“That’s Gilgamesh’d Up”: Recreating the Music of Ancient Sumer

We know what you’re thinking. Gilgamesh… sung? No, it’s not the newest historical musical, hoping to capitalize on the hysteria for history-themed performances catalyzed by Hamilton. We’re talked here aboutthe opening lines of the Epic of Gilgamesh performed by musician Peter Pringle. The piece is not only played on a Sumerian lute called a “gish-gu-di” but is also sung in ancient Sumerian. You can’t get any more authentic than that, or so says Pringle:

The EPIC OF GILGAMESH is the earliest great work of literature that we know of, and was first written down by the Sumerians around 2100 B.C.

Ancient Sumer was the land that lay between the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, in Mesopotamia. The language that the Sumerians spoke was unrelated to the Semitic languages of their neighbors the Akkadians and Babylonians, and it was written in a syllabary (a kind of alphabet) called “cuneiform”. By 2000 B.C., the language of Sumer had almost completely died out and was used only by scholars (like Latin is today). No one knows how it was pronounced because it has not been heard in 4000 years.

What you hear in this video are a few of the opening lines of part of the epic poem, accompanied only by a long-neck, three-string, Sumerian lute known as a “gish-gu-di”. The instrument is tuned to G – G – D, and although it is similar to other long neck lutes still in use today (the tar, the setar, the saz, etc.) the modern instruments are low tension and strung with fine steel wire. The ancient long neck lutes (such as the Egyptian “nefer”) were strung with gut and behaved slightly differently. The short-neck lute known as the “oud” is strung with gut/nylon, and its sound has much in common with the ancient long-neck lute although the oud is not a fretted instrument and its strings are much shorter (about 25 inches or 63 cm) as compared to 32 inches (82 cm) on a long-neck instrument.

Andy Lowings plays The Flood.  Image for the Lyre EnsembleInterested in more Sumerian music? Then you shouldlisten to The Flood by the Lyre Ensemble, as recommended by Core alum and University of Texas grad Dygo Tosa (Core ’06, CAS ’08)… he’s a Classics teacher at Brookline High School, and he knows from oldies but goodies. The Floodis an album of ancient Sumerian and Babylonian music that features the sounds of a replica of the Gold Lyre of Ur. Listen to a preview here and let Core know what you think. (We envision the first week of CC 101 as far more impressive if the lecturer opened with a reading of Gilgamesh in its original tongue, but that’s just us.)

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *