d– The Coptic Hymns

By David Ensemble Group
WWW. davidensemble.com
The Historical Value of the Coptic hymns:

The Coptic hymns are that praising tradition which was preserved by the Coptic Orthodox Church for 2000 years. Pray–ers, fastings, tears, sweat and the blood of our martyrs were the ways to maintain this tradition through several centuries. It is quite remarkable that the church was able to preserve these hymns inside its holy chapel for 2000 years despite that they were not written by musical notation and the absence of tape recorders, the use of which spread only during this century.

So the Coptic church depended on oral tradition in preserving these hymns, and chose, for this reason, the cantors who were usually from the blind, due to their exceptional ability to memorize this huge number of hymns, which may reach up to 575 hymns, the duration of each of them ranges from half to 10 minutes

Many consider that retaining this great deal of Coptic hymns by oral tradition to be a miracle, helped by the insistence of the traditional Coptic Church on not giving up all what was handed over from the Apostles without any deviation from it.

Furthermore, some consider this miraculous preservation of the tradition of Coptic hymns throughout these centuries to be equivalent or even exceeding the miracle of building and conservation of our Pharaonic monuments.

The spiritual value of the coptic hymns:

The holding of the Coptic Church onto these hymns as a praising principle may be due to the fact that Christ himself praised along with His holy disciples, as in the upper room after he gave them His holy body and His precious blood, St. Mark the evangelist – the owner of that room – mentions “and when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” (Mark 14:26). And the disciples as they had learned the sacrament of praising from Him they “were continually in the temple praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:53). Therefore our church made these hymns occupy a great period of time in its ritual prayers in that the priest prays, the deacon calls and warns and the congregation answers and participates, all with hymns. The Epistles are introduced with a hymn; the psalms and the gospel are also read with a hymn.

The musical value of the coptic hymns:

When researchers studied the Coptic hymns, they found that they revealed the musical rules regarding the measures, rhythms, scales, time signatures, musical cadezas, and the right balanced form of the musical phrase. The reason behind this may be that St. Mark the Apostle, who is considered the first to preach in Egypt, founded the School of Theology in Alexandria, where great philosophers studied and from which many patriarchs graduated, and where musical sciences were taught.

The Coptic hymns are reach in musical scales and they have transformations and transitions between them. Which reflect the composers’ genius. They also contain changes in the speed and rhythm, which make them occupy the top position among the nations’ music.

The Coptic hymns are distinguished for being expressive as they explain the meaning of the spiritual words by the intonation depiction which may increase, rise and fall. This is a remarkable style of the Coptic hymns which is called the Millisma i.e. the variation and repetition of tunes using a single pronounced letter. They are also unique in the way of using one uttering letter to connect two musical sentences.

The way of parsing by the coptic hymns:

The ways of performing these hymns vary, either praising in two choruses (North & South) which is called “Antiphonal” signing, or the “Responsorial” praising in which the congregation or the chorus answers the priest or the chantor, the latter led to the appearance of the “Virtuose” signer outside the church. There is also the solo praising as well as group praising. This variation in the ways of performance helps the reaching of the spiritual contents hidden within the tunes.

The musical instrument and the coptic hymns:

Chanting these hymns in the holy liturgy is not accompanied by musical instruments, a style which was known in the Coptic church and spread all over the world by the name “Acappella”, the style which Palysterina – a musician of the 16th century – was famous for. Some contented hymns may be accompanied by the cymbals and the triangle for the rhythm, and to announce the joyful state that the church lives on that occasion. However, these hymns may be presented with musical instruments outside the holy liturgy, as David the prophet had said in the psalms “Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet, Praise Him with the lute and harp; Praise Him with the timbrel…. Praise Him with the stringed instruments and flutes” (Psalms 150:3,4). And “David and all the house of Israel played music before the Lord on all kinds of instruments, made of fir wood , onharps, on stringed instruments on tambourines, on sistrums, and on cymbals.” (2 Samuel 6:5).

Even David the prophet was keen to awaken his musical instruments to begin praising with him so he tells it: “Awake, lute and harp! I will awaken the dawn” (Psalms 108:2).

The New Testament, as well, announces that praising in heaven will be ‘enlightened’ musical instruments, as Saint John the Theologist had written. And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God.” (Revelation 15:2).

Some had explained the prohibition of using the musical instruments in the New Testament in that the subjects could not afford to buy expensive instruments, as the ones which were used in the Old Testament, because the early churches, were always moving from one place to another due to persecution, therefore there was no time for developing the music or training the musicians.

One of the researchers gave reasons for not using the musical instruments in the church in that the architectural nature of the churches of the early ages, which were built underground to escape from persecution, did not allow the hymns to be performed except by human voices.

