Where did music come from? Who first discovered how to sing a note, or beat a rhythm? If you’ve ever pondered these questions, you probably wouldn’t expect to find a firm answer. Music has been around for as long as we know, across all civilisations – so we must assume it arose somewhere in deep evolutionary history, possibly even before our ancient ancestors developed language.
At least, that’s a modern way of looking at the question. But in times past, music had its own creation myths. One of them can be found in Musicks Empire by the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell, which imagines the emergence of music from primordial origins:
First was the World as one great Cymbal made,
Where Jarring Windes to infant Nature plaid.
All Musick was a solitary sound,
To hollow Rocks and murm’ring Fountains bound.
Jubal first made the wilder Notes agree;
And Jubal tun’d Musicks Jubilee:
He call’d the Ecchoes from their sullen Cell,
And built the Organs City where they dwell […]
These lines were my first encounter with the name Jubal. He’s a character in the Bible, but an extremely minor one – he’s mentioned only once as a descendant of Cain, where he’s described as ‘the father of all such as handle the harp and organ’ (King James Version).
So Jubal, we’re told, was the world’s first instrumentalist. But Marvell’s poem interprets him as more than this, someone who discovered musical principles – he ‘made the wilder notes agree’, found harmony among the ‘jarring Windes’.
Of course, the idea of one man inventing music has fallen out of favour in the modern era. But Jubal’s stamp of Biblical approval once carried a lot of weight. For centuries he turned up in art, literature, and theoretical texts relating to music – despite him being little more than an Old Testament footnote.
Nonetheless, the thinness of his personal story poses a challenge. How or why he fathered music is left unsaid. But Musicks Empire shows that ambiguity is not always a disadvantage – it makes Jubal something of a blank canvas on which to project imagined musical origins.
So what about his connection to Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who famously murdered his brother Abel? This context is worth considering. The story is covered in Chapter 4 of Genesis, just after the expulsion of Cain’s parents from the Garden of Eden.
Cain slays Abel, out of envy that God has favoured his offering. Discovering this, God declares that he is ‘cursed from the earth’. Cain moves to the land of Nod, saying ‘from thy face I will be hid’. There he fathers his descendants.
Several generations down we get to Lamech, father of Jubal. But Jubal also has a brother Jabal, who was the first cattle farmer, and a half brother Tubal-cain, who was the first blacksmith.
Much remains mysterious. What significance is there to the three professions of musician, cowherd, blacksmith? And what should we make of their ancestral connection to a murderer? A further detail at the end of the chapter is even more elusive. Lamech also confesses to a killing – ‘I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt’. The victim is not named.
One early interpretation of this chapter was made by Philo of Alexandria. He argued that Cain was an allegory of how the soul can willingly move away from God, which in his view leads to instability. He writes that the names of his descendants reflect this – Jubal means one who ‘inclines’ in different directions, just as music has varying articulations.
But for writers on music, Jubal had rivals for his crown, who came with their own stories. From Greek mythology we have Hermes, who used a tortoise shell to fashion the first lyre. And from ancient science there’s Pythagoras, credited with discovering the numerical proportions of harmony. His own life was shrouded in legend too.
Authors such as Boethius spread a tale of how the philosopher heard blacksmiths hammering one day. He noticed the hammers made different notes as they struck the anvil, so Pythagoras went and weighed them. He found the pitches were in proportion to their weight. This is in fact bad science – pitch does not relate to hammer weight like the lengths of a vibrating string. But an enduring story was forged, and for many music theorists it proved irresistible.
What’s more, a door was left open here for Jubal too. His own connection to a blacksmith – his half-brother Tubal-cain – meant that he could join this anvil chorus through a degree of conflation. Thanks to Pythagoras, the two crafts were connected.
An illustration from a 1492 edition of Franchino Gaffurio’s Theorica musice shows Jubal overseeing six blacksmiths, while Pythagoras and Philolaus consort with a variety of instruments. Meanwhile, a fine engraving from another treatise offers an intriguing new detail to the smithy scene. Against a backdrop of rolling hills, a man stands next to two columns, as if from a ruined temple. He has a chisel in his hand, and appears to be carving musical notes into them.
An explanation lies in a Medieval volume known as The Chronicles of Jerahmeel. It gives a version of the Jubal story in which our hero hears about prophecies of flood and fire, and takes action to ensure the secrets of music can survive those perils. So he inscribes his knowledge onto a column made of marble, and another made of brick, so that in the case of either disaster one would remain unharmed.
