Tutankhamun’s Trumpets: Pharaoh’s Ghost Music
By Anand Balaji
We think of the ancients as having had a great ear for music; and as such they crafted instruments whose melodious strains are believed to have stoked amorous and divine passions too. Some kinds were employed to give a clarion call to battle, but apparently, these wind instruments sounded quite ridiculous even to the ancients.
Certain types of trumpets seem to have held this dubious distinction. Aeschylus and Pollux described the sound that trumpets created as “horribilis, raucus” – literally, horrible hoarse. Plutarch didn’t take a fancy to them either, and likened the sounds to the braying of a donkey!
Back in 1922, Howard Carter discovered intact specimens among the horde of “wonderful things” in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The two trumpets—one made of silver (embellished with gold), and the other of bronze —are considered to be the oldest operational trumpets in the world, and the only known surviving examples from ancient Egypt; along with a third, now said to reside in the Louvre Museum.
In early 1925, Harold H. Wilson of The University of Chicago (The Oriental Institute) wrote to Carter saying: “If the horn is of a military character, it is not unlikely that the representations of Re, Amon and Ptah may have some connection with the subsequent division of the field army into three corps or divisions, each under the special patronage of one of these gods.” The figures of the gods on the bell would suggest such a use, for they were the tutelary deities of three out of four divisions of the army of Ramesses II at the battle of Qadesh (about 1275 B.C.), roughly seventy-five years after Tutankhamun’s death.
Seeing the potential for an extraordinary recording, in 1939 the BBC persuaded the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities to schedule a world broadcast. The bandsman James Tappern of Prince Albert’s Own 11th Royal Hussars regiment was engaged to perform on the historic instruments.
Rex Keating, a radio pioneer who helped convince the museum, was chosen to present it to an estimated 150 million listeners across the globe one Sunday afternoon. To set the scene, he first interviewed Alfred Lucas, one of the last survivors of Carter’s team, and the man responsible for restoring Tutankhamun’s treasures. With five minutes to go before the trumpet sounded, the watchmen’s lanterns failed, and the museum was plunged into darkness.
Keating then counted down to the broadcast: “One minute to go. From the corner of my eye I can see Lucas, striving to look unconcerned – but the quivering of the script in his hand betrays his agitation….” Lucas’s concern was understandable given the story Keating once narrated about an earlier attempt to play the silver trumpet in front of King Farouk of Egypt.
His story goes that the precious instrument shattered, possibly because of a modern mouthpiece being inserted to play it. According to Keating’s colorful account, Lucas was left as shattered as the trumpet and needed hospital treatment. The instrument, at least, was repaired.
Down to this day, some people remain convinced of the boy-king’s celebrated curse. Not least the trumpet’s apparent ability to summon up war. Bandsman Tappern had, after all, played the trumpet shortly before World War II broke out.
Cairo Museum’s Tutankhamun collection curator claimed that the trumpet retains “magical powers” and was blown before the first Gulf War; and was played to a Japanese delegation by a member of staff a week before the Egyptian uprising in early 2011.
A few years ago, the recording was featured on the BBC Radio program series “Ghost Music.”
[Inputs from Online Resources]