Music Of The Babylonians, Egyptians And Hebrews

History is a record of changing conditions. Nations rise into prominence and fall again ; cities are built to be torn down by conquerors ; even the face of the earth has changed since the days when the scions of the Aryan race began to leave their home in Central Asia. Arms of the sea have shrunk to rivers, rivers to shallow streams, the desert sands have encroached on the once fertile valleys, and choked the springs and brooks of the meadows. Geologists tell us that the great valleys were made by the alluvial deposit washed down from the hills and mountains by the streams. The Chinese followed the course of the great rivers that made toward the eastern seas, the Hindoos toward the southern ocean, and still another “swarm” followed the great rivers Euphrates and Tigris, which came from the mountains of Western Asia. The great valley lying between the desert and the mountains, a scene of waste and ruin as far back as the time of ancient Greece and Rome, was once a most important center of population and wealth, the home for centuries of races that had reached a high degree of culture in the arts and sciences, and the seat of what may be considered the oldest of extinct civilizations. The valley was wonderfully fertile, was brought to a high degree of cultivation and supported an enormous population. As an instance of the physical changes that have taken place in this region, it may be mentioned that about 4000 B. C., the Tigris and the Euphrates entered the sea by different mouths, instead of joining as now and in the days cf Abraham, the patriarch, who came from this region, and the town identified by modern scholars as “Ur of the Chaldees,” which is now 150 miles up the Euphrates, was an important seaport.

The Chaldeans.—When the Aryans came down into this valley they found already established there a people whose records are now being unearthed, called Akkads, belonging to the Mongolian family, who had reached a high degree of cultivation in art and science. The records found show that music was an important branch of study; at a very early date the harp, pipe and cymbals are mentioned, and we infer that the people were fond of singing, since many sacred hymns have been recorded in tablets. This race, joined to others, founded the Chaldean kingdom, the capital being Babylon. In the 12th century B. C., a king of Assyria, in the northern part of the Tigris valley, conquered Babylon and thus gained the ascendancy.

The Practice of Music Among the Babylonians.—In the great ruins now being excavated, tablets of clay have been found which give a vivid idea of the social and religious esteem in which music was held by the Babylonians. One of these tablets, said to date back more than three thousand years B. C., contains a representation of musicians. One strikes with a hammer upon a metal plate, another carries a reed pipe, a third plays upon a harp of eleven strings, while two others beat time or give the accent by clapping their hands. Especially rich in sculpture is the palace of Sennacherib. One of the relief decorations shows a festival procession in honor of the returning conqueror. In front walk five men, three with harps, a fourth with a kind of lyre, whose strings were struck with a plectrum ; the fifth bears a double flute. Two of the harpers and the lyre player dance. Then follow six women, of whom four carry harps, one blows a double flute, while the last beats a sort of drum. Following the instrumentalists come six women and six children singing, who indicate the rhythm by clapping their hands. From the fact that in these sculptures a few soldiers indicate an army, we infer that the Babylonians made use of large bodies of players and singers in their great ceremonies.

These tablets indicate that the Babylonians made much use of trumpets to give signals to the armies and when great masses of the people were gathered together. That musicians were highly esteemed we judge from the fact that on one occasion Sennacherib spared the lives of musicians among his captives, all others being put to death. Since the Chaldeans, especially, were famous as astronomers and mathematicians, it is thought that they, like the Egyptian sages, had knowledge of the mathematical relations of the various intervals.

Chaldean Instruments. — Two instruments seem to be especially noticeable : the Symphonia and Sambuca. The former was carried to Palestine by-the Hebrews, at the end of their captivity, and, according to their accounts, seems to have been a sort of bagpipe, an instrument particularly suited to a pastoral people like the early Chaldeans. As to the Sambuca we have no authentic knowledge; it seems, however, to have been an instrument of the zither type, held horizontally and played with a plectrum.’ A stringed instrument, struck with a hammer, called the Santir is credited to the Assyrians.