But the double-act of Jubal and Tubal-cain would take on a whole new significance in the world of Medieval theology. It came through a tradition known as ‘typology’ – the comparison of events in the Old and New Testaments, in which details from the Old were seen to ‘prefigure’ those in the New.
One of the most popular typological works of the Middle Ages was the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, or ‘Mirror of Human Salvation’. In this text, our brothers are given the prestigious honour of prefiguring the Crucifixion itself. Tubal-cain is shown foreshadowing the nails hammered into Jesus’s body, while Christ’s prayer for his enemies – ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’ – is compared to a beautiful melody, hence Jubal.
To modern eyes, these connections may seem tenuous, but to the Medieval believer they must have helped to put old (and sometimes ambiguous) Jewish scripture into a more comfortably Christian context. And through the wide dissemination of this work came a host of different illustrations. Most commonly, Jubal is shown clutching a stringed instrument in the smithy – it’s worth remembering here that taut musical strings have sometimes been compared to the tortured body of Christ too.
Eventually, for music theorists and historians, the idea of a legendary founder of music lost its appeal. In the early 18th century we can see Roger North giving it short shrift:
[…] we have poetick relations of dryed nerves in tortoise shells, smith’s hammers, and practioners, […] But I am perswaded that, notwithstanding all these pretensions, Musick had an higher originall, and that is the use of voices, and language among men.
But for those of a more literary bent, the story still resonated. Rudyard Kipling’s short poem about Jubal and Tubal-cain cast the brothers as two archetypes: those of artistic dreams and those of rugged action, who hold each other in antipathy:
Jubal sang of the Wrath of God
And the curse of thistle and thorn—
But Tubal got him a pointed rod,
And scrabbled the earth for corn.
Old—old as that early mould,
Young as the sprouting grain—
Yearly green is the strife between
Jubal and Tubal Cain […]
This short, punchy poem stands in stark contrast to a much longer one by George Eliot. The Legend of Jubal is an extraordinary and beautiful expansion of this slim character onto an epic scale, filled with sparkling scenic detail. Eliot makes Jubal a questing artist, who after inventing music sets off to roam the world in inspiration for new songs, spreading melody as he goes. He returns home after many years to find his name is now sung in worship, but his aged face is no longer recognised. Taken as a sacrilegious imposter by those who consider him a god, he is beaten to death.
It’s a tragic twist for our hero. But The Legend of Jubal was composed in the shadow of death – as Eliot wrote it, the son of her long-term partner was dying of tuberculosis. And it’s easy to forget that Genesis 4 is really about death too. Abel is not only the world’s first murder victim, he’s the first ever person to die. His demise continues the loss of innocence that came with the expulsion from Eden.
And while Cain’s descendants were all born after the murder of Abel, another death plays a pivotal role in this poem. Eliot cleverly draws upon the mysterious verse of Lamech’s confession.
At the beginning, Cain’s tribe live an idyllic life with the legendary longevities described in Genesis – their father walks among them, a ‘sinewy man embrowned by centuries’. But when Lamech accidentally kills a boy of his own with a hurled stone, everything changes:
Death was now lord of Life, and at his word
Time, vague as air before, new terrors stirred,
With measured wing now audibly arose
Throbbing through all things to some unknown close.
Now glad Content by clutching Haste was torn,
And Work grew eager, and Device was born.
After this second discovery of mortality, Eliot describes the founding of the three professions, as Lamech’s sons, newly aware of time, hurl themselves into industry. And music, after all, is a way of measuring time – its rise and fall it prefigures our own ‘unknown close’. But, like Kipling, Eliot characterises Jubal differently from his more physical siblings:
[…] Jubal had a frame
Fashioned to finer senses, which became
A yearning for some hidden soul of things,
Some outward touch complete on inner springs
That vaguely moving bred a lonely pain […]
Some biographers have interpreted Jubal as reflecting Eliot’s anxieties about the writer’s life. The poem certainly shows that the artist’s lot is fraught with the risk of rejection. But with it too is the hope that you may create something lasting. As Jubal dies, he sees the face of an angel, who consoles him ‘This was thy lot, to feel, create, bestow / And that immeasurable life to know’.
Over the centuries, Jubal has shifted into many shapes, and adopted many forms. He has been a usefully vague placeholder for the dim origins of music which are forever lost in the mists of time. Eliot’s tragic hero is perhaps the most keenly felt manifestation of this long tradition, who speaks like a prophet in verse that has its own music:
The song shall spread and swell as rivers do,
And I will teach our youth with skill to woo
This living lyre, to know its secret will;
Its fine division of the good and ill.
So shall men call me sire of harmony,
And where great Song is, there my life shall be.
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