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Cantors Of The Coptic Music - Coptic Wiki

Cantors, Their Role and Musical Training

Because members of the clergy were not equally talented as singers, it became and has remained the tradition to entrust performance of the music to a professional cantor (Arabic: ‘arif, “one who knows,” or mu‘allim, “teacher”), who is employed and trained by the church to be responsible for the correct delivery of the hymns and responses in all the services. He is usually blind, due to the popular belief dating from ancient times that the sensitivity of eyesight was transferred from the eyes of a blind person to his ears, and that such transference enhanced musical skills. He is expected to be at the church to perform and sing all the rites at their proper times and is thereby assured his living.

The cantor is not an ordained member of the clerical orders, but in times past, a prayer used to be said for him as the appointed singer in the church. This prayer, entitled A Prayer Over One Who Shall Be Made a Singer (Coptic: oueu,e ejen ouai eunaaif mp’almodoc, oueukhe ejen ouai eunaaif (e)mpsalmodos), is as follows:

Master, Lord God, the Almighty, . . . This Thy servant, who stands before Thee and hath hastened to Thy Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, do Thou illumine him for rendering sweetly Thy holy words, and give grace to him to chant unto Thee, with understanding, the spiritual hymns.

Little is known about the cantors prior to 1850. However, at that time, it became apparent that the music and texts had often been rendered incorrectly by untrained and/or careless cantors. Patriarch CYRIL IV (1853-1861), concerned about this situation, made the training of cantors a matter of prime importance to the church. He felt that a specialist, trained and highly skilled in singing the rituals, could help solve the problem, for such a professional could then teach others and thus be responsible for the improvement of the music.

With this in mind, the pope found a blind young man who was teaching in the school adjacent to the patriarchal Church of Saint Mark, and perceiving him to be gifted with a good voice and keen ear, he appointed him to be teacher of melodies. Later, this teacher was ordained a deacon, Abuna by name.

As part of his task, Abuna corrected the pronunciation of the language, demanding proper enunciation and delivery of the hymns. In 1859, at the order of Pope Cyril IV, he published the first edition of the book The Services of the Deacon (see Description of the Corpus, above), with the help of Deacon IRYAN JIRJIS MUFTAH, teacher of Coptic in the Patriarchal College.

Also at the direction of the pope, Abuna included therein four Greek hymns, which he translated into Coptic, and which are sung yet today for the feasts of the Nativity and Resurrection. They have kept their Greek melodies and are designated as Yunani (Greek). Further, Abuna sang Coptic songs of his own composition in the homes of outstanding families, and because of a patriotic song that he composed and presented to the Khedive, he was granted the title of Bey.

Abuna had seven students to whom he transmitted his knowledge and skills. Among these were two cantors, Abuna Murqus of Matay, and Mu‘allim Armanyus.

In the generation following, one of their students was the blind cantor, Mu‘allim MIKHA’IL JIRJIS al-Batanuni, who was blessed with an excellent, very clear voice and a prodigious memory. As a youth, he was sent to visit churches in many towns of Egypt to learn and collect hymns. A faithful teacher at the Institute of Saint Didymus, he was the cantor chosen by Ragheb Moftah to sing to the English musicologist, Ernest Newlandsmith, who, from 1928 to 1936, notated the complete Liturgy of and many hymns reserved for Advent and Lent (see Transcriptions in Western Notation, below). Thereby, Mu‘allim Mikha’il became the means through which many of the great treasures of Coptic hymnology have been preserved in writing. He died in 1957, over seventy-five years old.

Cantors and deacons of today who were taught by Mu‘allim Mikha’il include Mu‘allim Tawfiq Yussuf of the Monastery DAYR AL-MUHARRAQ, Mu‘allim Sadiq Attallah, Dr. Yussuf Mansur, and many others in the churches of and the provinces. These men are acknowledged today as the experts for the liturgical services and correct rendering of hymns. They have also assisted in the recordings of the liturgies and offices now being made by Ragheb Moftah.

In 1893, at Mahmashah, Cairo, Patriarch CYRIL V (1874-1927) opened the Theological Seminary, of which one branch was the Saint Didymus Institute for the Blind. It was only natural for the blind cantors to come here for their training. This institute is now located in Shubra, under the direction of Mu‘allim Faraj.

Today, the HIGHER INSTITUTE OF COPTIC STUDIES has a music department where the music of the church rites is also taught. Ragheb Moftah has headed this department since its beginning in 1954 and has been responsible for the training of those wishing to master the myriad hymns and melodies necessary to Coptic ritual. Mr. Moftah has also been in charge of the teaching of the hymns and responses to the students in the Coptic Clerical College adjacent to the Institute.

These latter students are not cantors, but rather will become priests. Each summer, Mr. Moftah takes a group of talented pupils to summer camp in Alexandria for additional training. Here, they review what they have been taught, correct their intoning and language, and study new repertoire. In all this work, Mr. Moftah is assisted by priests having good ears and strong voices.

All instruction is done by rote, with the students repeating the melodies until they become note perfect. Thereby, music, which perhaps was in danger of being lost and forgotten, is now being preserved for a new generation.



Musical Instruments

When Christianity was established in Egypt, many musical instruments of diverse forms and origins were known. However, they were, in the main, frowned upon by the church and the early fathers wrote strict injunctions forbidding their use. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-220) inveighed against playing the psaltery, the trumpet, the timbrel or tympanon, and the pipe. However, he seems to have tolerated the lyra and kithara, because of ’s alleged use of them. Origen (c. 185-254) attributed definite spiritual qualities to the sound of certain instruments, with the trumpet representing the power of God’s word, the tympanon depicting the destruction of lust, and the cymbals expressing the eager soul enamored of Christ. Saint ATHANASIUS I (326-373) also gave instruments symbolic meanings (Reese, pp. 61-62).

For his part, Saint CYRIL I (412-444), characterized a psalm as “a musical utterance for which the instrument is played rhythmically according to harmonic notes” (Werner, 1959, p. 318), thereby recalling the Greek definition of this ancient form as a song sung to the accompaniment of a harp, or kithara, or lyra.

Three manuscripts from Saint Catherine’s Monastery (no. 30, 977; no. 21, eleventh century; no. 22, twelfth century) quote hymn and Psalm texts that name many different instruments suitable for praising the Lord: cymbals (sanj), small drum (daff), two different chordophones, whose sound is produced by a vibrating string, either bowed or plucked (awtar and ma‘azif), drums (tubul), and rattles (salasil), all of which indicate the variety of instruments known at this time (Atiya, 1970, pp. 77, 21 and 25).

Today, two percussion instruments are used in the rites of many of the Coptic churches: the small hand cymbals (Arabic: sanj, or colloquially sajjat), and the metal triangle (Arabic: muthallath, or colloquially turianta), each played by one of the deacons and/or the cantor. Providing a rhythmic accompaniment to specified hymns and responses sung by the choir and/or congregation, they signal the congregation to participate and unify the singing.

The hand cymbals are mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments (Ps. 150; I Cor. 13:1), which might be considered as a sanction for their use in the Coptic services. They were probably brought into Egypt from the Near East, but when they were introduced into the church is as yet unknown. They are a pair of slightly concave metal disks (usually silver) about 7 inches (18 cm) in diameter, with a cupped center 1¼ inch (3 cm) in depth.

A hole in the center of each disk permits the passage of a string held in place by a wooden pin that as a handle for manipulating the cymbals. Throughout the hymn which they accompany, two movements of the cymbals characterize the beat: a diagonal sliding of the two disks against each other, and a circular motion of the two rims alternately against each other. Both movements produce a varied depth in tone. A trill of the rims with a final clap completes the rendition of the hymn.

The word daff is a controversial term popularly used by some Copts to refer either to the cymbals or sometimes to the triangle, but this is a misnomer since the daff is a membranophone constructed of a circular wooden frame over one side of which a fish or goat skin is stretched taut; such instruments are considered unsuitable for use in church services.

The word naqus (pl. nawaqis) is the only term mentioned in the rubrics of the liturgical books (notably the Khidmat al- Shammas; see Description of the Corpus, and Melody, Its Relation to Different Languages, above) to indicate the need for instrumental accompaniment. An ancient kind of bell, sounded by striking the outside with a rod, it gradually disappeared over the centuries from Coptic ceremonies and is not generally known today.

It came into the early church perhaps via Alexandria, where it replaced the small wooden clappers used in antiquity as an instrument to signal the beginning of worship services. Writing in the fourteenth century, Abu al-Barakat (see Description of the Corpus, and History, above) referred to the naqus in his description of the rite of consecration of the altar in the church: “The bishop proceeds around the altar and beats the naqus three times, after which the ministers holding many nawaqis strike them.” However, the exact form of the naqus mentioned by Abu al-Barakat is a matter of conjecture, for it is not known when the bell fell into disuse among the Copts (see the discussion of the bell below). In the seventeenth century, J. Vansleb did note that small bells and ebony bars were used in Coptic services.

The metal triangle is suspended by a string held in the left hand, and is struck on two or three of its sides by a small metal rod held in the right hand. It is never mentioned in the rubrics, either in Coptic or Arabic, but when accompaniment by the naqus is specified, the triangle automatically joins in. Its light tinkling beats might be described as resembling the light jangling of the ancient sistrum (see below).

When the hand cymbals and triangle are played simultaneously, intricate rhythmic patterns emerge, and as these instruments accompany the varied meters of the vocal music, a complex and quite distinct polyrhythm is produced.

Although the liturgical books definitely specify the occasions, hymns, and responses requiring instrumental accompaniment, the use of instruments is somewhat haphazard, for those playing instruments do not always follow directions and often play when no instruments are called for in the rubrics.

Among the hymns rubricated for instruments are, in the Morning Offering of Incense, “We worship the Father . . .” (Coptic: tenouwst mviwt . . . , tenouosht (e)m(e)phiot . . . ), and “O Come, let us worship . . .” (Coptic: amwini marenouwst . . . amoini marenouosht); in the Divine Liturgy the Hymn of the Aspasmos (variable); in the Evening Offering of Incense, the people’s response to the Kyrie; on Good Friday, the Kyrie of the Sixth and Twelfth Hours; in the Tasbihah of the Saturday of Joy, the Psali of Hos One; during the feast of the Resurrection, the ,ere (shere . . .), after the Psali of Hos One; and the quatrains of the Tasbihah, when it is performed.

Many instruments known in pharaonic Egypt also existed among the Copts. The following information about them is based mainly on research published by Hans Hickmann.


  1. Clapper. A kind of castanet, the clapper consists of two small boards that strike against a third, central board which also forms the handle. Although nothing can be affirmed as to its use in the early church, many clappers dating from the third to sixth centuries have been conserved. These have been found at Saqqara (DAYR APA JEREMIAH), the Fayyum, and elsewhere in Egypt.
  2. Castanet. Made of concave shells of ivory or hard wood which are struck one against the other, the castanet existed in ancient Egypt, but it probably took its definitive form only in the second century A.D. In the Coptic Museum in Old there are a number of them dating from the Coptic era, found at Akhmim and Elephantine. It is thought that they descended from the hand-shaped clappers of pharaonic times.
  3. Crotalum. Composed of two small cymbals attached to the ends of a sort of elastic fork that strike against each other when the fork is shaken, the crotalum was invented by Egyptian musicians of the Lower Epoch. Examples dating from the Coptic Epoch have been found at Thebes.
  4. Sistrum. Consisting of bars fitted loosely into a metal frame that rattle when the handle is shaken, the sistrum was the instrument sacred to Hathor and other goddesses such as Isis and Bastet. From Egypt it spread to Greece, Rome, and wherever else the cults of these Egyptian goddesses penetrated. In Western Europe, Isidor of Seville (560-636) mentioned its use (Sententiae de musica), as did Pseudo-Odo (Odo of Cluny, 879-942). According to Hickmann, the sistrum was also used by the Copts for many centuries.
  5. Bell. Not found in Egypt until the Late Kingdom, most of the bells recovered from ancient times stem from the third to sixth centuries A.D. Ancient Coptic bells, which may be decorated with the sign of the cross, have been found mostly in the Fayyum or other centers of early Coptic life. Hickmann felt that the use of Coptic bells might be the origin for the sounding of bells during the Roman Catholic mass, and that these instruments appeared in Rome following the cult of Saint Antony.


  1. Flute. The long flute, which is held vertically when played, is the most ancient wind instrument of Egypt, having existed in prehistoric times. Examples made of bone dating from the third to sixth centuries A.D. have been found at Saqqara (near Dayr Apa Jeremiah). Known in as the nay, its descendent is still heard today in Egyptian folk music.
  2. Clarinet. Like the flute, the Egyptian clarinet descends from very ancient times. The double clarinet, which has two pipes linked together, dates from the Fifth Dynasty. Similar instruments dating from the Coptic era have been found at Saqqara (near Dayr Apa Jeremiah). These are the prototype for the modern Egyptian zummarah.
  3. Hydraulis. According to Athenaius, the hydraulis (water organ) was invented by Ctesibus of Alexandria, surnamed “the Egyptian” (c. 246 B.C.). It was described first by Philo of Alexandria (second century B.C.), and later, in more detail, by Hero of Alexandria (c. 150 A.D.) and Vitruvius. A favorite instrument at gladiatorial shows, it became very popular with the Romans. Although the organ later became the main instrument for the rites of the Latin church, it has never been accepted in the Coptic church.


  1. Harp. The harp is probably of Egyptian origin, and during its long history, it has assumed many forms which have been amply described elsewhere. The Copts did not use the harp in sacred services, but it might have been popular among the people. O’Curry maintained that the Egyptian harp may have served as the prototype for the Irish harp (see History, above), which spread from Ireland into Italy.
  2. Lute. A lute found at Dayr Apa Jeremiah, dating probably from the seventh or eighth century, is important because it represents a transition from the long lutes of antiquity (both Egyptian and Asiatic) and the short lutes of Arabic, Iranian, and Indian Origin (Arabic: al-‘ud). Described by many scholars, it is characterized by two crescent-shaped notches, that is, it is doublement échancré. There are examples in the Coptic Museum in Old and in the in New York. Hickmann suggested that it might be the forerunner of the guitar, especially the guitarro morisco. Further, he felt that such lutes indicate the role Egypt played in musical history between antiquity and the Middle Ages, a role not confined to the development of the liturgy, but also important in the history of musical instruments (See METALWORKS; WOOD).




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