CHIRONOMY IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
The te`amim are actually a transcription of a series of gestures of the hand and/or fingers, each gesture representing a musical value. In other words, the written signs are a shorthand for a specific chironomy (which word derives from the ancient Greek term for such a system). Haïk-Vantoura devotes an entire chapter in her book to the subject. It is fitting that we devote an entire page to the subject here.
Chironomy was a widespread art in the ancient world; and it endured well into medieval times. For that matter, vestigial (if sometimes rather complex) forms are still practiced by various religious communities, including certain ancient synagogue and Christian communities (including the Greek and Coptic Churches and the schools of Catholic Gregorian chant).
To understand the vital place that chironomy held in the music of the Temple, it is first necessary to place chironomy in its historical context, from biblical times until the present.
Chironomy has more visual documentation in Egypt than anywhere else in the ancient world; some specialists believe the art was likely invented there. It is found portrayed on the mastabas (monuments) and in the tombs of many of the ancient Pharaohs. Evidently the system of chironomy used remained essentially the same across many centuries, beginning with the Old Kingdom. (Some remnants of it exist among the Copts to this day.)
The late Professor Hans Hickmann of the Museum of Cairo analyzed the system of chironomy found on severalmastabas and derived the above decipherment of the various gestures. The resulting scale (see above) is pentatonic, with eleven degrees and several possible modes. Like the biblical te`amim (and as we will see, the gestures that lie behind them), the Egyptian gestures do not of themselves indicate what mode is to be used. (This is a common feature both of ancient and medieval chironomic systems and of the notations — often called neumes — based on them.) For certain degrees, (+) placed above the note means that it may be raised by a half-step in certain modes. A note in parentheses (o) has the same significance. Some notes have both indications placed above them; thus, Degree 10 (for example) may represent f, g or g# depending on the mode employed.
Two basic hand-gestures are used in this form of chironomy, one representing the tonic or fundamental degree (associated with the blue rectangle) and the other representing the fifth degree (associated with the green ellipse). Hickmann used the note A, as Haïk-Vantoura uses the note E, to represent the tonic degree out of convention; the actual pitches used are unknown.
“This discovery,” wrote Hickmann, “therefore places the musical system of the Egyptians among all the theoretical systems known from antiquity. The other degrees of the scale filling the space between the fundamental and its fifth were represented by the chironomist [the conductor of the gestures] by the elongation of the hand, the arms forming an acute angle corresponding to a higher note. The ensemble of gestures forms of sort of scale…of which the number of degrees coincides with the musical scales known from the measures of the preserved instruments.” (From a publication of the Museum of Cairo, source and date presently unknown.)
The above improvisation on a modern ten-stringed Hebrew lyre (kinnor) by Michael Levi is based on the fundamental mode of the scale reconstructed by Hans Hickmann. While much of the performance would be far too complex to indicate easily (if at all) by Egyptian chironomy, a simple heterophony accompanying it could be. (Attentive ears will pick up a citation of the First Delphic Hymn to Apollo, one of the few surviving works from ancient Greece, which was very likely accompanied on a lyre tuned to this very pentatonic mode.)
Unfortunately, Hickmann did not detail (not at least in any publication of his that I have seen) how he reconstructed the scale shown above. However, two clues at least to his thought processes are evident: 1) the forms of the hand-gestures are visually suggestive of the tonal relationship between the tonic and fifth degrees (the gesture for the fifth, in effect, being at right angles to that for the tonic); 2) in the various artistic portrayals, the chironomy is associated with vocalists, instrumentalists or both. This, with the various positions of the arm involved with various gestures, would have allowed Hickmann to test various hypotheses as to the meaning of the chironomy as a whole.
Another Egyptologist, Lise Manniche, describes Hickmann’s analysis in her own book, Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt (British Museum Press, 1991). “Hickmann analyzed the chironomists’ gestures, and compared them with the positions of the musicians’ hands, especially those of the harpists. The basis for his calcuations was the fact that a string of any given weight and tension will vibrate at double the frequency of another exactly similar string twice its length; the shorter string will produce the same note an octave higher. Stopping a string halfway along its length by a finger will create the same result, as the vibrating length of the string is halved. Other intervals are created by reducing the vibrating length of the string to different proportions. Thus the positions of the musicians’ hands enable us to make some calculations about the intervals, based on a study of the vibrating lengths of various stringed instruments depicted in the representations. This entire scheme presupposes absolute faith in the accuracy of the ancient draughtsman, but there is in fact some consistency in the depictions, and a relation can be presumed between particular chironomic gestures and the fingerings shows” (op. cit., p. 31). In effect, Hickmann’s “virtual bilingual” for Egyptian chironomy was the accompanying illustrations of instrumentation, just as Haïk-Vantoura’s “virtual bilingual” for the biblical te`amim was the syntax of the accompanying Hebrew verbal text.
In the illustration above, we see two chironomists making two different gestures with their hands: the one on the left the gesture for the fifth, the one on the right the gesture for the tonic. The angle of the forearm remains the same in both cases. According to Hickmann’s “deciphering key” (as it were) for the Egyptian chironomy, the degrees of the scale represented by such gestures would be Degree 2 (C’ or C#’) and Degree 5 (F, G or G#), respectively.
