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A brief background on the history of Coptic hymns and its preservation through the Cantors of the modern age. Written by Albier Gamal Mikhail, and translated by Bishoy K. R. Dawood, edited by Alexander A-Malek.
It is acknowledged that the hymns of the Coptic Orthodox Church date back to the early period of the Ancient Egyptians. Today, Coptic music is considered to be one of the oldest musical genres alive. Coptic music is not transcribed, but rather passed down orally from generation to generation. In addition to its complexity, the precision of the hymns’ melody, and, finally, the difficulty of the hymn to be tolerated by the common ear, many hymns have perished from the Church tradition, leaving no remnants of authentic Pharonic music except through what the Copts chant within their churches.
Prior to the ordination of Pope Kirollos the fourth, known as the ‘Pope of the Reformation,’ upon the throne of Saint Mark the Apostle, there was a possibility of the complete loss of many Coptic hymns, as the Church experienced a period of weakness.
However, the ‘Pope of the Reformation’ commanded a talented cantor, Mo’allim Tekla, to compile and compare all Coptic hymns, as well as to pass them down to others, in the hope of preserving the Heritage of the Church. So Mo’allim Takla, travelled around Egypt – from North to South, and from East to West – to gather all hymns and compare them. This zealous cantor was later ordained a priest. Soon after, he diligently handed down this great treasure of hymns and rites to seven Church cantors. Finally, he departed to the heavenly glories to praise along with the angels, joining them in the hymns of victory and salvation.
Then came the era of Pope Kirollos the fifth, who cherished the hymns of the Church and was skilled in chanting them. Through this great leader came the period of the flourishing and spread of Coptic hymns in Egypt. This was accomplished through the efforts of Mo’allim Mikhail Girgis Ghabrial el-Batanouni, who received the hymns through the hands of two of the seven Church cantors trained under the guidance of Mo’allim Takla. These two cantors were Mo’allim Morkos and Mo’allim Armanious. Later, Mo’allim Mikhail received a variety of hymns from Mo’allim Salieb. Mo’allim Mikhail was an expert in Coptic hymns, and knowledgeable in Church rites, in addition to being skilled in the languages of Coptic and Arabic. He was also the distinguished leader of cantors in the Great Cathedral, and was appointed to be the first instructor of hymns in the Clerical College by Archdeacon Habib Girgis. When the Institute of Coptic Studies was established, Mo’allim Mikhail was appointed to be its first teacher of hymns. The hymns from Mo’allem Mikhail were the source of the vocal notations recorded by Professor Ernest Newlandsmith, a musicologist from the University of Oxford, and through the efforts of Dr. Ragheb Habashy Moftah. In addition, Mo’allim Mikhail conducted the first audio recording of Coptic hymns. In light of this great achievement, Dr. Ragheb Moftah comments: “He was the only way of passing down Coptic hymns in its original form to us.” And for all of these reasons, and many others, Mo’allim Mikhail el-Batanouni is considered to be the master of Coptic hymnology throughout Egypt, hence, he is frequently referred to as: “Mo’allim Mikhail the Great.”
Mo’allim Mikhail handed down all these precious hymns to many cantors, deacons, and priests. From among them we mention: Hegoumen Morkos Girgis, Mo’allim Farag Abdel-Massih, Mo’allim Sadek Atallah, Mo’allim Mikhail Salieb, Mo’allim Bishay, Mo’allim Farid Ibrahim, and Mo’allim Boolis Iskandar. He also handed down a wide range of hymns to Mo’allim Faheim Girgis and the Deacon Dr. Youssif Mansoor. Lastly, Mo’allem Mikhail also passed down a number of hymns to Mo’allim Tawfiq Youssif, the cantor of the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary, commonly known as the “Moharraq Monastery.” At the end of his journey, on 18 April 1957, Mo’allim Mikhail the Great departed, at the age of 84, after diligently serving the Church for approximately 70 years. He left for us this great heritage of music, which was preserved by Dr. Ragheb Moftah in the U.S Library of Congress. In addition, it was also cherished in the hearts and tongues of the cantors, who continuously chant them in their churches. In an effort to express his deep sorrow for the lost of Mo’allim Mikhail, Dr. Ragheb Moftah had these words to say in his lamentation:
“You are like the River Nile that overflows to every corner of its valley. Your teachings have flooded the nations to its uttermost regions, and behold, they declare your name and everlasting treasure, as are the Pyramids that overlook the centuries. Your hymns, which the valley has echoed for thousands of years, you have preserved them for us, in a generation of alteration and change. O you of great heart! You have departed from this narrow place, and your spirit has joined in the world beyond, praising and chanting throughout the entire universe, glorifying the Holy of Holies.”
To the Lord belongs all glory and honour, from now and unto all ages. Amen.