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Holdings of Audio Material

Max von Oppenheim’s parents fostered his love of music early on. Musical soirées and musical evenings in a sociable setting, common among the educated in the 19th century, were frequent in the Oppenheim family home. In Max’s own apartment on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, there was a grand piano which stood in the “music salon” furnished in a baroque ‘Oriental’ style. Some pieces of his impressive collection of Arab and Kurdish musical instruments, acquired on his frequent travels in the Orient, have survived.

Photo left: Group of singing musicians and dancers, Ras el Ain 1913

In the early 1940s, the inventory of the Orient Research Institute listed (under “N. Ethnographic”) nearly 60 items, including violins, lutes (ud), mandolins, large zithers (kanun), and various wind and percussion instruments, such as the tambourine and darbuka. Where Oppenheim acquired these instruments is known only in a few cases. Particularly interesting are therefore the two copper war drums, which are described as coming “from the booty of the Sudanese-Egyptian Mahdi.” This may well allude to the so-called Mahdi rebellion against the Egyptian rule in Sudan which came to a bloody conclusion in 1899. According to Oppenheim, the Mahdists called to battle by striking such drums, carried on camel back, with a camel bone.

Precious Recordings

Even before the first campaign of excavations at Tell Half, Oppenheim contacted Erich Moritz von Hornbostel, the director of the Berlin Phonogram Archive which had been founded in 1904.The archive (preserved today in Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum) was eager to increase its collection of recordings systematically by outfitting expeditions with its own equipment and by instructing explorers how to use it. Journal entries for 1913 document that the architect Karl Müller, a member of Oppenheim’s staff at Tell Halaf, recorded traditional songs, some with instrumental accompaniment, at Ras al-Ain near Tell Halaf for the Phonogram Archive. The value of these cylinders which are among the earliest audio documents from Mesopotamia cannot be overestimated. Many recordings could be attributed to a specific group of musicians and dancers belonging to the ethnic minority of the Roma. Other recordings include an improvised song praising Oppenheim, recited by Said ibn Muhammad while playing the rubab/rabab (a lute-like instrument). The event, including the arrival of the musician’s family – some of them dancers and acrobats – was captured on film, now sadly lost, along with some of the transcript of the text, but photographs in Oppenheim’s collection survive to document it.

Sixteen of Oppenheim’s Edison cylinders – W. 6–9, 15–18, 20–24, 27, 31, and 32 – survive intact of thirty-three which were deposited at the Phonogram Archive in 1930. Comprehensive scholarly study (including cataloguing) – despite the good quality of sound exhibited by some – has not yet begun.