Music Of The Egyptians, Assyrians, And Chinese

IN speaking of the music of antiquity we are seriously hampered by the fact that there is practically no actual music in existence which dates back farther than the eighth or tenth century of the present era. Even those well-known specimens of Greek music, as they are claimed to be, the hymns to Apollo, Nemesis, and Calliope, do not date farther back than the third or fourth century, and even these are by no means generally considered authentic. Therefore, so far as actual sounds go, all music of which we have any practical knowledge dates from about the twelfth century.

Theoretically, we have the most minute knowledge of the scientific aspect of music, dating from more than five hundred years before the Christian era. This knowledge, however, is worse than valueless, for it is misleading. For instance, it would be a very difficult thing for posterity to form any idea as to what our music was like if all the actual music in the world at the present time were destroyed, and only certain scientific works such as that of Helmholtz on acoustics and a few theoretical treatises on harmony, form, counterpoint and fugue were saved.

From Helmholtz’s analysis of sounds one would get the idea that the so-called tempered scale of our pianos caused thirds and sixths to sound discordantly.

From the books on harmony one would gather that consecutive fifths and octaves and a number of other things were never indulged in by composers, and to cap the climax one would naturally accept the harmony exercises contained in the books as being the very acme of what we loved best in music. Thus we see that any investigation into the music of antiquity must be more or less conjectural.

Let us begin with the music of the Egyptians. The oldest existing musical instrument of which we have any knowledge is an Egyptian lyre to be found in the Berlin Royal Museum. It is about four thousand years old, dating from the period just before the expulsion of the Hyksos or “Shepherd” kings.

At that time (the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty, 1500-2000 B. C.) Egypt was just recovering from her five hundred years of bondage, and music must already have reached a wonderful state of development. In wall paintings of the eighteenth dynasty we see flutes, double flutes, and harps of all sizes, from the small one carried in the hand, to the great harps, almost seven feet high, with twenty-one strings; the never-failing sistrum (a kind of rattle); kitharas, the ancestors of our modern guitars; lutes and lyres, the very first in the line of instruments culminating in the modern piano.

One hesitates to class the trumpets of the Egyptians in the same category, for they were war instruments, the tone of which was probably always forced, for Herodotus says that they sounded like the braying of a donkey. The fact that the cheeks of the trumpeter were reinforced with leather straps would further indicate that the instruments were used only for loud signalling.

According to the mural paintings and sculptures in the tombs of the Egyptians, all these instruments were played together, and accompanied the voice. It has long been maintained that harmony was unknown to the ancients because of the mathematical measurement of sounds. This might be plausible for strings, but pipes could be cut to any size. The positions of the hands of the executants on the harps and lyres, as well as the use of short and long pipes, make it appear probable that some-thing of what we call harmony was known to the Egyptians.

We must also consider that their paintings and sculptures were eminently symbolic. When one carves an explanation in hard granite it is apt to be done in short-hand, as it were. Thus, a tree meant a forest, a prisoner meant a whole army; therefore, two sculptured harpists or flute players may stand for twenty or two hundred. Athenæus, who lived at the end of the second and beginning of the third century, A. D., speaks of orchestras of six hundred in Ptolemy Philadelphus ‘s time (300 B. C.), and says that three hundred of the players were harpers, in which number he probably includes players on other stringed instruments, such as lutes and lyres. It is there-fore to be inferred that the other three hundred played wind and percussion instruments. This is an additional reason for conjecturing that they used chords in their music; for six hundred players, not to count the singers, would hardly play entirely in unison or in octaves. The very nature of the harp is chordal, and the sculptures always depict the performer playing with both hands, the fingers being more or less outstretched. That the music must have been of a deep, sonorous character, we may gather from the great size of the harps and the thickness of their strings. As for the flutes, they also are pictured as being very long; therefore they must have been low in pitch. The reed pipes, judging from the pictures and sculptures, were no higher in pitch than our oboes, of which the highest note is D and E above the treble staff.

It is claimed that so far as the harps were concerned, the music must have been strictly diatonic in character. To quote Rowbotham, “the harp, which was the foundation of the Egyptian orchestra, is an essentially non-chromatic instrument, and could therefore only play a straight up and down diatonic scale.” Continuing he says, “It is plain therefore that the Egyptian harmony was purely diatonic; such a thing as modern modulation was unknown, and every piece from beginning to end was played in the same key.” That this position is utterly untenable is very evident, for there was nothing to pre-vent the Egyptians from tuning their harps in the same order of tones and half tones as is used for our modem pianos. That this is even probable may be assumed from the scale of a flute dating back to the eighteenth or nineteenth century B. C. (1700 or r600 B. C.), which was found in the royal tombs at Thebes, and which is now in the Florence Museum.

