Hurrian Moonset
(Hurrian Hymn 6/8 Descending Scale)

nid qabli, in descending scale tuning

The "Hurrian Moonset" is a revised name for "Hurrian Hymn 6/8 Descending Scale."

"Hurrian Moonset" is an upside down arrangement of "Hurrian Moonrise;" the lyre is tuned to a descending scale (see below), so the music, even though it is being played from the same piece of tablature notation as "Hurrian Moonrise," comes out sounding different.

As a result of the reversed direction of the scale, the bottom notes of the ditones are on top, (higher pitched) compared to their position in "Hurrian Sunrise." Since our ears tend to hear the top pitch as predominant in a group of two or more notes played together, the melody now is different.

Also, the contours (rises and falls) of the melody tend to create a sort of mirror image to the opposite version.

Top left: The Silver Lyre from Ur, now in the British Museum. Drawing by J. Smith

For variety, a livelier 6/8 tempo has been imposed on this piece. "Hurrian Moonset" is introduced by the drum and tambourine motif which continues throughout the song. Twin flutes play a short introduction duet before the lyre comes in. The flutes then play along with the lyre, assigned to either the upper or the lower voice of the lyre ditones.

This sort of arrangement tends to make music historians uncomfortable about the "string pairs" aspect of the ancient Hurrian Hymn notation, since polypohony, or notation for two voices singing (or instruments playing) separate parts did not appear in Europe until relatively modern times. Music historians do not readily accept the idea of polyphony in 1400 B.C.
(There is some discussion of this subject on the page for "The Music Teacher").

Click to see larger cylinder seal image of Nanna

A few more notes on the moon god Nanna-

Nanna was god of the moon and city god of Ur, where he dwelt in a temple high on top of a stage tower or ziggurat.

A famous "Lament for Ur" was written at the end of the Third Dynasty of Ur, when the aged king and all the citizens were killed or carried off after a long seige by invadors from the highlands, Elam and the Sua people. We have only the text for such hymns, with a few descriptive terms, but no actual music notation.

"The lament is that of a balag or "harp lament" which consisted of two parts, a "lament" (er) and a "tambourine-lament" (ershemma). The first one of these is here sung by Nanna's wife, the goddess Ningal—presumably represented by a human female singer. The second is sung by a singer or singers who express the survivor's compassion and hope, and urge Nanna and Ningal to restore the city as of old.

It seems reasonable to assume that the lament will have been performed at night in moonlight in the actual ruin of Nanna's temple in Ur, Ekishnugal.* Nanna, the moon, would have heard it as he looked down sorrowfully at the ruins of his city and his home, and omen kids would have been slaughtered so that his decision might be read in their entrails.

(*Ekishnugal was the name of the temple)

From "The Harps That Once... Sumerian Poetry in Translation," by Thorkild Jacobsen. p447

Click to see "Horns of a Dilemma"

The Upward /Downward Scale Controversy

In most fields of scholarship there are various theories on how to interpret the available data, and the field of ancient music is no exception. Here the two schools are the Ascending and Descending scales on the lyre.

The titles of the two Hurrian Hymn versions on "Seven Modes for an Ancient Lyre" are chosen with a purpose.

In one corner we have the Ascending Scale scholars:
"Moonrise" is based on the assumption that string number one on the lyre is the longest and therefore the lowest in the scale. The scale goes upwards in pitches, as in our own do re mi fa sol la ti do scales.

In the other corner, the Descending Scale advocates think the highest sounding string was number one. There are reasons on both sides for choosing one over the other, although the fact that Greek scales were descending might cause one to look carefully to see if there is a connection between the Greek and Mesopotamian tuning procedures.

Click for larger view of this Egyptian harpist

Argument for Ascending scale:
the lexical text U.3011 col. 1(=Nabnitu Tablet 32)

Harps in ancient times were constructed, as today, with the shortest string at the back, toward the player. The "fore" or front end of the instrument would therefore be the lowest note. This would cause us to assume that string number one, the "fore" string, would be the lowest, and the scale would ascend in pitch from there. We assume that this arrangement would also apply to lyres, even though their strings are practically the same length.

harpist from Eshnunna playing 8 strings, longest in frontEshnunna:
Does the harpist with white eyes indicate blindness?

Click for larger image

1. fore string
2. next string
3. third thin string
4, fourth-small string (or)Ea creator string
5. fifth string
6. fourth-behind string
7. third behind string
8. second-behind string
9. behind string
10. (total) 9 string

Argument for the Descending scale:
the lexical text U.3011 col. 1(=Nabnitu Tablet 32)

In the string list, the "third thin" string is nearest to the "fore," or front of the instrument. This must mean that the front of the harp started with the thinnest (and presumably shortest) strings, which means the front string, number one, would have been the highest, not the lowest. In such a case, the scale would start on the highest note for string number one, and go downwards in pitch as the string numbers went up.

lyre being held horizontally

Hebrew lyreist

Click for larger picture

It will be noticed that in the Greek terminology the words "low" and "high" are used with meanings opposite to ours. This is because the names were taken from the relative position of the strings of the lyre; the instrument was held by the player so that the low-pitched strings were farther from the ground than the high-pitched ones...

Grout, Donald, "A History of Western Music," revised1973, p29.

If the Greek lyre were tilted forward so that the strings closest to the player' face were higher from the ground, but were lowest in pitch, then the "behind" string, farthest from the ground would have been called the "highest" string, even if it were the lowest in pitch.

This image is of a Hebrew lyreist, but it shows the position of the instrument held horizontally. Perhaps it was easier to brace the body of the instrument against one's chest in this position, while walking.

Cylander seal thumbnail, of two women holding a lyre

A cylinder seal found in the Great Death Pit at Ur

Click to see the whole seal image rolled out on clay

The Sumerian lyre was held upright, and does not seem very portable. Sometimes with the help of a person in front, the lyre could be carried in a marching or parade situation, or at least be played standing up. The small figures beneath the lyre on this cylinder seal have been interpreted as dwarves, or drawn small to keep from obscuring the lyre, but they also look a lot like children. Are they lyre bearers?

(On the top panel two people are drinking beer from a vat through two long reed straws.)

1. Berber Wedding Song
2. The Music Class
3. Twilight on the Water
4. Hurrian Moonrise
5. Ninkasi’s Dance
6. Lament for Linus
7. Solitary Theme
8. Long Ago Lullaby
9. Fortune-Telling Song
10. Hurrian Moonset
11. Ea, the Creator
12. The Queen of Sheba
13. Hal Libba Marya


©Bella Roma Music 2002