COPTIC MUSIC

                                          Value and Origins
                                        Ragheb Moftah Habashy
                             Head of the Coptic Music Department
                                      Coptic Studies Institute
                                                Cairo, Egypt

            Translated from Arabic with permission for Copt-Net Archives




In the Name of the Father the Son & the Holy Spirit One God Amen.

Music elevates the spirit. It takes it from this tangible materialistic world
towards the  intangible  spiritual  world.   Art  in  general and   music  in
particular   fleshes  out what  is   spiritual.   It  is  the medium  between
spirituality and our material life.   Every beauty in nature shows  elevation
and every artistic inspiration demonstrates a level of elation.

Music is not fantasy or distraction; it  is part of life and  one of its most
important elements. Musical  talents  are in each one  of  us. Some  have the
strength to express it and others have the strength to feel it, enjoy it, and
be touched by it.

The best instrument ever is the human's voice.  People used vocal music since
their  very early  existence  on earth.  It has  no  substitute. All mothers,
starting with Eve,  sing in order to calm  down their  babies.  The songs  or
tunes may differ, but they have one source: Motherly love.

For thousands of    years, people used music in    worship  to praise   their
creator.  They used   music  when working  in prairies  and   over hills  and
mountains, when building their  houses, when traveling  down rivers or across
oceans.  Music is not just a combination of beautiful sounds that pleases the
ear; it is an essential  nourishment of the  soul. Food might taste good, but
the purpose of food is  the nourishment of  the body.  Similarily, I won't be
exaggerating  when I say   that music's  purpose  is the  nourishment  of the

The  Old Testament  tells  us that musical  arts  existed from the very early
existence of humans. In Genesis 4:21,  we learn of Jubal son  of Lamek of the
9th generation from Adam. He was the father of all harpists and organists.

When Moses and the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, Exodus tells us how "[they
sang] this song unto the LORD, and spake, saying, I will  sing unto the LORD,
for he hath triumphed gloriously... And  Miriam the prophetess, the sister of
Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went  out after her with
timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye  to the LORD, for
he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the
sea." [Exodus 15:1,21] Also  in Judges we  read: "Then sang Deborah and Barak
the son of Abinoam  on that day, saying, Praise  ye the LORD for the avenging
of Israel, when  the people willingly offered themselves.  Hear,  O ye kings;
give  ear, O ye princes; I,  even I, will  sing  unto the  LORD;  I will sing
praise to  the LORD God of Israel."  [Judges 5:1-3].  And during  the prophet
David's  time,  music  reached    its   fullness  in  poetry,   melodies  and
performances.   Music was  an essential part   of all their  praises to their
creator, their prayers  in times of war and  in times of peace, theirin times
of joy and and in times of sorrow.

In Chronicles we  read: "It came even to  pass, as the trumpeters and singers
were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the LORD;
and  when  they lifted  up  their  voice  with the  trumpets  and cymbals and
instruments of musick, and praised the LORD, saying, For he  is good; for his
mercy endureth  for ever: that then the  house was filled  with a cloud, even
the house of the LORD." [2-Chronicles 5:13].

With this artistical  splendeur, the Spirit came along,  and with the strengh
and influence  of music  immobile  materials were moved, and  Jericho's walls
fell down.

This is the status of art in worship it arrived to it's optimum.. How
beautiful are Psalms!!.. People still enjoy them until this day.. They
were written by the best ever mentioned psalters..

And Isaiah says in Isa 6:1-4: I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne,
high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the
seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and
with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried
unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole
earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice
of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

The church on earth tries to imitate the Heavenly Church.. The Revelation
Book says that all heavenly hosts despite their different classes praise
around God's throne and in His house day & night saying the Trisagion and
reply saying that to Him be Power & Wisdom & Strengh & Honour & Glory &
Blessing for all things were created by Him.. And Rev 5:8-9 says And when he
had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down
before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of
odours, which are the prayers of saints. And they sung a new song, saying,
Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou
wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred,
and tongue, and people, and nation..

This is life in heaven.. One hymn on heaven will exceed all earthly hymns
together in beauty.. That will be our life in the New Jerusalem coming from

    (There the Chorus sang the Bright Saturday Response on the Revelation
    reading: If you have ears, then listen to what the Spirit says to the

How beautiful are the tunes of these few verses of the Bible: And suddenly
there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and
saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward
men. I think that however great & profound our imagination is, we can
never realise how beautiful these tunes were..

I think it became clear why Apostolic Churches did take a big amount of
music in it's services & dogmas over the whole year.. Specially the Coptic
Church where almost each word during the whole year whether in the morning
or evening is chanted..

Here is the Apostolic teaching.. St.Paul speaks to Christians in his letter
to Ephesians.. Eph 5:19-20 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and
spiritual songs,singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;
And in his letter to Colosians.. Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell
in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in
psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts
to the Lord... St.John Christosomos explains that "singing with grace
in your hearts".. Also Origen, St.Basil, St.Augustin among others explained
these verses clearly.. It was clear from that letter to Clossians that
St.Paul was referring to Church Prayers which were well known to the
readers.. From both texts, it is clear that St.Paul made music an
essential element of worship and divided it to three:
Psalms-Praises-Spiritual songs which are hymns.. These three parts were
the fundamentals on which all traditional churches: Oriental & Occidental
based their prayers.. If anyone objects on Apostolic Churches we may say
that the base is in the Bible..

(Here a University Female Chorus sang the 'Big Fast' Hymn : Apenchois)

The early Christian Congregation began in Jerusalem.. It did attend
both the synagogue & the temple.. Several texts in the Acts book mentioned
that.. Among which Acts 3:1 Now Peter and John went up together into the
temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour.. Although the temple's
music was instrumental, the synagogue's music was vocal.. So, when the first
christians became independent, they took their musical rites from the
synagogue and used only vocal singing.. Composers & Readers who left
Judaisme & believed in Christianity used to have the same job in
Christianity.. So, Psalms were chanted exactly the same way they were
sung in synagogues..

As the early Jerusalem's Church the music was vocal in all Oriental &
western churches.. Also, it used the same Jewish way of psalm chanting
in most cases as the Jewish Christian church.. That what was said by fathers:
Apostles did transmit something from the Jewish dogmas & traditions to all

With the beginning of Christianity, in every oriental or western country,
raised prayers, liturgies & dogmas conforming with the nature & environment
of each land also every land composed the music conforming with it's own
taste so the Byzantine Church Music is Byzantine, the Egyptian Church Music
is Egyptian, the Jewish the same.. The best example for that is that the
Ethiopian Church although conceived and affiliated to the Egyptian Church
for long generations remained pure Ethiopian.. That means that the local
inherited art had the biggest influence in forming the Church Art..

            (Here an Ethiopian Chorus sang an Ethiopian Hymn)

That shows a big evidence on the difference between Coptic & Ethiopian Hymns.

So every nation took from it's previous worship tunes which were found
appropriate. So undoubtedly, Greeks took from their ancient worship hymns
and used it in Christianity.. Also Romans took from their Ancient war
Music & used it and so did Egyptians..

Once St.Mark came to Alexandria, Inianos' family was baptised and
Christianity spread quickly in all Northern & Southern Egypt in
the first & second generations.. In year 400 the Anas-Elwogood Island
had a church and a monastery.. Scientists agreed that no population
believed in Christianity in strength & zeal as the Egyptians did..
The Ancient Egyptian man did in vain search for the unseen creative
strength in the soul & spirit..

The most important tradition for the Ancient Egyptian City was art..
As the Ancient Egyptian arts were profoundly engraved in the people's heart,
it appeared clearly in Architecture, Sculpture and Ornaments.. Very
influenced, almost the same as the Ancient Egyptian with a compromise
with the new positions & thoughts of Christianity in the first four
generations where Christianity Hypostasis & basics were founded..

Let's have a look at Ancient Egypt's art the land which believed in
Christianity.. Pithagorus, the Greek scientist visited Egypt after 520 BC
during the Hellenic invasion to Egypt.. their pressure and destruction
to all civilisation & troubled social life.. He said that he could gather
from Egypt elements on which he based his well known musical theory!!

Singing & Music was necessary at every Ancient Egyptian festival.. No
meetings lacked music.. Also women in every house, mastered music &
practised it.. In the pharaoh's Palace there existed Musical teams or
bands with singers they had conductors which were proud that they
fill the pharaoh's heart with joy & can realise His wants with their
beautiful singing..

