Page 1 of Preface, Liturgical Chants of the Copts. Notated and placed in order by Father Jules Blin, S.J. Cairo, 1888.
Translated from the French by Maryvonne Mavroukakis
Edited by Jan Lancaster and Carolyn M. Ramzy
The work that we are offering to the public here is not unimportant for the Coptic nation. It is the notation of its liturgical chants; a work unknown until now, because the Copts have never notated their music. However, their church music has come down to us; but tradition alone has preserved their music. Children from a very early age have heard these chants from the mouth of their fathers, and they in turn have learned them to teach them to their own children; but, as we understand it, everything was exposed to caprice and fantasy. Monsignor Aghabios Beschaï, the last bishop of the Catholic Copts, had tried to annotate liturgical chants but he died before he achieved his mission. Monsignor Marcos, Apostolic Visitor of the Copts, pursued the idea of the Bishop, and it is to answer his wishes that we have undertaken this work, with the desire for it to be useful to this Church and its present and future clergy.
We have used the skills of various Coptic cantors, under their dictation, to annotate the sung part by the people and the deacon cantor.
This work presented many difficulties, and it is not without apprehension that we initiated it. The Arabic musical scale, we believe, is divided into thirds. Did Coptic music present the same problems? How does one represent such intervals with musical notation?
How many times was our work interrupted because errors were discovered? Even with much care and precautions, we had to understand that the work would remain imperfect. In spite of the difficulties that this work presented, we have tried to reach the highest possible perfection. We have tried especially to render with the highest accuracy, the melody and the rhythm of the chant. We preferred to reproduce scrupulously all that we heard, however relatively difficult to measure. With this desire of precision to the smallest detail, we have kept the national character of Coptic chant. Even though they have been described as such, these chants do not contain "harsh and baroque modulations" and "savage and soporific melodies." They have none of the raw character of Arabic melody. Their cadences and their rhythms, more happy than sad, do not emit a gaiety that is born from pleasure. One will find, especially, beginning from the preface of the Mass, No. 31 to the end of the Office, passages that are reminiscent of the beautiful modulations of our plain-chant.
In short, Coptic liturgical chants, like all religious chants in general, have preserved a national trait; they do not seem to have, contrary to non-religious songs, foreign influences. May this work be used to enhance the beauty of the Catholic cult of Egypt and contribute to avenging the Coptic ceremonies from injudicious critiques by unenlightened and ill-intentioned authors! Then, we will have been amply compensated for our troubles.
We believe we ought to add some remarks to clarify the organization of this work:
- The Copts have the tradition of repeating the vowels on which the melody is prolonged, or even making up syllables that they form and substitute for prolonged vowels. In this case, if the syllable contains the sounds i or e, the made-up syllables are é, yé, é, yé, i, etc. If, however, the syllable contains the sounds o, ou, the made-up syllable is o, wo, o, i, etc. We thought it was better to write these kinds of prolongations or additions, with Latin characters, so that the Coptic text does not suffer disfiguration.
- It is to be noted that in the double and triple syllables, or when two consonants meet, the Copts often emphasize the quasi-vowel e after the first consonant when singing. We wrote this kind of scheva in little red italic characters for the reason mentioned above.
- The reason we chose this musical key to annotate these liturgical chants was to avoid the sharps and flats. Our work is especially dedicated to the students of the Coptic Seminary whose aptitudes for music are not very developed.
- We have kept for the priest officiating at the altar the denomination of diacre, but we will remark that generally the functions of the diacre or Shemma, are usually accomplished by children (not altar boys).
Even though the faithful [the congregation] does not respond during the service, we continue to designate the Cantors with the expression le peuple [the people] as it is found in the liturgy.
Letter from his Eminence the Cardinal Simeoni,
Prefect of the Holy Congregation of the Propagation [of the Faith]
Rome, February 8, 1888
I learned, through Monsignor Marcos, Apostolic Visitor of the Copts, about the admirable patience as well as the care that Your Reverence has shown to gather and annotate the ancient and pure liturgical chant of the Copts. This same Prelate also told me that once the printing of the first part is finished, the second part will be undertaken.
In awaiting it, I am happy to present Your Reverence well-deserved congratulations for this interesting liturgical work which has cost you so much effort. I wish that She [the Coptic Church] will kindly complete it by preparing the second part of the chants. Your Reverence will have been deemed worthy by the Coptic Church; She will have preserved through you the liturgical chant which was going to be corrupted and which was in danger of being lost. Your work, moreover, will permit R[évérend] P[ère] Foujols and his successors to teach all the students of the Coptic seminary the chant as well as the ceremonies of the rite, in accordance with what was ordained by this Holy Congregation, in April 1878.
In this hope, I pray the Lord to bestow on Your Reverence abundant blessings.
Giovanni, Cardinal Simeoni, Prefect
From Blin, Jules. Chants liturgiques des Coptes. Notés et mis en ordre par Le Père Jules Blin de la Compagnie de Jésus, Missionaire en égypte. 1. Partie chantée par le Peuple et le Diacre. Cairo: Imprimerie nationale, 1888. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: M2160.4.C6C43 1888
- Egyptian Institute session, December 3, 1887. "In the scales currently used, there are only [the following] intervals: major and minor modes, 2/3 of tone, and 1/3 of a tone. Intervals of ½ and ¼ tones are missing." [back to article]
- It is unclear whether the author is referring to an incremental measure or musical measure here. [back to article]
- [Villoteau in] Description of Egypt, volume 14, pages 301-302. [back to article]
- Again, the meaning here is unclear. This term is also italicized in the original text. [back to article]
- It is likely that the term diacre here means deacon in English since the word Shemma, similar to the Arabic Shemmās, also means deacon. [back to article]