It is unreasonable that musical instruments, especially the rhythm ones, could have been used by those persecuted and were praying and worshiping while being threatened by death at any moment.

But Father Matta Al-Maskeen asserts in his book “The Daily Praising”, that the Copts had received the way of praising with the flute from the Jewish hermits, who became Christians, in their assemblies which were called ‘Aghaby’, and they continued using it until 190 A.D when Klemundus the Alexandrian stopped the usage of the flute and replaced it with the cymbalon.

The coptic hymns affected by the pharoanic hymns:

Undoubtedly, the Coptic hymn has a Pharaonic origin, as it is so natural that the pharoahs, who were specialized in the Gods’ music with its pharaonic secrets, when they became Christians could not get rid of that music which lived in their being, mixed with their life aspects and was stored in their subconscious mind. And they, with the holy spirit that filled them, started composing new hymns that may have included certain Pharaonic themes or some musical forms that were created unintentionally from the musical sentences stored in the subconscious mind. And were sent to the conscious mind when they matched the feelings and emotions that were to be expressed. Then these pharoanic themes merged with the new sentences to produce a new harmonized musical fabric which the Holy Spirit dyes with a Coptic Orthodox tinge. This opinion may agree with what was written by the great scientist Al-Farabi in his famous book ‘The Great Musician’ when he asserted that music cannot be created from nothing.

It is known that some of these hymns carry the names of ancient Egyptian cities that perished long time ago. For example, the hymn ‘Singary’, which is a name an Egyptian city in the north of the Delta that dates back to Ramses the Second. Also the ‘Edribi’ hymn ‘Ke Eperto’ which is repeated many times in the Holy Week, is named after a town called ‘Atrib’ which lies to the north of Benha and had a cathedral with twelve alters.

Dimetrios the Phalerony in 297 BC. Who was one of the superintendants of the library of Alexandria, assured that “The Egyptian priests had been praising their Gods with the seven vowels which they had been singing one after the other, and their chanting using these letters produced beautiful sounds.” It is clear from this that the “Millisma is a way of signing that had been present during the pharaohs’ days and has extended to the Coptic Church as a way of chanting and as hymns in particular.

There are names of some Saints the history tells us that they are among those who had put and composed Coptic hymns. For example, Didemos the Blind and Saint Athanasios the Apostolic who is said to have put the wonderful hymn ‘Omonogenis’ ‘O Only-Begotten Son’ which is chanted in the sixth hour prayer on Good Friday.

In another text, Philo the philosopher had mentioned that the early Christians took some hymns from Ancient Egypt and put Christian lyrics to them. One of these is ‘Golgotha’ hymn, which was sung by the pharaohs during the mummification procedure and in funerals. And the hymn ‘Bek ethronos’ the first half of which includes sad tunes that were chanted in the occasion of the pharaoh’s death and the other half was chanted with joyful tunes celebrating the enthronement of the new pharaoh.

The effect of both the Coptic hymns and Hebrew hymns each other:

The Coptic and Hebrew hymns were affected by each other. For instance, it is written in the Book of Exodus “Now these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt; each man and his household came with Jacob: Rueben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All those who were descendants of Jacob were seventy persons (for Joseph was in Egypt already)…. But the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, multiplied and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.” (Exodus 1:1-5,7). It is evident, from what was mentioned in the Book of Exodus, that the people of the children of Israel with their twelve tribes, had lived in Egypt and listened to the Pharaonic hymns for four hundred and thirty years, the period they had stayed in Egypt (Exodus 12:40).

Undoubtedly during this period, six hundred thousand men apart from the children from the people of the children of Israel who left “Ramsis”, were able to memorize many of the Ancient Egyptian hymns.

They were affected by these hymns which lived in their being, and were able to recognize their scales, rhythms, measures and different forms, and left the land of Egypt, carrying them in their feelings, memories and worshipping rituals.

On the other hand, we find that Saint Mark the Apostle had lived a while among the tunes of David of Bethlehem, while they were chanted in the Jewdishal Synagogues, and in the holy upper room sung by Jesus Christ the son of David with the twelve disciples repeating them after Him, when they had sung a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. It must have been that these hymns with all their hymnal details, were carried by Saint Mark to Egypt, and that he had been repeating them while he was on his way to Egypt, to help him overcome the harshness of that long and weary path in which his shoes were torn. It must have been also that when he founded the Theological School of Alexandria, and made music by taught beside the theological sciences, he taught these hymns and put some of them in the holy liturgy, which he wrote, which is considered the oldest liturgy the Coptic Church had ever known. And from what was mentioned above, it appears that the Coptic hymn and the Hebrew hymn were both mixed and affected by each other

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