Religious Festivals were real wonder and Glory when they move with the God
in his ship over the priest's shoulders in the temple.. People used to
present their offerings and salutations.. These customs were usually
accompanied by Musical & Singer groups.. Many of the religious liturgies
were accompanied by music.. Also kingly marches were lead by priests with
praises & incense many of the priests were called Psaltos Priest.. Or King
singer priests.. The Egyptian People is a very rich civilisation since old
times.. Yet some of ancient words are said in Labours' songs and a song to
Nile's Sailors sung in Arabic exactly in it's same Ancient Egyptian
pronunciation which is:"Ya Tera Tiri we hatili..."

Egyptians usually preferred to use blind singers.. There were many and the
Coptic Church still chooses it's cantors among blinds.. But we should
take care and choose only the talented ones..

The Alexandria Library responsible " Dimetrios the Valerion" in 297 BC
said that in their Honour & Intercession festivals for Gods Egyptian
Priests used to sing on the 7 Greek vowels consecutively.. It produced
beautiful sounds which satisfied them from using the Flute or Harp..
Nikomax the Mathematician who lived in the first century said the 7 vowels
were special to the seven stars.. Until today, most of the Coptic Hymns are
sung on these vowels.. Some are sung on Alpha (a) others on (e) as
aretenshonty, the Big Alleluia and the Offering Alleluia.. Ancient Egyptians
considered that singing with these vowels represented the most profound
religious expression..

                        (The Chorus sang the Offering Alleluia)

Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish Philosoph who lived in the first century said:

"The first Christians took from the Ancient Egyptian Hymns & used it in
their new worship" Whether they took it as is, adding a spiritual dimension
or didn't take it, the Egyptian Art was still living and was still Egyptian
Flesh & Blood.. The Singary tune was named after Singar a city in the delta
since Ramses II which became famous in the Coptic Aera for the numerous
monasteries which were there around and it's church were 2 consequential
Popes were chosen..

The Edriby Tune is probably named after Edribah the City whose Ancient
temple was changed by Abba Shenuti to a church.. Copts used also to find
a relation with the Coptic word "Eder Hipi" which means sorrowful..

The text for hymn of the Cross: "When King Costantine's peace letters
arrived Alexandria saying close the Baraby doors & open the churches"
this hymn was written for the discovery of the Cross of our Lord Jesus
Christ in 326.. Many other hymn share this same tune with this one among
which the Shaaneen Sheres & Tarh and the Cross Tarh Hymn.. That proves
that these hymns are old..

Among the oldest hymns, one written by St.Clement of Alexandria in 180 in
his book "Paedagogus" (the teacher).. It is a thanksgiving for Christ
recited by new baptised people for their salvation from the seas of sins its
translation is:"Holder of the wild animals, wing of the young birds,
director of peace for ships, shepherd of kingly lambs, gather Your poor
children to praise in holiness and sing in honesty with sincere mouths
the Christ leader of children.. Jesus human's salvation, the Vineyard
Shepherd, the heavenly help and the Holy sheep"
No wonder that this hymn is no longer in use since our fathers wrote
hundreds of hymns

The Oldest Christian hymn transcribed with musical signs was found on
a Papyrus in Bahnasa.. Coming from the ends of the 3rd century it is
a trisagion musically deciphered by Prof.Phales among which:"Let all
forces praise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit the only giver
to good people Amen"

(Here sang Monsieur Youanidy the Hymn with the musical note and his pure

This Papyrus is a very important one.. It is not like any of the thousands
of old Coptic Papyrus available in Egypt & in the whole world.. Some of
them return back to the 9th Century & of course copied from older copies
(Many of them are concerned with music) Nothing has any musical sign except
in one Papyrus in John Rylands Library, Manchester Collection..
Mr.Crum the Coptic Language scientist used some specialists to decipher
those signs but they could never do it.. I hope Prof.Phales will arrive
to a decision in this matter

                       Coptic Studies Institute Magazine
                                 Release 1958
                              Article written By:
                             Ragheb Moftah Habashy
                                    Part II

Coptic Hymns were transmitted as oral tradition from one generation to
another until 1927 when I brought Prof. Newlandsmith (Composer & Ex-Prof.
in London Royal Music Academy) we signed a contract to transcribe hymns
and masses in Musical Note.. I will mention that in details later on..

The Egyptian Church arts & dogmas began to raise with the beginning of
Christianity in Egypt.. The Egyptian Church has it's own four masses
never used by any other church..