Egyptian Music.—When the great Alexandrian Library of 495,000 works of Persian, Chaldean, Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek and Roman literature was partly destroyed during Julius Caesar’s battles with the native Egyptians, in 47 B. C., and finally, A. D. 391, by Christian fanatics, history suffered an irreparable loss. Treasures of learning in all branches, the records of early civilizations perished, never to be replaced. Today we are dependent upon the discoveries of explorers in the ruins of the great Egyptian cities, temples, tombs and pyramids. The Egyptians believed that articles of necessity to the living being were necessary to the individual in a future existence. If certain things could not, in reality, be placed in the tomb, a pictorial representation would have almost equal value in the invisible world. In Egyptian tombs pipes or “flutes” have been found, and in one instance, in the tomb of a musician, the bronze cymbals he played when alive. In the various tombs and ruins that have been examined by explorers, pictorial representations of practically every phase of Egyptian life have been found. The sources for our knowledge, almost wholly inferential, are, then, the various pictorial and sculptured representations of the Egyptian musical instruments and the manner in which they were used, and a few fragments of their sacred books,’ which were forty-two in number, two being devoted to music, although but one fragment has been found. It must be noted, further, that the Egyptian Government, although nominally a monarchy, limited, not absolute, was in reality theocratic. The priestly caste had final power, and the rules and regulations drawn up by them prescribed the minutest detail of life, crushing all possibility of independent thought and freedom of action, a condition fatal to high artistic development.

Place of Music in Egyptian Life.—To show the place of music in Egyptian life, the following from Ambros’ history will serve admirably : “From these decorations [on the walls of tombs] we perceive that the Egyptians made great use of music. We find harps of many sizes and shapes, small and easily portable, to others beyond the height of a man, crude and of the utmost simplicity, to others elaborate and extremely rich in decoration. We note an almost endless variety of lyres, guitars and mandolins [that is, similar in type to the instruments we know by these names], single and double flutes, played by hands of numerous musicians, together with male and female singers. Music was used to accompany the dance, the funeral cortège, the banquet and other social functions. Inscriptions show that there were musicians of high social position at the court.”

Egyptian Instruments.—The records show a development of music from a crude simplicity in early days to a brilliant and complex system alongside of the changes in other arts and the sciences, some of the discoveries going as far back as 1625 B. C. We give illustrations of several forms of the Egyptian harps. The number of strings varied from three or four to twenty-one. Mr. J. F. Rowbotham, the English historian of music, says that “taking B below the bass staff as the lowest note of the Egyptian scale, (since it likely followed the Assyrian in this respect) the compass of the great harp would extend to E, first line, treble staff. The small harps of various sizes had a compass from D, third line, bass staff, to D or E above the treble staff. Another series of stringed instruments, known under the general name, lyres, had the same compass as the small harps ; the lutes had a low G, (bass) string, and the highest note was C or D on the treble staff ; various forms of the flutes had about the same compass; pipes, [which may be represented by the flageolet of today] had a compass of about one octave up-ward from E, fourth space, treble clef. Other instruments were of the percussion character, tambourines, drums, cymbals, etc. Although the Egyptians used their instruments in combination, there is reason to believe their practice was the alternation of groups, only occasionally using all simultaneously, to secure fulness and power of tone.”

Philosophy and Practice of Egyptian Music.—The consensus of opinion is that Egyptian music was melodic in character, the instruments or voices playing or singing in different octaves, rejecting other intervals. As the Greeks seem to have drawn from the Egyptians much of their practice in music, it is reasonable to suppose that they would have used harmony if the Egyptians had been accustomed to make use of it. As to the Egyptian theory of music we have no information. Since, however, Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, was a student of the Egyptian school for priests, we infer that his teachings were founded on the science he acquired there ; hence it is probable that the Egyptians were familiar with a seven-fold division of the octave and the mathematical relations of the fourth and fifth, as well as other intervals of the scale. Of the old Egyptian hymns we have no remains unless it be, as some assert, that fragments still exist among the Coptic Christians.

