Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: A Debussy Discovery!

The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea

Before getting into the date specific event/discovery that drives today’s post, permit me, please, to tell the story of the greatest manuscript discovery of all time

The ancient city of Jerusalem sits at nearly 2,700 feet above sea level.  Less than 15 miles south of Jerusalem sits the Dead Sea, which at 1,300 feet below sea level is the lowest point on earth.  

Two of the three Bedouin shepherds who discovered the scrolls: Jum’a Muhammad, left, and Muhammad edh-Dhib, right
Two of the three Bedouin shepherds who discovered the scrolls: Jum’a Muhammad, left, and Muhammad edh-Dhib, right

In November of 1946, three Bedouin shepherds – Muhammed edh-Dhib, his cousin Jum’a Muhammed, and his friend Khalil Musa – were looking for a stray goat (or sheep; the story shifts) around the cliffs at the northern end of the Dead Sea.  According to the story they told, Muhammed edh-Dhib threw a rock into a cave on the side of a cliff, thinking the stray animal was inside and that the rock would chase it out.  Instead of a hearing a frightened bleat, he heard pottery breaking.  Lowering himself into the cave, he found three ancient scrolls wrapped in linen.  Having climbed out of the cave and shown them to his companions, the guys went back into the cave and found four more scrolls, seven in all.  They put them in a bag and, on returning to their camp, hung the bag on a tent pole.

It is believed that among the three scrolls Muhammed edh-Dhib initially removed from the cave was the Great Isaiah Scroll, the oldest complete biblical manuscript ever discovered. 

Muhammed edh-Dhib, Jum’a Muhammed, and Khalil Musa initially brought the scrolls to a Bethlehem-based dealer in antiquities named Ibrahim ‘Ijha, who told them that they were worthless.  Undaunted, the trio eventually found a buyer and sold four of the seven scrolls – including the Great Isaiah Scroll – to the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, Metropolitan Athanasius Yeshue Samuel, for roughly $250; about $2,500 today.…

On November 29, 1947 – roughly a year after the scrolls were discovered and on the same day the United Nations voted to create the State of Israel – a Jewish archeology professor at Hebrew University named Eleazar Lipa Sukenik (1889-1953) bought the other three scrolls in Bethlehem. He took the bus back to Jerusalem, carry the scrolls in a paper shopping bag.  

In his effort to sell his four scrolls, Metropolitan Samuel placed an ad in The Wall Street Journal on June 1, 1954.  The ad read:

“Miscellaneous for Sale. ‘The Four Dead Sea Scrolls.’ Biblical manuscripts dating back to at least 200 BC are for sale.  This would be an ideal gift to an educational or religious institution by an individual or group. Box F 206, The Wall Street Journal.”

After extended negotiations held at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, those four remaining scrolls were purchased on behalf of the State of Israel for $250,000 (roughly $2,500,000 today) by the Hebrew University professor Benjamin Mazar (1906-1995) and the son of Eleazar Sukenik: the Israeli soldier, politician, and archaeologist Yigael Yadin (1917-1984).  

Those seven scrolls found by three Bedouin shepherds that day in November 1946 – the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls to be found, and today owned (and treasured) by the State of Israel – collectively comprise the single greatest manuscript discovery of all time.

I have offered up this extraordinary story because, after The Dead Sea Scrolls, any subsequent “discovery” of a manuscript or manuscripts seems rather, well, less significant.  


Claude Debussy (1862-1918) in 1908
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) in 1908

On July 18, 2003 – 19 years ago today – a newly discovered work by the great French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was publicly performed for the first time by the French pianist Jean-Pierre Armengaud (born 1943).  That premiere performance took place in a church on the Swedish island of Blidö.

That newly discovered work, for piano solo, is entitled Les Soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon, which translates as “the evenings lighted by the glow of the coals.”  The title is the first line of the second stanza of a poem by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) entitled “The Balcony.”  As titles go Debussy’s is a great one, as it describes not just the glowing warmth of the music itself but the inspiration for its composition and the person to whom, in spirit, it was dedicated!  …

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