The St Kyrel Choir is an activity of the St Kyrel Trust, which is a charity established in the UK in 1994 with the objective of supporting deprived high school and university students in Egypt in order to complete their studies and to start a successful professional career. Over the last 24 years of service, the Trust helped hundreds of students graduate from University. Most of them went on to establish a similar service in their own cities in an attempt to close the circle of poverty and to bring forth balanced and successful personalities into the society. Currently, the St Kyrel Trust sponsors 1400 student all over Egypt and Sudan, with an objective to accommodate over 2000 student by 2020. As the service developed over the years the financial need continually increased and various sources of funding were explored. One of these was to establish a concert series that would bring Coptic sacred music enthusiasts together as a fund-raising source as well as informing of the Trust’s mission.
The concert series required a well-trained choir, brought up in the Coptic culture who could perfect a group performance of Coptic hymns. This attempt started in Alexandria around Christmas 2000 with a group of 15 youth from St Mary and Pope Kyrillos Church. After a few years’ participation in Handel’s Messiah with Goldsmith’s Choral Union in London, the idea developed of creating the Anointed Servant concert that tells the story of the life of the Lord Jesus (please look at the performance on http://stkyrelchoir.com. This was based purely on Coptic hymns practiced in different church celebrations throughout the year, together with relevant narration from the gospels. While training the London choir, it was clearly evident that more musical talent was needed to enrich the group, so we approached our brothers and sisters in Paris, who welcomed the idea. Our French counterparts started a formal choir and regular weekend rehearsals were established. Parallel to this, discussions started with Osama Fathy, a top Egyptian musician who lives and works in Germany, to start an orchestra and to write down the music in a Western notation of those difficult hymns for the first time. The first two Anointed Servant concerts were presented in London in 2011 and 2012 by the St Kyrel choir and Orchestra with members from London, Paris, Egypt and the USA and attracted over 1400 people. The concert script was then translated into French and a third concert was presented in Paris in 2013 with over 1100 attendees. The St Kyrel Choir and Orchestra were then invited by the Swedish church to take part in the 2014 celebration of Umea as the European Capital of Culture and the Anointed Servant Concert was presented three times, in Gavle, Stockholm, and Umea. The Anointed Servant concert was again presented in 2017 in Milan and London, attended by Pope Tawadros II and members of the Holy Coptic Synod. The most recent presentation of the Anointed Servant concert took place in Bussum, the Netherlands in April 2018 by which time the choir has included 170 members from Amsterdam, France, Switzerland, and the UK. Likewise, the Orchestra had members from Germany, Egypt, France, The Netherlands, and the UK.
Having been inspired by Haydn, ideas started to develop for devising a new concert on the theme of the Creation as told in the book of Genesis, using additional Coptic hymns, and where these were lacking, the music and songs were composed by Michael Henein. This concert consisted of two parts, the first describing the 6 days of creation and the second telling of the events in the Garden of Eden. This was presented in London for the first time in 2015, at the Armenian Cathedral coinciding with the centenary commemoration of the Armenian genocide.
In addition to the perpetual increase in the St Kyrel Choir size, its activities expanded to join other choirs from other denominations. Starting in 2014, we established biannual celebration of the Theophania ‘the incarnation and appearance of Lord Jesus in flesh’ jointly with choirs from other churches in London, including the Greek, Russian, Moldovian, Syriac, Armenian and Maronites. Each Choir presented 10 minutes of singing hymns related to one of the Theophania events followed by chanting the relevant part of the Gospel. This integration created a special spirit of love and friendship between choir members and churches too. This shared activity between denominations resulted in a third concert composed on the theme of Anastasis; From Darkness to Light, which depicts the events between the sixth hour ‘the hour of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus’ until His resurrection, which incorporates elements from the Anointed Servant. This concert was presented by the St Kyrel Choir and Orchestra jointly with the UK Byzantine Greek Choir at St Panteleimon Greek church in London in 2016, combining the two Orthodox musical traditions for the first time in the UK. Plans to present the Anastasis concert together with the Greek Choir in Jerusalem in April 2019 are underway. Finally and based on the above activities, St Kyrel Choir was invited, in an open competition, to participate in the 37th International Orthodox Music Festival in Poland. They presented 8 hymns a Capella and received two awards by a Jury of 5 International Professors of Music.
Over the last few years it has become clear that these musical activities have had several benefits: 1) singing the Coptic hymns in the youth’s native European languages has made the singers and the audience better understand, appreciate and feel their power; 2) the musical analysis has helped people to react and integrate fully in the singing as means of worship and praise; and 3) it has made the new generation proud of their own identity, heritage and culture. In addition, the idea of performing these Coptic hymns in a concert setting has encouraged the union of different Coptic choirs from European countries, Egypt and the USA and provided an opportunity to present our Coptic heritage, to the West. Moreover, the continuous grafting of new members into the St Kyrel tree has proved a great success with many young people now competing to register and join the over 170 existing members. 4) Under the direction of HH Pope Tawadros II, the recent establishment of The European Academy for Coptic Heritage in the UK would serve as an online vehicle for closer integration between different countries which will only encourage Coptic music, language, history, culture and iconography studies in different native languages. A number of research projects in Coptic Music and its relationship with Ancient Egyptian instruments have already started. The first of which is the full notation and detailed analysis of the music of St Basil liturgy according to the Coptic rite. The first two years of intensive work has now succeeded in proposing the most appropriate pitch for a whole congregation to use in their worship, irrespective of gender and age. The melody analysis of the St Basil liturgy has also identified individual musical scales for different prayers and congregational responses. In addition, critical interpretation of the music has beautifully shown the spiritual depth of the liturgy and its composition. Finally, it has proposed certain patterns for different sections according to their meaning ‘faith, consecration prayers, sacrament declaration….etc’. We do hope to have this scientific work published in peer-reviewed journals in order to be accessible worldwide. Also, we envisage that such first fruit will attract more Coptic youth to work together with expert musicologists from different European countries who are committed to donating their time and effort in studying and scientifically analyzing such treasure.
Prof Michael Henein