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The History of Assyrian Music

In the sculptures found in what are thought to be the ruins of Nineveh are many representations of musicians and musical instruments. The latter appear to have been of very finished workmanship, and to have reached that stage of development where beauty and essential fitness meet on an equal footing, in fact, within their limits, the instruments of the Assyrians may be said to be artistically perfect. Most of the sculpture work discovered at Nineveh is now in the British Museum, and reproductions of it are to be found in almost every book dealing with the history of music. Judging from the nature of the instruments represented, the music of the Assyrians must have been of a light yet somewhat subdued order, with no very pronounced effects of instrumental "colour," no blaring of large wind instruments or banging of drums. They have also arrived at some idea of a proper combination of instruments and voices. An interesting illustration, not only of the nature of the Assyrian musical instruments, but also of the manner in which these instruments were employed in combination with voices, is afforded by a sculptural relief in the British Museum, representing a procession of musicians marching to meet a conqueror returning from battle.

In front marches a bearded man playing upon a harp apparently about four feet high and fitted with ten strings. From the fact of his walking alone in front of his fellow musicians, this man was probably the head musician. In today's terms, he could be a conductor or a musical director, or it might have been his turn to stand at the front.

Nobody knows for sure. Behind him walk two men, one playing an instrument of the dulcimer kind, and the other a double flute. The dulcimer player walks with his instrument resting against his breast in a horizontal position, possibly it was secured by a cord or strap passed round the player's neck. The flute-player's instrument is small, allowing him to have been a tall man; each pipe would be up to twelve inches long.

Behind the flute and dulcimer-players come two more harpers, with instruments similar to that carried by the leader. Then follow another couple, a harper and a flute-player, followed, in turn, by two other harpers, these last being followed by a harper and a drummer, the drum a very small one and apparently played with the finger-tips. This constitutes the orchestra. The rear of the procession is brought up by six adult and nine juvenile singers, the whole forming a band and chorus of twenty-six instrumentalists and singers divided as follows :- 2 Double flutes. 1 Small drum.

1 Dulcimer. 6 Singing men or women. 7 Harps. 9 Singing boys.

There is undoubtedly a strong sense of proportion and general fitness exhibited in this combination, so much so, that we can hardly imagine the disposition of this body of musicians to have been purely a matter of chance. The sharper sounding instruments, the flutes and the dulcimer, are carefully placed among the other less pronounced instruments, and considering the nature of the other instruments, the drum may be said to be sufficiently large and powerful for the purpose it had to serve. The backbone of the band is in the harps, they represent the violins of the modern orchestra. The proportion of singers to instrumentalists, again, although somewhat unequal, according to modern ideas, is curiously like that of Handel's time.

Besides the instruments just described, the Assyrians appear to have also made use of a variety of drums, cymbals, trumpets, bells and tambourines.

Michael David Shaw runs music websites and


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