The only thing about which we may be reasonably certain in regard to Egyptian music is that, like Egyptian architecture, it must have been very massive, on account of the preponderance in the orchestra of the low tones of the stringed instruments.

The sistrum was, properly speaking, not considered a musical instrument at all. It was used only in religious ceremonies, and may be considered as the ancestor of the bell that is rung at the elevation of the Host in Roman Catholic churches. Herodotus (born 485 B. C.) tells us much about Egyptian music, how the great festival at Bubastis in honour of the Egyptian Diana (Bast or Pascht) , to whom the cat was sacred, was attended yearly by 700,000 people who came by water, the boats resounding with the clatter of castanets, the clapping of hands, and the soft tones of thousands of flutes. Again he tells us of: music played during banquets, and speaks of a mournful song called Maneros. This, the oldest song of the Egyptians (dating back to the first dynasty), was symbolical of the passing away of life, and was sung in connection with that gruesome custom of bringing in, towards the end of a banquet, an effigy of a corpse to remind the guests that death is the birthright of all mankind, a custom which was adopted later by the Romans.

Herodotus also gives us a vague but very suggestive glimpse of what may have been the genesis of Greek tragedy, for he was permitted to see a kind of nocturnal Egyptian passion play, in which evidently the tragedy of Osiris was enacted with ghastly realism. Osiris, who represents the light, is hunted by Set or Typhon, the god of darkness, and finally torn to pieces by the followers of Set, and buried beneath the waters of the lake; Horus, the son of Osiris, avenges his death by subduing Set, and Osiris appears again as the ruler of the shadowland of death.

This strange tragedy took place at night, on the shore of the lake behind the great temple at Saïs. Osiris was dressed royally, in white, and after the horrible pursuit and his murder by Set and his sinister band, Horus, the rising sun, dispels the gloom, and a glorious new god of light appears. Set and his followers are driven back to the gloomy temple where, perhaps, there was another scene showing the shade of Osiris, enthroned and ruling the dead. We have no means of knowing the character of the music which accompanied this mystery play; but certainly the deep tones of the harps and the flutes, together with the chanting of men’s voices, must have been appropriate. Add to these the almost silent rattle of the sistrum, which, for the Egyptians, possessed some-thing of the supernatural, and we have an orchestral colouring which is suggestive, to say the least.

With this we will leave Egyptian music, simply calling attention to the works of Resellini, Lepsius, Wilkinson, and Petri, which contain copies of mural paintings and temple and tomb sculptures relating to music. For instance, pages 103, 106, and iii of Lepsius’s third book, “Die Denkmaler aus AEgypten und Æthiopen,” will be found very interesting, particularly page 106, which shows some of the rooms of the palace of Amenotep IV, of the eighteenth dynasty (about 1500 or 1600 B. C.), in which dancing and music is being taught. In the same work, second book, on pages 52 and 53, are pictures taken from a tomb near Gizeh, showing harp and flute players and singers. The position of the hands of the singers — they hold them behind their ears — is a manner of illustrating the act of hearing, and arises from the hieroglyphic double way of putting things; for instance, in writing hieroglyphics the word is often first spelled out, then comes another sign for the pronunciation, then some-times even two other signs to emphasize its meaning.

The music of the Assyrians may be summed up very briefly. All that can be gathered from the bas-relief sculptures is that shrill tones and acute pitch must have characterized their music. As Rowbotham says, alluding to the Sardanapalus wall sculpture now in the British Museum in London, “What can one think of the musical delicacy of a nation the King of which, dining alone with his queen, chooses to be regaled with the sounds of a lyre and a big drum close at his elbow?” The instruments represented in these bas-reliefs, aside from the drum, are high-pitched: flutes, pipes, trumpets, cymbals, and the smaller stringed instruments. These were all portable, and some, such as drums and dulcimers, were strapped to the body, all of which points to the eminently warlike character of the people. Instead of clapping the hands to mark the time as did the Egyptians, they stamped their feet. The dulcimer was somewhat like a modern zither, and may be said to contain the germ of our piano; for it was in the form of a flat case, strapped to the body and held horizontally in front of the player. The strings were struck with a kind of plectrum, held in the right hand, and were touched with the left hand immediately afterwards to stop the vibration, just as the dampers in the pianoforte fall on the string the moment the key is released. There existed among the Chaldeans a science of music, which, of course, is a very different thing from practical music, but it was so imbued with astronomical symbolism that it seems hardly worth while to consider it here. The art of Babylonia and Assyria culminated in architecture and bas-relief sculpture, and it is chiefly valuable as being the germ from which Greek art was developed.

