In an age when songs become "golden oldies" after about three months on the charts, there is probably little commercial value in a song that is as old as Stonehenge. But there is immense scholarly interest in a simple little tune that can be heard on a record from Berkeley, Cal. Laboriously deciphered from cuneiform tablets after 15 years of work by a variety of scholars, the song was No. 1 on the Hittite Parade around 1400 B.C., and that makes it the oldest known melody, by a cool millennium.
The record is entitled "Sounds from Silence: Recent Discoveries in Ancient Near Eastern Music" (Bit Enki Publications BTNK 101), and it can be ordered from Bit Enki Publications, Box 9068, Berkeley, Cal., 94709, for $16. Some aspects of the song's deciphering and recording by Berkeley scholars Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, Richard L. Crocker and Robert R. Brown are still speculative, but they make a convincing case for their research on the spoken sections fo the record and in an accompanying booklet, and two of their conclusions shatter some basic assumptions of music history.
One point they make is that the ancient Greek musical modes (scales) were used in the Middle East about a thousand years before Pythagoras supposedly establised them, and that apparently the most commonly used of these modes corresponded exactly to the modern major scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol . . . ).
Even more remarkable in some ways is their conclusion that heterophony was used in Ugarit some 3,400 years ago.Heterophony - simultaneous use of two melodies, one for the voice and one for the instrumental accompaniment - is supposed to be about 2,500 years later in music history.
The tune itself, presented in three variations, is starting only when you consider how old it sis. To the average listener, ti will probably sound most like Gregorian chant, because the vocal part goes up or down in very small steps and because - having no useful clues about the music's rhythm - Kilmer transcribed it entirely in eighth notes except for one quarter note at the end of each phrase. But it is considerably more advanced than Gregorian chant in the sense that it has a heterophonic accompaniment.
The text, only partially deciphered, is a hymn about (and probably to) the goddess Nikkal, wife of the moon god, apparently petitioning for the conception of a child. Even though we can't interpret them - perhaps because we can't interpret them - there is something haunting about those ancient syllables: "hanuta niyasa ziwe . . ." But the people who will be most haunted by this record are musicologists.
Compared to the song of Nikkal, the works noted briefly below are practically brand-new - but they still fall into the category loosely known as "old music."
A Guide to Gregorian Chant. Schola Antiqua, R. John Blackley, director (Vanguard VSD 71217). A useful, splendidly performed and well-varied guide, concentrating chiefly on the Roman usage but also including samples of the varied traditions associalized collection with differnet singers but the same director, "Plain Chant and Polyphony from Medieval Germany," is also very much worth having.
Johannes Ockeghem: Missa Ma Maitresse; Missa au Travail Suis; motels ann chansons. Pomerium Musices, Alexander Blachly, director (Nonesuch H-71336). Ockeghem, who died in 1497, has long been the treasured and almost exclusive property of scholars, but since the beginning of the LP era he has begun to draw a larger audience and to influence modern composers. My personal opinion is that in any listing of history's great composers, he belongs near the top with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but his style is so different from that of the classical period that he remains an acquired taste. This beautifully sung record shows why that taste is worth acquiring.
The Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Musicx Reservata of London; Martin Bookspan, narrator (Vanguard VSD 71219/20, two records).One of the things that happened in the classical period was that the variety of musical instruments in active use was sharply reduced. This set (which includes an illustrated booklet) gives an extensive survey of the various sounds available to musicians in that period and now being revived by specialists. Bookspan's spoken description is informative but more educational than entertaining; the illustrative music bears repeated playing more often than his voice, and side No. 4 of the set has wisely been devoted exclusively to music without spoken introductions.