The Oral Tradition of the COPTIC MUSIC
All the manuscripts discovered and books compiled to date record only texts and rubrics. There is no known notation now in existence designed specifically for Coptic music, though manuscripts bearing ancient Greek notation have been found in Egypt (see History, below). From the beginnings of the church, the music has passed from one person to another, from one generation to the next, by oral teaching and rote learning. Thus Coptic music has always depended on a continuous oral tradition.
Because the Copts have tended to be fiercely conservative about the many rituals of their religion, it is reasonable to suppose that they must also have been meticulous in regard to the music. According to Hans Hickmann (see Musicologists, below), this music was held as a sacred trust by those who learned it, and indeed, was purposely not transcribed lest it fall into the wrong hands. For the most part, the instruction must have been very strict and rigid, as it is today (see Cantors, below).
To study the reliability of this tradition, Marian Robertson has compared transcriptions of the same piece of music written decades apart by different scholars. These studies indicate that the simpler melodies may have remained intact for centuries. Other comparisons of recordings made years apart at the Institute of Coptic Studies also show that the basic melodies have remained unchanged, and that even the embellishments, though varying slightly, occur in the same places throughout the melody in question. This is especially true for those compositions sung by the choir. In the case of solo performers, variation and improvisation are to be found, particularly in the embellishments and melismata, as may be expected.
In view of the abundance and complexity of Coptic music, one might well wonder if any mnemonic devices were used to aid in transmitting it. Hickmann maintained that a system of chironomy that dates from the Fourth Dynasty (2723-2563 B.C.) is still employed. However, not all scholars have shared this opinion.
Indeed, Ragheb Moftah, head of the Music Department at the Institute of Coptic Studies, affirms that although a cantor may use his hands in directing other singers, his system is strictly individual and not consciously adopted from anyone. The chironomic gestures used in Coptic singing seem to relate more to setting the rhythm than to delineating the pitches of a given melody.
Scholars do not agree concerning the antiquity and purity of the Coptic musical tradition. Admittedly, without notated manuscripts, it is virtually impossible to unravel the sources of the many melodies. Nevertheless, specialists who have studied, transcribed, and analyzed this music concur that, at the very least, it does reflect an extremely ancient practice. Ernest Newlandsmith (see Musicologists, below) traced it to pharaonic Egypt, whereas Rene Menard, a bit more cautious, proposed that those melodies sung in Coptic descended from the pre-Islamic era. In all probability, various sections of the music, like the numerous texts, were introduced into the rites during different stages of the early Coptic church, and the music as a whole does not date from any single era or region. It is clear, however, that the musical tradition has continued unbroken from its beginnings to the present day. Hickmann considered it a living link between the past and the present.
Melody, Its Relation to Different Languages
The relation of various languages to Coptic melody is a study still in its infancy. Comparison of pieces sung interchangeably in different languages could help identify the nature of change as well as indicate roughly the age of certain hymns whose texts have been identified in ancient manuscripts.
The titles and rubrics for many hymns designate various linguistic origins (for the texts at least), with most being noted as Rumi, that is, from Byzantium, or “the New Rome,” as it was once known. Burmester referred to a number of Greek troparia from the Byzantine offices which are also used in the Coptic office. Further, as has been mentioned, several Psalis show affinities to Greek (See Description of the Corpus and Present Musical Practice, above). Other hymns are designated as Beheiri, from northern Egypt, Sa‘idi, from southern Egypt, or Masri, from the central part of the country. Each region has its own distinctive dialect.
Initial investigations have revealed that when texts are sung interchangeably in different tongues, the melodies remain essentially intact. For example, in the Easter hymn, “Remember me, O Lord” (performed on Good Friday during the Sixth Hour), which is sung first in Coptic (aripameui w pa[c aripamevi o pachois) and then in Greek, (mnh&sqhti& mou ku&rie, mnésthetí mou kyrie) the music does not change with the language. Other examples could be cited.
Scholars have observed that, with the translation of the liturgies and numerous hymns into Arabic, those melodies put to an Arabic text have tended to become simpler, shorter, and less ornamented than the original Coptic version. Fear has been expressed that the Coptic melodies sung in Arabic may lose their genius and character, especially where extensive vocalise is concerned. However, the few studies made of pieces sung interchangeably in Coptic (or Greek) and Arabic seem to show that the basic melodic lines and rhythms are kept intact, and that even the ornamentation is maintained to a remarkable degree. The Easter song reserved for Maundy Thursday, “Judas, Judas . . .” (Greek: Iou&dav, Iou&dav . . . , Ioudas, Ioudas . . . ; Arabic: Yahudha, Yahudha . . . ) may be cited as an example. Nonetheless, conclusions must await much further comparison.
Other hymns written originally in Arabic (mada’ih) have been introduced into the liturgy in relatively recent times. Those well acquainted with the age-old traditions aver that despite the popularity of the attractive melodies and rhythms of the mada’ih, these newer hymns contain little of theological or spiritual value.
Further, Copts now maintaining residence in foreign lands have begun to perform their liturgies in French, English, and German. Experts once again express fear that, with this trend, the unique style and flavor of the true Coptic melodies will be absorbed into new expressions unable to reflect their distinctive heritage. They feel that Coptic music must be sung in the Coptic language if it is to express the spirituality of the ancient church.