In considering Chinese music one has somewhat the same feeling as one would have in looking across a flat plain. There are no mountains in Chinese music, and there is nothing in its history to make us think that it was ever anything but a more or less puerile playing with sound; therefore there is no separating modern Chinese music from that of antiquity. To be sure, Confucius (about 500 B. C.) said that to be well governed a nation must possess good music. Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Plato, in Greece, said the same thing, and their maxims proved a very important factor in the music of ancient times, for the’ simple: reason that an art controlled by government can have nothing very vital about it. Hebrew music was utterly annihilated by laws, and the poetic imagination thus pent up found its vent in poetry, the result being some of the most wonderful works the world has ever known. In Egypt, this current of inspiration from the very beginning was turned toward architecture. In Greece, music became a mere stage accessory or a subject for the dissecting table of mathematics; in China, we have the dead level of an obstinate adherence to tradition, thus proving Sir Thomas Browne’s saying, “The mortallest enemy unto knowledge, and that which hath done the greatest execution upon truth, hath been a peremptory adhesion unto tradition, and more especially the establishing of our own belief upon the dictates of antiquity.”

The Chinese theory is that there are eight different musical sounds in nature, namely;

The sound of skin. The sound of stone. The sound of metal. The sound of clay. The sound of silk. The sound of wood. The sound of bamboo. The sound of gourd.

The sound of skin has a number of varieties, all different kinds of drums.

The sound of stone is held by the Chinese to be the most beautiful among sounds, one between that of metal and of wood. The principal instrument in this category is the king, and in mythology it is the chosen instrument of Kouei, the Chinese Orpheus. This instrument has a large framework on which are hung sixteen stones of different sizes, which are struck, like drums, with a kind of hammer. According to Amiot, only a certain kind of stone found near the banks of the river Tee will serve for the making of these instruments, and in the year 2200 B. C. the Emperor Yu assessed the different provinces so many stones each for the palace instruments, in place of tribute.

The sound of metal is embodied in the various kinds of bells, which are arranged in many different series, sometimes after the patterns of the king, while sometimes they are played separately.

The sound of clay, or baked earth, is given by a kind of round egg made of porcelain — for that is what it amounts to — pierced with five holes and a mouthpiece, upon blowing through which the sound is produced — an instrument somewhat suggestive of our ocarina.

The sound of silk is given by two instruments: one a kind of flat harp with seven strings, called che, the other with twenty-five strings, called kin, in size from seven to nine feet long. The ancient form of this instrument is said to have had fifty strings.

The sound of wood is a strange element in a Chinese orchestra, for it is produced in three different ways: first, by an instrument in the form of a square wooden box with a hole in one of its sides through which the hand, holding a small mallet, is inserted, the sound of wood being produced by hammering with the mallet on the inside walls of the box, just as the clapper strikes a, bell. This box is placed at the northeast corner of the orchestra, and begins every piece. Second, by a set of strips of wood strung on a strap or cord, the sound of which is obtained by beating the palm of the hand with them. The third is the strangest of all, for the instrument consists of a life-size wooden tiger. It has a number of teeth or pegs along the ridge of its back, and it is “played” by stroking these pegs rapidly with a wooden staff, and then striking the tiger on the head. This is the pre-scribed end of every Chinese orchestral composition, and is supposed to be a symbol of man’s supremacy over brute creation. The tiger has its place in the northwest corner of the orchestra.

The sound of bamboo is represented in the familiar form of Pan’s pipes, and various forms of flutes which hardly need further description.

And finally the sound of the gourd. The gourd is a kind of squash, hollowed out, in which from thirteen to twenty-four pipes of bamboo or metal are inserted; each one of these pipes contains a metal reed, the vibration of which causes the sound. Below the reed are cut small holes in the pipes, and there is a pipe with a mouthpiece to keep the gourd, which is practically an air reservoir, full of air. The air rushing out through the bamboo pipes will naturally escape through the holes cut below the reeds, making no sound, but if the finger stops one or more of these holes, the air is forced up through the reeds, thus giving a musical sound, the’ pitch of which will be dependent on the length of the pipes and the force with which the air passes through the reed.

Other instruments of the Chinese are gongs of all sizes, trumpets, and several stringed instruments some-what akin to our guitars and mandolins. Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese have ever seemed to consider the voice as partaking of the nature of music. This is strange, for the language of the Chinese depends on flexibility of the voice to make it even intelligible. As a matter of fact, singing, in our sense of the word, is unknown to them.