The above illustration (after Haïk-Vantoura, The Music of the Bible Revealed, p. 74) is based on a bas-relief in the tomb of Nencheftkai of the 5th dynasty (ca. 2700 B.C., standard chronology). All the chironomists are producing the same gesture, corresponding to Degree 9 (a’, the lowest tonic note) in Hickmann’s reconstructed scale. Each instrumentalist has at least one chironomist apiece (the harpist having two). Interesting too is the fact that the large flute is exactly twice as long as the short flute, thus being pitched an octave lower. Finally, the harpist seems to be playing a harmonic on one of the strings. Evidently the instrumentalists (who accompany dancers in the original bas-relief) are playing in unison — and possibly in octaves, if the degrees of the chironomic scale were relative rather than absolute in pitch. (A similar situation occurs today when the G clef is used in a staff carrying either a soprano part or a tenor part an octave lower.)
The above illustration (after Haïk-Vantoura, op. cit., p. 75) is taken from a mastaba of the Old Kingdom. Here the two chironomists (on the left) are producing different gestures, corresponding to Degree 3 (B’) and Degree 5 (F, G or G#) in Hickmann’s reconstructed scale. Another man (on the right) is conducting a percussionist, who keeps time by beating a stick on the ground. Evidently the instrumentalists are playing in harmony, probably using a simple heterophony (the simultaneous playing of two separate melodies). Here the two degrees employed are a fourth apart, or else a major or minor third apart (acoustically speaking), depending on the mode employed.
The above illustration (after Hickmann) has no less than three chironomists, one of them apparently pressing his hand against his throat to alter the sound of his singing voice. (This technique is still used in some parts of the Middle East.) Quite likely the gesture he is making represents the note he is singing. The chironomist to the viewer’s left conducts the flautist’s melody; the one on the far right, at least one of the harpists. From left to right, the corresponding pitches in Hickmann’s reconstructed scale are: Degree 5 (F, G or G#), Degree 7 (C’ or C#) and Degree 10 (f, g or g#). Here, then, we have pitches a fifth apart as well as a fourth apart (acoustically speaking), assuming that the mode dictates perfect intervals. Yet neither here nor in the preceding example are the notes used the primary notes of the scale (i.e., those marked by blue rectangles or green ellipses in my adaptation of Hickmann’s chart).
Hickmann is not the only one who has written at length about chironomy in ancient Egypt. Professor Lise Manniche deals with it at considerable length (op. cit.).
While Manniche cites Hickmann’s work numerous times in her book, she does not reproduce his reconstruction of the Egyptian scale. She maintains that given the artistic conventions of Egyptian artists, we cannot be sure whether their portrayals of different signs by different chironomists, or even of different notes played by different musicians, in what appears to be the same ensemble represent a genuine harmony or simply a succession of different notes in a melodic line.
Hickmann, foreseeing such criticism, put forward the above illustration (taken from the tomb of Ptahhotep at Saqqara, end of the 5th Dynasty) as evidence of genuine “harmony” in ancient Egypt. Here the chironomist produces two gestures simultaneously (the one using the hand-sign for the fifth, the other for the tonic). In Hickmann’s original illustration, only the chironomist is featured; in Manniche’s version, however, the chironomist is seated behind a harpist (op. cit., p. 32). Surely it is possible that the harpist, or the harpist and the chironomist acting as vocalist, could produce two notes simultaneously!
Manniche herself notes about this portrayal: “[The] chironomist gives two signs to a harpist, one showing the outstretched palm, the other holding thumb and index finger together. The harpist plays two different notes: his right (lower) hand pinches one of the shorter strings, while the other, placed above, apparently plucks one of the longer strings” (op. cit., p. 31). Manniche then cites Hickmann’s proposal that “it might be possible to recognise the interval depicted as a fifth, the outstretched palm representing the upper note, the gesture of thumb and index finger held together indicating the lower” (p. 31). And yet she concludes: “it is clear that two notes are being indicated and played, but we cannot tell whether they are being struck simultaneously or one after another” (pp. 31-32)! But why make separate gestures with two hands, if the notes were not to be struck simultaneously?
Haïk-Vantoura had something to say about such reasoning as well. “There was the costly necessity of having one [chironomist] for each instrumentalist, as shown by many scenes. Without there being the objective of precision in diversity, these mute collaberators would have been just useless ‘walk-ons’. (…) [This is] all the more important in light of their individual gestures, proving the intricacy of this method. Besides, it bears witness to a non-empiricalheterophony practiced in that far-distant epoch (op. cit., p. 71).
At any rate, the degree represented by the chironomist’s right hand and arm seems to be Degree 10 (f, g or g#); the degree represented by the chironomist’s left hand and arm, Degree 3 (B). Here then (most likely) is the harmonic equvalent of a major or minor third, this time extended over an octave and a third (in effect, a major or minor tenth). This is a significant discovery, given that musicologists have barely acknowledged the use of octaves, fourths and fifths in antiquity! It would be consistent as well with the way the harpist is playing in the original portrayal, given the nature of the harmonic curve of his harp. It might well have been necessary to pinch the upper string to reach a pitch a major or minor tenth above the pitch of the lower string!
This is the only example Hickmann or Manniche has published where two hands are used by the chironomist to represent musical notes. In other portrayals, the chironomist keeps time (or so it appears) by banging one fist on his knee, presses one hand against his cheek or throat, or simply keeps one hand near the floor or behind his back, while the other hand makes gestures representing musical notes. Haïk-Vantoura notes this general cooperation of both handsin the chironomy, presaging something of importance when she approaches the chironomy behind the biblical accentuation.
(TO BE CONTINUED)