Coptic liturgies

Coptic liturgies

Ensemble David

The traditional songs and chants of this Egyptian Christian minority known as the Copts are scarcely known to the general public. The name Copt comes from the Greek word Aegyptoe. Long confined to the secrecy of their religious services, this music only came to light again in the early 20th century. It centres around three Masses, of which the Mass of Saint Basil and that of Saint Gregory of Naziance are the main ones. They are sung in unison, their distinguishing feature being their very long sentences, chanted and sung in measured scansion or marked by the metallic ring of a lone instrument known as the naqûs (triangle). The David Ensemble, founded in 1975 by George Kirollos, aims to revive this repertoire based on old hymns and psalms, all rendered more beautiful by the singers’ impressive vocal effects.


1Hiten ni – 1’39
2Amen ton thananton – 1’44
3Hôs érof – 7’33
4Abô orô – 9’49
5Agios – 3’28
6Ô nim naï – 3’44
7Le Golgotha – 7’29
8Aripsalin – 8’31
9E agapi – 5’34
10Ti epistoli – 11’29
11Chenouda – 6’24
12Ton sina – 6’29

Interpreters and instruments

George Kirollos (direction)
Ibrahim Ayad (chant)
Nevean Andrawes (chœur)
Nagui Awad (chœur)
Alfred Ayoub (chœur)
Joseph Erian (chœur)
Aziz Gerges (chœur)
Morcos Gerges (chœur)
Mariem Talaat Ghobrial (chœur)
Georges Guirges (chœur)
Nashat Ibrahim (chœur)
Gamal Ibrahim (chœur)
Maha Fawzy Ibrahim (chœur)
Afraiem Malaik (chœur)
Neveen Mechael (chœur)
Edward Sarabamoon (chœur)
Gamil Sidhom (chœur)
Traiza Tawadros (chœur)


Some historical background

The word “Coptic“ comes from the Greek word Aegyptoe (Egypt); it is used nowadays to denote the Christians in Egypt. (…) According to Doctrine, the Coptic Church was founded by Saint Mark the Evangelist in 43 A.D., in Alexandria, where he is purported to have been martyred in 68 A.D. This church is a living survival of the ancient Church of Alexandria, famous since the early days of Christianity for its numerous martyrs (…)

Monasticism was invented by the Coptic Church. Paul, Anthony, Macarius, Pachomius, “men obsessed with God” withdrew from the world to live a life of solitude, manual labour and prayer in accordance with the ideals of the Gospels. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 created a rift in the Christian world. The Coptic Church rejected its decisions, basically to mark their opposition to the overall domination of Byzantine worship. The ensuing persecutions made this schism irreversible. Then in 640, when Egypt was conquered by the Arabs, the religious chaos was brought to an end. (…) Later, new tersions arose, the Muslims increased taxes, conversions to Islam became very frequent as did the cases of religious persecution, except under the reign of the Toulunids and the Fatimids. The Copts (…) had the status of dhimmi, a state of affairs which lasted until 1856, when the Ottoman Empire, reacting to the pressure exerted by Western authorities, granted citizen status to Christians within the Empire. When Mehemet Ali (1805 – 1848) came to power, the Copts at last began to take part in the life of their country. They became members of the nationalist movement and in 1919 played a significant part in the successful revolution that led to Egypt’s independence in 1922; but the 1952 revolution placed them outside national politics once again.

From 1970 onwards a series of serious outbursts took place in Egypt, where Muslim fundamentalists desecrated and set fire to churches, and sacked and pillaged shops and other properties belonging to members of the Coptic community, putting their owners’ life and liberty in danger. The segregation the Copts came up against was in unde­rhand form: they were deprived of certain basic rights, and banned access to any management or director’s posts in the civil service. In 1581 the fundamentalist frenzy reached its height, when Pope Chenuda III, the head of the Coptic Church, was confined to his residence under police surveillance, to be liberated as late as 1985. (…)

For several decades now, the Coptic church has been under­going a marked revival, due in the first place to the work of laymen united in the common cause of the Sunday school movement. Their action has taken three forms – some wish to reform monasticism from the inside, others under­take theological studies in order to enter the priesthood and become parish priests, bringing new inspiration to the secular clergy; whilst a third group remain laymen and become counsellors or group leaders in young people’s movements in various branches of social life (…)

The specific character of the Coptic liturgy. Alexandrine in origin, but with borrowings from the Byzantine and Syrian liturgies, is basically derived from the monastic way of life and its influence. It is more than just the celebration of a holy office, which follows the monastic tradition more faith­fully here than anywhere else, with its long psalmodies, its marked biblical character, its rejection of external ritual (…)”

After the entry by Wadie ANDRAWISS in lEncyclop&Jie des religions, v.i, p. 493-495. Bayard Editions, Paris, 1997.

Musicological background

Chanting and cantillation or elements relating to hymnology predominate in the liturgical service. It has even been proved that a secular Coptic repertory existed, altogether different from Arab music. The chants and the chanting technique have been orally transmitted, with the cantors, known as psalts, being the guardians and basic vectors of transmission. A certain tradition would have it that the best cantors were blind – though no doubt blindness gave them a special sensitivity or propensity to a link with the divine – or so it is claimed. Be this as it may, one of the most celebrated cantors of recent decades was Mikha’il Girgis al-Batanuni, who was blind since birth. His reputation was such that he was invited to the Cairo Conference in 1932, where some of his songs were recorded. But the sources of Coptic music are not only to be found in pharaonic Egypt – Greece and the Byzantine Empire have also provided elements for it, notably the Byzantine singing technique, where the chanting is divided according to a tripartite system, based on syllabic, moderately syllabic and melismatic breaks. Again, it is important to note that Greek and Arabic were adopted into the religious service as well; and that in the past it is highly probable that Syriac chant and Arab music both played a significant part too, the latter being closely linked in every way to Coptic chant. The first serious research on this chant only goes back to the 19th C., but the 20th C. has seen a real upsurge and revival of Coptic liturgical music, so that it is much better kncwn now, due in large part to Ragheb Moftah, a former Head of Music at the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo.

The basis of nearly all the sacred chants is the mass. The Copts have three liturgies – the Mass of Saint Basil, that of Saint Gregory of Naziance and that of Saint Kyrillos, the latter being practised less often because certain melodies have been lost over the centuries. As well as the mass, various rituals {taqs} linked to specific periods of the year also include vocal music, thus giving rise to a parallel repertory, where the idea o: mode merges with the notion of lahn. which indicates a modal concept and includes fixed melodic formulas. An impressive corpus of hymns has thus developed over the centuries. Coptic sacred chant is homo- phonic, to be sung in unison by a choir; its very long phrases are either scanned by emphasis or the beat is marked by the metallic ring of a solo instrument known as the naqus which provides a framework for the chanting and gives it a metric basis.

It is not easy to listen to Coptic chant, except in the context of an actual service, and for this one has of course to go to Egypt. The heads of the Coptic community, well aware of this problem, fourded a choir whose specific aim is to make Coptic music better known, outside both the church service and Egypt. And so in 1975 the David Ensemble came into being, with George Kirollos as its conductor.

Christian Poché
Translated by Delia Morris

  • Reference : 321.022
  • Ean : 794 881 486 021
  • Main artist : Ensemble David (مجموعة دافيد)
  • Year of recording : 1999
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music style : Coptic liturgy
  • Country : Egypt
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Coptic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe