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Coptic Music Roots and Characteristics

Published in 20/01/2017

Q: A brief description of the Coptic music

The Coptic music by definition is of Egyptian origin. It goes back to the time of the pharaohs. It started then and carried on developing throughout the years until the present time. Coptic music has Pharaonic roots, but is not solely Pharaonic.

Q: What are the characteristics that distinguish the Coptic music and the stages of its development?

Coptic music enjoys specific characteristics which distinguish it from other Arabic music or regional music. Many researchers including Western analysts have studied Coptic music, and most of them confirmed that it is different in its essence, form and scales from Arabic music taught and studied in the Institutes of Music either in Egypt or elsewhere. Some of the Coptic scales have common traits with old Mediterranean music, but is unique in that it does not keep the same scale for long and tends to move between scales. Endings and speed of Coptic musical phrases are also different from Arabic music. The same piece of Coptic music played slowly stirs up a feeling of sadness and melancholy, yet when played with a faster tempo it inspires gladness and joy.

Q: What is the secret of the High spirituality which we feel when we listen to Coptic music?

Emotional response to music depends basically on the inner soul of the individual. If you are not used to Western or “classical music” for example you will need to listen to it more than once until you can respond to it. Even though it’s not very clear; we believe that composers of Coptic music were somehow and to some extent inspired whether they were monks in monasteries or otherwise. What we can confirm is that if an individual sings in the spirit and in an active mental state, the outcome of such prayers is very moving spiritually.

Q: What is the extent of the link between the Coptic music and its Pharaonic roots?

There is no firm evidence that all the Coptic music is Pharaonic in origin. Coptic music might have some Pharaonic roots, this needs to be scientifically confirmed. We are basing our theory on the artefacts found and the paintings on the walls of the temples. They used to play the (Nye) a bamboo flute, the lute and the harp. Paintings also depict them using simple means such as hand clapping or foot tapping as a type of percussion. By researching, it was clear that these are the exact instruments which can be used today to produce the Coptic music, especially in long and melancholic tunes of the church.

Q: Has the music from the first kingdom been influenced during and after the rule of the Hykssos?

Definitely! Life in the First Kingdom was pure, simple and had a slow rhythm.. ! Music was played in palaces and worship temples. In the Middle Kingdom, with the arrival of the Hykssos, naturally, music and the culture itself changed. For example, brass instruments were introduced. After the departure of the Hykssos, rulers insisted on going back to their original music and instruments in temples. The old five-note scale was re-introduced to replace the seven-note scale brought in by the Hykssos.

Q: What do you say to those who claim that musical instruments cannot be used in Coptic music?

Music by definition should have rhythm and musical notes. Coptic music can be played with the suitable musical instruments. As an example, and since Coptic music is very rich in “micro tones” or quarter tones; it requires specific instruments such as the Cello, the lute and the violin, but not a piano..! A group of singers need a musical instrument as a tool to regulate their singing and keep it on track.

Musical instruments are also used to introduce the Coptic music to the Western world. It is our duty to present it in a beautiful and harmonious way acceptable to the foreign audience, so that they may appreciate and understand it.

Q: Can the Western audience appreciate the Coptic music?

Our Choir (St Kyrel Choir) was formed around 6 years ago. We presented concerts in London, Paris and Sweden accompanied by an orchestra. In Paris, the church capacity was 900 however, 1100 attended..! 75% of those attending were French, not Copts. We could confirm the extent of the Western audience appreciation by the feedback which we received by emails and letters from individuals, churches, organisations, dignitaries, etc… it was overwhelming !

Q: What’s your opinion in Dr. Ragheb Moftah?

A great scientist ! He contributed vastly in preserving a huge quantum of the church heritage. He was a visionary and managed to collect and document some of our rich heritage of Coptic music.

Q: What is your dream for the Coptic music?

I hope that many scientific researches and studies into the history and patterns of the Coptic music are published. This needs a lot of work, and we need to start from now. We cannot progress without researching. In the next congress in Australia in 2020, there will be 2 sessions on the Coptic music, so we should be prepared with well researched and verified papers to present on that subject.

Dear Michael, what you said during that interview was clear, well balanced and impartial. It is the only interview in the whole programme that was free from theories based on emotions.

Translated by: Yvonne Alfred

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