Music is the language used by angels in heaven and humans on earth to praise God. Prayer is the language of the heart; music is the language of the soul, which moves one’s emotions. Despite the fact that Coptic hymns are very ancient, they appeal to the simple and the sophisticated. When the international musician Earnest Newland Smith came to Egypt in the beginning of the 20th century, he listened to the Coptic hymns and was amazed at their depth. He noticed certain things about the vocals, tunes, pitches, inflections (hazaa) and their different styles and how they were unique compared to all other religious hymnology.
The individual voices stood out to Smith, because it was one of the few times in his life that he heard hymns sung without instruments needed as accompaniment. The singer follows the spiritual meaning felt during prayer. The vocal inflections of the hymn show the depth and the meaning of the words of prayer. Coptic hymns do not need musical accompaniment; instead, the inflection of voices alone makes a deeper impact on the human soul.
Coptic music, especially in the sorrowful tunes, frees the feelings of ones depression and desperation. It contributes to the control of the nervous system and helps to bring down blood pressure and control the heart rate, giving the body the ability to relax, meditate and eventually sleep.
The hymns, themselves, are worship in the Coptic Orthodox Church. They are church rite recorded with all its inflections, notes, and pitch and is considered to be one of the live talents that the church has accepted in the apostolic era. Whoever learns Coptic hymns is considered a gifted servant carrying a great mystery of our church’s sacraments - the sacrament of the praise of God and the work of the angels in heaven.
Ancient Egyptian Influence
It is believed that many of the hymns are based on Pharaonic music:
The Last 150 Years
The Coptic hymns have been handed down from generation to generation with only minor modifications. However, due to the many persecutions faced in Egypt we have lost many hymns.
During the time of Pope Kyrollis, the 4th (1854-1861), Cantor (Mu'allim) Takla, a young man who loved this heritage was asked by the Pope to collect all the church’s hymns. Takla searched all of Egypt. He collected the church’s heritage of hymns and compared the oral traditions he found until he reached the most accurate way to chant these hymns. Takla and Ariyan Afandi Girgis Moftah published the first deacon’s service book in 1859. Takla passed down these collected hymns to seven chosen individuals.
Years later Cantor Michael Girgis el Batanouny was taught by two of the seven. Pope Kyrollis, the 5th (1874-1927), encouraged any hymn instructor to come to Mu'allim Michael with any rare hymn and sing it in front of him a few times so that he would quickly retain it. He had a gifted artistic talent and a much defined musical ear. Once, while asleep, one of his students used the wrong inflection while singing. He awakened to correct him. And he worked for the Coptic churches throughout all of Egypt and taught many of the hymn instructors that we know today.
In 1927, Dr. Raghib Moftah, had Mu'allim Michael begin recording the hymns to preserve them. Mu'allim Michael continued his work until his death in 1957.