The Hebrews.—What a wonderful history is that of the Hebrews ! It has seen nation after nation rise to power and go down. It has been enslaved, seemingly beyond all possibility of recovering a national existence, yet regained place. Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Rome, held the Hebrews, yet the latter are still with us, as a distinct race, while their conquerors have but pages of history. A glance at the history of the race will show that they touched the sources of early civilization. Abraham was a resident, according to the Bible story, of Ur in the land of the Chaldees, where a consider-able civilization had been attained. From here he went to Canaan, thence to Egypt, and back again to the country east of the Red Sea. When his descendants went to Egypt they must have carried with them Syrian music and instruments, doubtless preserving a trace of Chaldean influence. It was during the four centuries’ sojourn in Egypt that the Hebrews, though for a time enslaved, gained the proportions of a nation. As their duties placed them in close relations to their masters, they gained considerable of the Egyptian science, literature, customs, etc. At that time, musicians were slaves, and tradition says that Miriam, the sister of Moses, was a slave dancing-girl and singer. We know that Moses was instructed in the learning of the Egyptian priest-hood, and in that capacity officiated in some of the functions of the temple services. Such facts as these go far to justify the idea that the Hebrews gained their fundamental notions of music and musical instruments during their long sojourn in Egypt. Some writers claim that the songs of the He-brews were adapted to Egyptian chants. The pastoral life led by the descendants of Abraham, the period of slavery which the Hebrews suffered in Egypt, and the subsequent migratory life in the wilderness were not adapted to develop a people’s song. The life in Palestine for many years was a strenuous one ; and then came another period of slavery among the Assyrians, by which the Hebrew ideas were again modified.

A Religious People.—The Hebrews were an intensely religious people, the code delivered to them by Moses fixing the status of music up to the time of the pleasure-loving Solomon. Their music, in distinction from that of the nations around them, was not sensuous but a true musica sacra, in this respect more a matter of religion than of art. During the reign of David, the Levites were organized as the singers for the Temple services. Music and poetry were the chief subjects of instruction. David himself composed many of the tunes to which his Psalms were sung.

Hebrew Poetry and Its Relation to Their Music.—The key to the music of the Hebrews is their poetry. They grew to numbers under the most adverse circumstances, and developed a temperament indifferent to environment and elevated to high spiritual aspiration, making them an intensely religious people, whose life was little softened by. artistic practice. The effect of the injunction against the making of “graven images,” as given them in the code of Moses, was to cut them off from the exercise of the esthetic faculty in sculpture or painting; their unsettled mode of life prevented outlet in architecture. So they poured out the whole strength of their passionate, powerful natures in poetry and song. The most striking characteristic of the Hebrew poetry is the parallelism of the phrases, each sentence or complete thought being made up of two similar or contrasted thoughts, and the accompanying music must have had the same character. The following from the Psalms shows this feature :

“Lord, hear my voice : let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.”

“I will not give sleep to my eyes, or slumber to mine eyelids.”

When the great choirs of men singers were organized for the Temple services, this parallelism brought about the division into two bodies, who sang alternately, a practice in use today in certain churches with ritualistic services, and known as antiphonal singing.

Hebrew Music.—It is unfortunate that we have no reason to believe that the hymns in use in the Jewish synagogues today are sung to the tunes of thousands of years ago, even if modified. In the various countries of Europe, Spain, Italy, Germany, Russia, the airs are quite different, suggesting that tradition has failed to deliver anything that can be traced to the days of the poet-king of Israel. Some authorities find in the Gregorian chants traces of Hebrew melodies which came down from the early Christians of Jewish birth and training. Clement of Alexandria says that their songs were earnest and dignified ; there must have been some special character in them as shown by the command of the Babylonians, “Sing us the songs of Zion.” The principal relation that the Hebrews have to the history of music arises from the enduring impress the works of the Psalmist and other portions of the Scriptures have made upon the music of the Christian Church.

Hebrew Instruments.—The Hebrews borrowed their instruments from other nations, principally from the Egyptians, the one most favored being a form of the harp, small enough to be portable, used to give effect to the chanting of the prophets. “To prophesy meant to sing,” and it is quite likely that Isaiah, Jeremiah and the other inspired poets uttered their thoughts in verse and song, both being extemporized.

The student should bear in mind that the various musical instruments mentioned in the Bible must be understood as types. The harp of David was not the same as our harp, the organ was not like our great church instruments, viols, sackbuts, cornets, pipes, psalteries, etc., are names given by the translators to the Hebrew terms used in the Bible. They used words with which they were familiar, and which they thought corresponded in type to the instruments used by the Hebrews.


Rowbotham.—History of Music.

Naumann.—History of Music, Vol. I.

Engel.—Musical Instruments.

Smith.—The World’s Earliest Music.

Anderson.—The Story of Extinct Civilizations.

Maspéro. Ancient Egypt and Assyria.

Dickinson.—Music in the History of the Western Church,