Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Chant & Hymnody
The Ragheb Moftah Collection at the Library of Congress
Music Recordings Gallery
What does Coptic music sound like? An exclusively vocal tradition, Coptic music is only accompanied by two percussion instruments today. The first instrument is a metal triangle otherwise known in Arabic as muthallath. Among Copts, it is also referred to as a turianta. The muthallath is generally suspended by one of its corners on a cantor's forefinger, while the other hand strikes its three edges alternately with a metal rod, producing a very bright and chiming sound. The other instrument is a small pair of hand cymbals otherwise known as the sanj (pl. sajjāt). While many Coptic cantors and singers identify this instrument as a daff, this can be rather misleading because, throughout the rest of the Middle East, a daff refers to a wide frame drum that resembles a tambourine. When the muthallath and the sajjāt are played together, not only do they keep time, but they also produce an intricate rhythm that mimics the embellished vocal lines they accompany.
Vocally, Coptic singing style is especially bright and resonant, as most cantors choose to sing at the higher end of their range. It is important to note that there are three parties who are musically involved during the celebration of a liturgy: 1) the clergy or the officiant of the service (known in Arabic as al-Kāhin); 2) the choir of cantors and deacons (known as al-shammāmsa); and, 3) the congregation (known as al-sha'b). Musically, it is the Kāhin whose singing is the most rhythmically free and characterized by rich ornamentation and embellishments. Responding to him, a deacon, or a shammās, will also sing in the same ornate style, though a sense of time begins to emerge as their solos are typically accompanied by the muthallath and the sajjāt. The choir of deacons, divided into bahrī, meaningnorthern, and qiblī, or southern, sides, leads the rest of the congregation during lay responses. This singing style is typically declamatory, less ornate, and framed within a simple duple meter.
Lastly, Coptic liturgical chant is unique for its elongation and extended melodies of vowels, a phenomenon that scholars believe Copts inherited from their ancient Egyptian ancestors. In their article, "Coptic Music: Description of the Corpus and Present Musical Practice," Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, Margit Tóth and Martha Roy have differentiated between two forms of these embellishments, the vocalise and the melisma (pl. melismata). A vocalise is the elongation of a particular vowel within a rhythmic framework,  many of which are passed down orally as a part of the Coptic hymn. A melisma, on the other hand, is the elongation of a vowel in free rhythm, allowing singers to improvise and to illustrate their individual virtuosity.
Among the many recordings from the Ragheb Moftah Collection, it was the Coptic Orthodox celebration of the Eucharist, the liturgy of Saint Basil, which received the most scholarly attention. Moftah was not alone in capturing this most widely sung service among the Copts. The German Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher, and two French Jesuits, Fathers Blin and Badet, as well as Kāmil Ibrahīm Ghubriyāl, who came before Moftah, took special notice of the Saint Basil liturgy as well. The recordings of this liturgy are at the heart of this presentation for two reasons. Firstly, it is performed every Sunday during the year, except for seasonal festivities, such as Christmas and Easter, when it is replaced by the liturgy of Saint Gregory. Secondly, as a liturgy, it is at the center of Coptic religious experience, because the majority of Coptic chant comes from this service. Articles such as "Coptic Music: The Divine Liturgy and Offerings of Incense" by Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, Margit Tóth and Martha Roy in The Coptic Encyclopedia  further explain the relevance and the order of this three- to four-hour service that is sung in its entirety.
- For more information on early instruments used in the Coptic Orthodox Church, please refer to the article, "Coptic Music: Musical Instruments" by Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, and Martha Roy in The Coptic Encyclopedia, Aziz S. Atiya, ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991, pp. 1738-1741. [return to text]
- The Coptic Encyclopedia, p. 1721. [return to text]
- The Coptic Encyclopedia, pp. 1715-1724. [return to text]