The Kyrollos Mass was written by St.Mark the Apostle himself.. Probably,
this Mass' status became stable long ago before St.Kyrollos because it is
very similar to St.James Mass & The Lord's Covenant Mass, the oldest
liturgies.. Both St.Basil Mass & St.Gregory do share the same Awashy part
with St.Kyrollos Mass that's why we think that their music also return to
it.. Except those, most of St.Kyrollos Mass Music was lost.. Nothing remained
except the hymn Oukoty & Ouoh Nay they are used for the Dead Mass (Requiem

Concerning the St.Basil Masses, there exist 3 masses named after St.Basil..
St.Basil of Costantinople Church Mass, The Syrian St.Basil Mass & St.Basil
Coptic Mass (it has a Greek text).. These three differ from each other in
text, dogmas & music..

Certainly, the Egyptian St.Basil Mass does belong to the Egyptian Church..
It was used before the division of 451 (long before St.Basil the Great)..
St.Basil's Mass Music is pure Egyptian except the confession part &
Confession Introduction they are Byzantine..

This Byzantine part also belongs to the Egyptian Church since it has no
brother in the Costantinople text except a small sentence.. Neither in
the Music, nothing is similar.. The St.Basil Mass Music, whether the Coptic
or the Byzantine is so beautiful and have big influence if chanted in their
original tunes and with a beautiful talented voice..

The Gregorian Mass also belongs to the Egyptian Church before division..
It's music also is Egyptian except it's beginning "The love of God the
Father..." and the Confession are Byzantine..

"The Love of God the Father" is available in both the Coptic St.Basil Mass
and Byzantine St.John Christomos but still their music are VERY different..
The Gregorian Mass Music is nothing but some Big Hymns which were going to
be lost unless I did record it several times from Mlm.Mikhail who was the
only one to have known it complete.. This mass is used in Big feasts.. It's
tunes are splendid and profound and have celebration influence..

The Malachite Church in Egypt used these 3 masses also after the division
of the Church until the 12 th century..

The 4th Mass is Abba Serapion Bishop of Tomees (Tamyel Amdid) who was
the disciple of St.Anthony the Great and a friend to St.Athenese the Apostolic.
It was published in 1894.. We have strong proof that it belongs to the
church of Alexandria.. Part of it is exactly the same in St.Mark Mass..
We do know nothing about it's music or use.. It seems it wasn't used widely
and didn't last for long..

In the writings of HH Gabriel Ben-Toreik Pope No 70 we got that some people
tried using different masses than the 3 known ones.. In section 26 of
his writings we found: "It came to me the weak, that some people in
the Southern Cities (Seiid) pray inappropriate masses different from
the three we all know which are St.Basil, St.Gregory & St.Kyrollos..
I defended people who are depending on that until they come at my
residence and show these masses.."

   (Here was played a tape in Hegmn.Morcos priest of Matay-el-mahatta's
   voice "The Love of God the father", The Commemoration of Saints &

Concerning hymns, a big rich collection survived and was preserved for the
Church.. Their number exceed 300 Big & Small hymn.. Most of their texts
are Coptic, some are Greek.. BUT all the music IS Coptic... These hymns are
Spiritual, Profound & Beautiful.. They represent the High Standard of
Spiritual Literature.. The original source of these hymns is pure Musical..
Some of them do last 15 minutes & are sung over one or few words or just a
short sentence.. Some of them (only in Greek words) are in use by Malachite
but have different Byzantine Music..

All Church services as Tasbeha, Evening & Morning Incense Offering, Masses,
Feasts & Fasts have their own hymns.. It differs accordingly to seasons..
Many Hymns are said just once a year. Which means it was composed for a
special occasion.. Which proves that the Coptic Church is a very Musical
One.. The Coptic Dogmas with their hymns throughout the year represent the
LIFE in both the Old & New Testaments which shows CHRISTIANITY with splendid
beauty in representation..

The sorrowful hymns have a very strong influence.. No music in the whole
world is similar.. It seems that this special aspect did characterise
Egypt since very old ages: Herodote who visited Egypt in 460 BC
said in his book about Egypt section 79:"One thing I am wondering about,
which is the source of the song called Linos.. I think it is so old there,
they call it Maniros.. They say that Maniros was the only son of their very
first King.. He died very young so that they sang this sorrowful song for
him.. And that this song was the first one they had.." In 1933, when more
than 30 European Musician & Scientist heard these sorrowful songs, in
the Music Conference held in Cairo, where I had the honour to be a member,
a strong feeling mastered them.. I will never forget the "Singing Science"
Professors in the Sorbone - Paris who asked Hegmn. Morcos Shenouda to
repeat the Commemoration of Saints OVER 6 TIMES.. Also Mr.Newlandsmith
said in one of his speeches: "Give me Cruzu's voice singing some Coptic
Hymns and I will destroy Jericho's Walls.."

