Music of the Pharaohs
A current exhibition in northern France is examining the music of ancient Egypt and the wider ancient world, writes David Tresilian
Music of the Pharaohs
The Louvre Lens Museum, an outpost of the Paris Louvre Museum in the northern French town of Lens, opened in 2012. Five years later, an exhibition on the music of ancient Egypt and other ancient cultures has been drawing the crowds, summarising what is known about this intriguing, but frustratingly elusive, topic. It also seems to show that the Louvre's investment in this post-industrial region of France, though risky, has not been misplaced.
The exhibition, entitled Musiques, échos de l'antiquité and running until January next year, examines the music of three main civilisations of the ancient Mediterranean, ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, together with the music of ancient Mesopotamia in what is now Iraq. While many people will be aware that these civilisations possessed elaborate musical cultures and made extensive use of music for a variety of public and private purposes, few may be able to differentiate genuine ancient Roman music, for example, from what they have seen and heard in Hollywood sword-and-sandals films.
Such problems are even more acute in the case of ancient Egyptian music, with films such as US director Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra suggesting that ancient Egyptian music, produced on screen by an array of percussion, stringed and wind instruments reconstructed from scenes on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, sounded like a Western post-Romantic symphony orchestra. "Oriental" effects are produced in such films by the use of minor keys and a sprinkling of harps.
Needless to say, ancient Egyptian music cannot have sounded like that, not least because there is no evidence to suggest that the Pharaohs ever brought together so large an array of musicians. The surviving paintings of music and musicians on tomb walls show either single players, often engaged in producing music for religious ceremonies, or, perhaps more intriguingly, groups of musicians playing different instruments and producing music for entertainment.
In the absence of any surviving musical notation from ancient Egypt, it is impossible to know whether these musicians are playing an established repertoire, perhaps made up of pieces written by separate composers as is the case with music today, or whether they are improvising along recognised lines. Given the general conservatism of ancient Egyptian culture – the conventions governing painting, sculpture and architecture hardly changed over thousands of years – it seems likely that they are doing the latter. But the absence of information makes it impossible to know what the music produced by such ensembles sounded like, something that is even more the case for singers or individual musicians.
However, while no one is likely to leave the present exhibition with pieces of ancient Egyptian music buzzing in their ears, all is far from being lost. Paintings on tomb walls showing musicians and the production of music, papyrus documents showing musical scenes, and literary texts such as hymns that were presumably intended to be sung all provide evidence that can be built upon. Modern reconstructions of ancient instruments give a sense of the sounds they could have produced, even if they cannot answer other questions.
Such research cannot tell us what the musicians depicted on ancient Egyptian tomb walls were playing, but it can assure us that it sounded nothing like the 19th-century composer Giuseppe Verdi's score for his ancient Egyptian opera Aida. The few attempts at reconstructing ancient Egyptian music in the exhibition, like those attempting to reconstruct the music of ancient Greece and Rome, sound alarmingly like a disconnected series of rattles and scratches, even if the information accompanying them says that these build on what can be deduced from the available evidence on melody and rhythm.
While this will come as a disappointment to many – there are no CDs of ancient music for sale in the exhibition shop – it is at least instructive about the conclusions that can be drawn from the available evidence and the ingenuity of contemporary researchers.
MODERN REDISCOVERY: Ancient Greek and Roman music was rediscovered in the early modern period, but research into ancient Egyptian music had to wait until the wider rediscovery of ancient Egyptian culture at the beginning of the 19th century.
As was the case for other aspects of ancient Egypt, trail-blazing research was carried out by the savants – the scientists and men of letters – who accompanied the French general Napoleon Bonaparte on his 1799 expedition to Egypt, later publishing their findings in the encyclopaedic Description de l'Egypte. The exhibition includes plates from this work, including a copy of a scene of ancient Egyptian harpists from the tomb of the pharaoh Ramses III in the Valley of the Kings and of G A Villoteau's Mémoire sur la musique de l'antique Egypte included in the Description de l'Egypte.
Owing to the country's dry climate and the habit of placing objects in royal and other tombs, various musical instruments have survived from ancient Egypt. Metal has tended to survive the best, with wind instruments such as metal horns and percussion instruments such as metal clappers or rattles having been found. But wooden and leather instruments have also survived, including harps and lyres (but not their strings), along with drums and tambourines. The exhibition includes a well-preserved ancient Egyptian harp dating from the Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BCE), now in the Louvre in Paris, and a visually almost perfect-looking drum dating from the Late Period (664-332 BCE).
Ancient Egyptian wind instruments were often made of wood like modern clarinets or oboes, and while their sound seems to have been produced by the movement of air alone (like in flutes or recorders), there is some suggestion that they might also have used vibrating reeds. One primary function of music, the exhibition says, was to honour or even to communicate with the gods. At least one of these, the goddess Hathor, was closely associated with music, much like the ancient Greek god Apollo who is often shown carrying a lyre. Music seems to have been associated with private ceremonies, as it still is today, including weddings and funerals. It was widely played in temples for religious reasons, but apparently not at private banquets.
Music was used for political purposes in ancient Egypt, with royal ceremonies often accompanied by musical performances of one sort of another, sometimes even apparently being performed by the pharaoh himself. Military occasions used music, perhaps along the lines of the later Roman triumphs with their trumpets and drums, but there does not seem to have been much emphasis on musical competitions, famously promoted by the Roman emperor Nero, himself an accomplished musician. Music does not seem to have accompanied secular performances – as for example it accompanied ancient Greek theatre plays.
While it seems that the pharaoh may indeed have entered accompanied by a burst of trumpets, as he does in Hollywood films, or relaxed to the sound of harps and lyres, such effects were only some of the possible uses of courtly music. It is known that the Pharaohs employed musicians and singers, though these would perhaps have had a mostly religious function even if the evidence suggests that music was played for entertainment as well as to punctuate religious rituals. Very little is known about the training or status accorded to musicians, though they seem to have made up a professional group like scribes, and the visual evidence gives little away about how instruments were played. Sometimes tomb paintings show groups of musicians holding different instruments, a bit like chamber ensembles today, but the evidence such paintings provide is patchy and difficult to interpret.
Towards the end of the exhibition there is a video film of research into ancient music carried out at IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, in Paris. While this focuses on computer-assisted reconstructions of the curved horns carried by Roman soldiers, suggesting that these were capable of producing five notes in a natural harmonic scale, it also provides fascinating insight into the possibilities and limits of current research. Identifying the possible sounds produced by ancient musical instruments is an essential first step towards reconstructing the sound of ancient music.
Visitors to the present exhibition cannot fail to be struck by the similarities between the music of otherwise quite different ancient civilisations. All of them used music for similar purposes, with music having roles to play in religious ceremonies and political and military spectacles as indeed it does in many societies today. But music also seems to have been invested with private meanings as well as public or religious ones, and though the evidence from ancient Egypt is patchy music seems to have been thought of as having predictable effects on the emotions of the listener and as being associated with love or eroticism.
Musical instruments and practices also spread across the ancient world, with Alexandria, the exhibition suggests, playing a similar role to some of the world's music capitals of today. In particularly the Hellenistic period the city was associated with the fusion and onward dissemination of music practices from all corners of the ancient world.
Musiques, échos de l'antiquité, Musée du Louvre Lens, until 15 January 2018.
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