13
JULY
2020

AN ESSAY ON THE HYMN OF BIRTH AND REBIRTH, by Nathilaen the Literate

BY: Chris "Terry" Durston

This short hymn is one of our most popular and enduring; believed to have been composed some several hundred years ago, it is still performed to this day.

The original author(s) may have devised the music and the text together or separately, or perhaps multiple branches of work by multiple creators took place simultaneously. The composition borrows from Far Southern pagan worship singing in its harmonic progression, making use of chord colours not frequently seen in early music outside that region. The entire arrangement is emblematic of birth and rebirth, presenting a motif which is briefly set aside before returning: the same, yet anew.

I have seen some suggestion that the melody may itself be borrowed from an earlier hymn to the Landwalkers (cf. Ellirdith’s Worship of the Walking Mountains), but have not been able to corroborate this independently.

The hymn, originally notated with ambiguous instrumentation, has been arranged here for four voice types and accompanied by a calcarray (a kind of percussive melodic instrument played by striking several rows of tuned bone ‘keys’ with small felted mallets); I believe this permutation likely to be close to the original setting, if not exactly correct. The calcarray predates the hymn’s purported composition by some decades and appears a good tonal match, if nothing else.

An approximation of the music has been performed and sealed into a vibrating device of sorts which reproduces the tones of the calcarray and uses strings to mimic the vocal parts. You can hear the recording by clicking THIS LINK.

You will notice that I have given several variations of the lyrics. Those given first (and in the notated music) are the original Middle Achtean (on the phonetic and linguistic characteristics of which more below), in a particular religious dialect used mostly for oral storytelling and music.  Second is, as near as is possible, a direct or ‘literal’ translation of the text with no regard for rhyme or meter. Third is an early modern setting of the hymn in what would now be considered archaic (albeit comprehensible) modern language, and fourth is a contemporary setting (by a teacher of mine, in fact). 

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Original: Rhun v’rhun / Jzeilh dho tyun / Farhadh lleith /Rhun dho lajz / Dho rhun /Rhuti v’rhuti /Tyun dho mheun

Direct translation: Bone of bone / Feeds into earth / Rises in motion / Bone to beast / To bone / Birth of birth / Soil into life

Early modern: Begotten flesh / Wort afresh / Peripatetic / Corpus flora / Corpus fauna / Beget begotten / Unforgotten

Contemporary: That which dies / Becomes new lives / Walk once more / Flesh feeds the earth / New birth / That which ends / Begins again

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Most performances of the hymn continue to use the original Middle Achtean, despite it being officially a ‘dead’ language with no remaining speakers (either native or as a second language, since not enough examples outside religious texts such as this remain to extract conversational phrases).

One idiosyncratic difficulty in translating Middle Achtean is that it has no strict temporal delineation, nor does it have affixes such as ‘re’ which would point to one thing coming before or after another in sequence. As such, the word for ‘birth’ (rhuti) is the same as that for ‘rebirth’, which is perhaps to be expected given that the doctrine of the time held that there was no difference between life and death and subsequent new life, that they were simply variants on the same state. See Callerow and Greycrown’s Dogmas of Bygone Ages for commentary on the theological teachings; and the fourteenth letter in the Collection of Letters to the Prodigy Mataghart from His Humble Teacher Once-Illuminated Jhar (sadly posthumously published in an incomplete form, but I understand Tyila of the Great Library may be working on a new edition) for some compelling, if deliberately obtuse, musings on Middle Achtean speakers’ perception of time as a unified one-directional sequence as opposed to a multitude of microsequences in which infinite before-after progressions form no single ‘timeline’.

At any rate, those phrases in Ieilla v’Rhuti which imply a direction in time (‘bone to beast to bone’ in that order, for example) would be interpreted as much more cyclical and simultaneous by a Middle Achtean speaker than the linear travel a modern listener would likely hear.

Phonologically, Middle Achtean is considered one of the more transcendent languages of its age (which is to say it is still regarded as capable of accessing divine beauty to a greater extent than other languages more suited to everyday transactions). This is of course a matter of subjective preference on the part of the listener, but I find it hard to disagree with those who observe that it is uniquely well-fitted to music intended to inspire some sense of awe in those who hear it.

Some of the sounds that a modern reader may find less familiar (and harder to reproduce) are given below in the hopes that it will aid performance and appreciation of this piece.

dh - an extremely light, transient sound made by forming a close circle with the lips and passing air quickly through the front of the mouth while gently striking the teeth with the tongue (ought to sound close to a very breathy soft ‘th’)

rh - as with dh, this sound is close to the modern light ‘r’ but should be produced very far forward in the mouth, enlisting the help of the tongue to create a sound alike to a spring breeze passing under a frosted leaf

jz - almost a whistle, there is a brief vocalised expulsion of air before the sound moves to the roof of the mouth (towards the back, near the opening of the throat); like the modern ‘sh’, this sound can be held until it becomes almost a vowel with a preceding palato-alveolar consonant

ty - I have often heard this sound described as a halfway point between the modern sounds commencing the words ‘chute’ and ‘tune’; thus tyun (‘soil’ or ‘earth’) is pronounced very similarly to the modern ‘tune’ but with notable ethereality on the release time of the first consonant

Vowels are almost always in what would now be considered a ‘long’ form - so ‘u’ is as is ‘chute’, ‘e’ is as in ‘meet’, and so on. (The most common exception is the short ‘a’ where ‘a’ is the last letter of a word.)

Vowel digraphs are generally spoken as an approximation of the sound between sounds (as opposed to taking one sound or the other); thus ‘ae’ is voiced neither as ‘ay’ nor as ‘ee’ but as a kind of hybrid ‘eih’. The common exception is with digraphs begun by an ‘i’, as this is often used as a semivowel similar to the modern ‘y’. (Frustratingly, this is inconsistent in texts, which could be a quirk of the original writers or a mistake by one of the many copiers over the years; the letter ‘j’ is used to express an identical function.) Thus, ieilla (‘hymn’, as in the title of the piece) is spoken like ‘yi-ay-la’, albeit with significant characteristic blurring between the two distinct vowel sounds and soft inflection of the ‘ll’ creating a rather more contiguous sound than the impression likely given by the divided syllables.

I hope that this essay will bring a new appreciation of Ieilla v’Rhuti to a modern audience.

- Nathilaen the Literate

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Chris Durston lives in England’s West Country, where he subsists on cider and ‘taters. He doesn’t know what’s going on, ever, but is OK with it. Find his stuff on chrisdurston.com or on Twitter @overthinkery1

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