting of the International Olympic Congress in June of 1894 (held at the Sorbonne in Paris). It’s said that upon hearing this ancient music the delegates at the Congress were filled with enthusiasm to create the modern Olympic Games.

This four hundred year old tradition of studying, decoding and playing ancient Greek tradition continued in the twentieth century with recordings by J. Murray Barbour, Fritz Kuttner, and Annie Bélis.

But what did this music sound like? To answer this question, let’s first take a look at the instruments that were popular in ancient Greece, and then we can move on to the pieces of music themselves.

There was the lyre, a version of the harp that consisted of seven strings. It was made of a wooden soundbox, two curving arms, and a crossbar. The strings were made either of gut or linen and were fixed to the crossbar by moveable pegs. It tended to be an instrument for amateur performance.

The larger version of the lyre was the kithara, from which our word, “guitar” ultimately descends. It had a larger soundbox, two sideboards and a crossbar. Seven gut strings were stretched over a bridge and wound on pegs fixed to the crossbar. The kithara was much louder than the lyre and was used as an accompaniment in public performance by professional singers.

The aulos was the main woodwind instrument of the Greek world and was made-up of two pipes (usually reed stems; later bronze). Each pipe had a double-reed that produced the sound.

Usually the aulos was tied to the mouth of the player by a leather strap tied at the back of the head (see painting above). This assisted in keeping the flow of air constant. Although it’s often called a “double-flute,” it really was much louder than the modern flute and sounded more like the chanter of the bagpipes. The aulos accompanied processions and dances.

There were also other instruments as well, such as, the syrinx (panpipes), the krotala (castanets), rattles, drums, and cymbals. The Greeks also invented the water-organ (the hydraulis).

Written records tell us that music was frequently heard not only at formal and informal dinner parties (like the symposia, where philosophers like Socrates worked out their ideas), but it was also an essential component in civic ceremonies, in religious worship, marriages and funerals.

And we have records of musical competitions in which prizes were awarded. We also know the pay-scales for professional musicians who belonged to guilds; and there were also choirs and choral competitions.

Concert halls were found in most cities, such as the Odeion built in Athens by Pericles in the fifth century BC. We have also found a few monuments erected to honor musicians.

The Greeks also invented drama; and this art form heavily relied on music (the members of Florentine Camarata based the structure of the opera on Greek drama).

We know also that all men in ancient Greece were educated in music and could play one or more instrument; and they were also taught to sing and dance.

On the philosophical level, music was regarded as the highest expression of individual, civic, and cosmic harmony – it was Pythagoras (he of the theorem) who first described the overtone series, for in it he found harmony and perfection, which he called beautiful.

Music, therefore, was beautiful – because it could only be expressed perfectly. One has only to fumble through a tune on an instrument to understand this. Music can only work when each note is perfectly played or sung.

The nature of the music that has survived tells us that the Greeks used the diatonic scale which has five whole notes and two half-tones in an octave, which together give seven pitches.

This led to the two octave scale, or the Greater Perfect System. And when the Greeks wrote their music and the writing of music expressed intervals on the Greater Perfect System.

The tradition started by Vincenzo Galilei continues in our day with great recordings of ancient Greek music being made by groups, such as, the Madrid Atrium Musicae, Ensemble Melpomen, the Ensemble De Organographia, and the marvelous Ensemble Kérylos (named after the magnificent villa built by Reinach mentioned above), which is led by erudite and imaginative Annie Bélis.

Some years backs, Dr. Jay Kennedy, a professor of philosophy at the University of Manchester, suggested in an intriguing study that Plato, the famed philosopher, embedded musical forms in his work by following the structure of the twelve-note scale.

This wonderfully connects with Plato’s notion that music is the experience of the soul, because music alone can cure the soul – and music then is the gift of the soul.

The more we study ancient Greek music, the more we learn and understand that we have forgotten so much. Music is always a mystery and a revelation.

The ancient Spartan poet, Alkman, says, “right against the steel is the sweet playing of the lyre.” This is a very concise view of ancient Greek music – music is life itself.



The photo shows, “The Vintage Festival,” painted in 1871, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.