These sorrowful Hymns make the earthly boundings disappear, make the
soul humble some of them could destroy the Hypocrite soul who insists in
living sinner!!

                (Here the chorus sang the hymn Golgotha)

The Coptic joyful hymns have their very special spiritual taste.. They make
us feel that the heavenly beauty is very superior to all this world's
feelings.. We do believe that a hymn, sung in a talented voice and sincere
soul has big influence more than dozens of words in attracting people to the

(Another Chorus sang Ei Aghaby whose music is Coptic and another hymn said
in the end of Resurrection Feast)

Religious Hymns which where composed similar to folkloric songs played a big
role in spreading heresies and also in fighting them.. By the ends of the
second Century, the Syrian "Beridessane" composed 150 psalm to spread the
Gnostic Heresy which he joined he and his disciples.. So St.Avraam the Syrian
composed hymns to resist & oppose it and gathered Choruses of Virgins who
were intended to become nuns to sing them.. Also Arios composed folkloric
songs to spread his heresy.. And a lot of fathers in Egypt & Europe composed
opposite hymns to resist his thoughts.. As I did mention previously, Coptic
Music was transmitted orally since the beginning of Christianity until 1927
when I called the Great Professor Newlandsmith who spent eight years
transcribing it from the voice of Mlm.Mikhail until the work was done
in 16 volumes..

In 1931, when this job came to it's middle, the renewing supporters who
called themselves the Reformation Party attacked me saying that I don't
want to preserve the old things.. On this same year in May, I travelled
to England and gave with Mr.Newlandsmith three speeches concerning Coptic
Music in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London.. Hundreds of
Newspapers & Magazines in Europe, the States, Egypt & the Far East wrote
about these speeches.. Fortunately, I still have all these speeches,
here I show it to you.. Here on the first page an article in Oxford
Newsletter: "A Great Speech added to the group of this season's speeches"
These articles described Coptic Music as Very Spiritual Music Very
impressive and A Great Musical Treasure..

Here are the 16 volumes dear Copts would you publish them.. I don't want
any personal benefit, I even don't want to write my name down there..
After that, I don't think that any group of people would lack in
preserving the most important tradition he & the whole world have,
the oldest musical heritage. Many scientists everywhere are waiting for
the publishing of these volumes to study Coptic Music & know the Coptic
musical scales.. Although great researches on Byzantine, Syrian, Gregorian
Music were published, not a word in any Musical Encyclopaedia was written
about Coptic Music!!

I am working on recording the hymns on tapes to provide the Great Genius
Prof. Phales with the recordings and transcriptions and prepare to publish
them. This Professor is the one who deciphered Old Byzantine Music

Coptic Music is Not Arabic, Not Turkish, Not Byzantine & Not Western IT IS

Until today, many traditional Church music is only vocal among which Coptic,
Greek & Syrian.. Above mentioned Scientists and many others advised to
preserve it. They said it is the biggest crime to try playing it on
musical instruments for it was designed for human's voices.. Playing it
on strings gives poor, cut performance which does not represent by any way
the hymn itself.. Playing it on Piano (or keyboards) requires adding harmony
which also is not appropriate and requires us to destroy it's basis &
squeleton foundations.. That means destroying the Church Heritage which
is considered one of the most profound Church traditions.. The Greek Church
also doesn't use instruments even the Cymbal & Triangle are not used there..

Prof.Newlandsmith did find some few small Coptic pieces, counted on one's
hand fingers which could give the same effect when played on violin as when
sung (A Capella) such as the Revelation Book Response..

(Here Monsieur Yoanides played it on his violin, then Mlm.Sadek Attalla
sang it, both were wonderful and mastered it very well.. To show the
difference, Monsieur Yoanides played the Blessing Hymn (Lahnel Baraka)
which is Tenouosht.. Mlm.Sadek sang it as well.. The difference was really
big & clear, which proves that these hymns should be only vocal and should
never be played on instruments..

Although we do have this great heritage, Copts tend now to use western
songs & hymns which are superficial in both structure & meaning..
It's music is repulsive with our Church's beautiful dogmas & hymns..
What really hurts me & breaks my heart is that these songs did invade
some of our Coptic Orthodox Church's atmosphere.. which surely not