• Thea Musgrave
  • The Voices of Our Ancestors (2014)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Jam and the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union (ERCU), with financial support from the Britten-Pears Foundation and the RVW Trust.

  • hn.2tpt.tbn.tba/org
  • SATB
  • Narrator
  • 30 min

Programme Note

Through the ages man has pondered the question of our existence and, of course, there have been many answers to this question. One answer comes from the Rigveda which I had come across by complete chance. The written form of this poem dates from 500 BC but it almost certainly existed in oral form many centuries before this date.

This poem spoke to me so vividly that I knew I had to find a way to set it to music. I then searched for other ancient poems that could accompany it: not only with poems about the eternal existential questions but also with poems expressing intimate human feelings of love, despair, loss, and enjoyment.

In the end I found eleven other poems in almost as many languages - Vedic, Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Chinese, Latin, Greek and Egyptian - though all translated into English! All of them date from ancient times. I feel they still speak vividly to us today.

Thea Musgrave


The Creation Hymn from the Rig Veda (circa 1500 – 1200 BC). Translated by Ralph T. H. Griffiths (1826 – 1906) [NOTE: This hymn of creation, more accurately known as the Nasadiya Sukta, is the 129th hymn of the tenth Mandala of the Rig Veda. Though the Veda was codified about 2-3000 years ago, it almost certainly existed many centuries before that date and was passed down in an oral tradition.]

Then was not non-existent nor existent:
there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in and where? And what gave shelter?
Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal:
no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider.
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature:
apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

Darkness there was; at first concealed in darkness
this ALL was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less:
by the great power of Warmth was born that One.

Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning,
Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart’s thought
discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.

Transversely was their severing line extended:
what was above it then, and what below it?
There were begetters, there were mighty forces,
free action here and energy up yonder.

Who verily knows and who can here declare it,
whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world’s production.
Who knows then whence it first came into being?

He the first origin of this creation,
whether he formed it all or did not form it,
whose eye controls this world in highest heaven,
he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows it not…

Time by Bhartrihari (circa 500).
Translated by Paul Elmer More (1864-1937)

Time is the root of all this earth;
These creatures, who from Time had birth,
Within his bosom at the end
Shall sleep; Time hath nor enemy nor friend.

All we in one long caravan
Are journeying since the world began;
We know not whither, but we know
Time guideth at the front, and all must go.

Like as the wind upon the field
Bows every herb, and all must yield,
So we beneath Time’s passing breath
Bow each in turn, - why tears for birth or death.

Excerpt from The Royal Crown by Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058).
Translated by Israel Zangwill (1864-1926).

Baritone solo with chorus:
Thou existest, but hearing of ear cannot reach Thee, nor vision of eye,
Nor shall the How have sway over Thee, nor the Wherefore and Whence.
Thou existest, but for Thyself and for none other with Thee.
Thou existest, and before Time began Thou wast,
And without place Thou didst abide.
Thou existest, and Thy secret is hidden and who shall attain to it?
“So deep, so deep, who can discover it?”

Excerpt from The Sacred Book 7th Century BC by Zoroaster.
Translated by A. V. Williams Jackson (1862-1937)

Soprano solo:
This I ask thee-tell it to me truly, Lord!
Who the Sire was, Father first of Holiness?
Who the pathway for the sun and stars ordained?
Who, through whom is’t moon doth wax and wane again?
This and much else do I long, O God, to know.

This I ask thee-tell it to me truly, Lord!
Who benignant, made the darkness and the light?
Who benignant, sleep and waking did create?
Who the morning, noon and evening did decree
As reminders to the wise, of duty’s call?

Excerpts from Inscription on the City of Brass. Anon (c. 8th Century).
Translated by E. Powys Mathers (1892-1938)

Soprano solo with chorus:
O sons of men,
You see a stranger upon the road,
You call to him and he does not stop.
He is your life
Walking towards time,
Hurrying to meet the kings of India and China,
Hurrying to greet the sultans of Sina and Nubia,
Who were blown over the mountain crest
By a certain breath,
Even as he.

O sons of men,
Lean death perches upon your shoulder
Looking down into your cup of wine,
Looking down on the breasts of your lady.
You are caught in the web of the world
And the spider. Nothing waits behind it.
Where are the men with towering hopes?
They have changed places with owls,
Owls who live in tombs
And now inhabit the palace.

You Will Die from the Shi King or Book of Odes, anon Chinese (compiled c. 500 BC).
Translated by H. A. Giles (1845-1935).

You have coats and robes,
But you do not trail them;
You have chariots and horses,
But you do not ride them.
By and by you will die,
And another will enjoy them.

You have courtyards and halls,
But they are not sprinkled and swept;
You have bells and drums,
But they are not struck.
By and by you will die,
And another will possess them.

You have wine and food;
Why not play daily on your lute,
That you may enjoy yourself now
And lengthen your days?
By and by you will die,
And another will take your place.

The Gift of Speech from the Gulistan by Sa’di (1194-1292).
Adapted by Thea Musgrave from the translation by Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904)

Soprano solo:
Today thou hast the gift of speech
so let us hear thy words.
Tomorrow death will summon thee
And thou wilt leave us, unheard.

Dido’s Lament by Virgil (70 – 19 BC).
Adapted from The Aeneid English (a book in the public domain) by Thea Musgrave

Mezzo-soprano solo:
Even when I am gone
I shall be at your side.
Even when cold death has taken me
I will haunt you with towering flames.
Wherever you go my ghost will follow.

The Desolate City (excerpt), anon Arabian (c. 8th century).
Translated by Wilfred Scawen Blunt (1840-1922)

(Tenor solo:)
Dark to me is the earth, Dark to me are the heavens.
Where is she that I loved, the woman with eyes like stars?
Desolate are the streets. Desolate is the city,
A city taken by storm, where none are left but the slain.
Speak, O desolate city! Speak, O silence in sadness!
Where is she that I loved in my strength, that spoke to my soul?
Where are those passionate eyes that appealed to My eyes in passion?
Where is the mouth that kissed me, the breast that I laid to my own?
Therefore Earth is dark to me, the sunlight blackness,
Therefore I go in tears and alone, by night and day;
Therefore I find no love in Heaven, no light, no beauty,
A Heaven taken by storm, where none are left but the slain!

Age by Anacreon (6th century BC).
Translated by Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)

Baritone solo:
Oft am I by the women told,
“Poor Anacreon! Thou grow’st old:
Look! how thy hairs are falling all; -
Whether I grow old or no,
By the effects I do not know;
But this I know, without being told,
‘Tis time to live, if I grow old;
‘tis time short pleasure now to take,
Of little life the best to make,
And manage wisely the last stake.

Let us drink by Alcaeus (c. 610 BC).
Translated by John Hermann Merivale (1779 – 1844)

Why wait we for the torches’ lights?
Now let us drink, while day invites,
In mighty flagons hither bring
The deep-red blood of many a vine
That we may largely quaff, and sing
The praises of the god of wine,
The son of Jove and Semele,
Who gave the jocund wine to be
A sweet oblivion to our woes.
Fill, fill the goblet, one and two;
Let every brimmer, as it flows,
In sportive chase the last pursue.

Excerpt from Song of the Harper Papyrus Harris 500 (c. 1539 - 1075 BC).
Translated from Egyptian by E. A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934)

Enjoy thyself more than thou hast ever done before,
And let not thy heart pine for lack of pleasure.
Never shall the cries of grief cause
To beat again the heart of man who is in his grave.
Therefore occupy thyself with thy pleasure daily,
And never cease to enjoy thyself


The Voices of Our Ancestors: No. 1, The Creation Hymn - No. 2, Time
The Voices of Our Ancestors: No. 3, The Royal Crown - No. 4, From the Zoroaster - No. 5, Inscription on the City of Brass
The Voices of Our Ancestors: No. 6, You Will Die - No. 7, The Gift of Speech - No. 8, Dido's Lament - No. 9, The Desolate City
The Voices of Our Ancestors: No. 10, Age - No. 11, Let Us Drink - No. 12, The Song of the Harper (Live)