The Heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Interview with Fr. Mettias Nasr

Bishoy K. R. Dawood
August 05, 2005

An interview with Fr. Mettias Nasr by HCOC Servant, Albair Mikhail, conducted on Nov. 27, 2003. Fr. Mettias Nasr talks about his personal life, his meeting with Dr. Ragheb Moftah, his service with the Institute of Coptic Studies, and he discusses the issue of the Liturgy of Saint Cyril production that he released with the Institute.

Duration: 27:20· Filesize: 30.71 MB · Download: mp4

English-language Transcript/Translation

Albair: Alright, can I have your full name, your date of birth, the place of birth, and the city where you serve.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Hegomen Mettias Nasr Mankarios, and by birth Maurice Nasr Mankarios. Date of birth 15 April, 1959. I was ordained on 6 March, 1987, by the hand of the departed Anba Maximus, Metropolitan of Karyobia, on the altar of the Virgin Mary and St. Cyril, the Pillar of the Faith, in the Zarayed area in Ezbet el-Nakhl. What else?

Albair: That’s good. Who did you learn hymns from when you were young?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: When I was young, I learnt my hymns from a number of cantors, among them Cantor Maurice Sawiros, who is now a cantor in the Church of St. George in the Badran Island, and also from Mo’allim Kamel, who was a cantor in the Church of St. Mena in Shobra. When I grew up a little, I learnt some hymns from Mo’allim Sadek Atallah, and some hymns from Mo’allim Farag Abdel-Messih. I was, of course, born after the departure of Mo’allim Mikhail the Great by two years, so I learnt from his recordings, and I got a chance to learn the “Hos” and the “Alle of the Hos” from the cassette tapes before I met Dr. Ragheb Moftah. When I met Dr. Ragheb Moftah, there was a chance that he would permit me to hear the tapes of Mo’allim Mikhail and learn from Mo’allim Mikhail.

Albair: And how did you meet Dr. Ragheb, how did you enter the Institute of Studies, and what was your position when you first entered?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: I graduated from the university in the Faculty of Engineering in Ain Shams University, the Civil Department, in the year 1982. Before that and after that, I was hesitating to go to the Institute of Studies. In the year 1983, the Institute of Studies included a new Department of Coptic Arts; although I was hesitant on going in to the Department of Coptic Languages with the departed Shafaq Basilios, and was hesitant on going in to the Department of Hymns with Dr. Ragheb Moftah, but in the beginning, Dr. Ragheb did not permit many people to join. He used to have a colleague from among the clerics in the department, and some of the cantors were working with him, and he did not permit the lay people to enter. I used to hesitate on entering the department, and I met him through my hesitation, but my official work with him began after I was ordained a priest in 1987. When I was ordained, he opened up all the doors, because he was interested – and I wasn’t only interested in learning and recording, but I was also interested in writing about his journey with the hymns, and for this reason I wrote, from him, some things that are considered rare. My work with him continued until his departure. I used to travel with him to Alexandria – sometimes with the choir, and sometimes with him personally to Alexandria. I used to be with him in the Pyramid [Giza], and we spent a lot of time reading and researching. And this was my beginning with Dr. Ragheb Moftah.

Albair: On the basis of your knowledge of Dr. Ragheb, what are among the most unique things about his personality, as a human being [literally: son of Adam], not as someone who likes hymns.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: He – Dr. Ragheb – when I met him, was a senior person. Because he was, of course, departed when…

Albair: He will always be a senior.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes, he will always be senior. I was born when he was a senior, and I met him when he was a senior. The psychology of a senior person is that he is always unconfident of the work of any person, and for this reason, despite his great weariness, he would insist on checking by himself and listen by himself. I remember that when we first worked on the Liturgy of Saint Cyril, he took a hold of me and told me, “come, I will let you meet Margeret Toth, in the Society for Coptic Antiquities.” And we went, and told her that Abouna is interested in such and such, and what is your opinion? So, she advised me and said, “Never leave Dr. Ragheb, since he has the best musical ear in the world, so don’t leave him.” So since that time, we worked together. So, the psychology of senior person is that he is careful and cares about everything by himself, a man who is very traditional, and the idea of renewing something is not just to the extent of hymns, which are a heritage, but it doesn’t even extend to renewing machines! For the Liturgy of Saint Cyril, we had to record it outside, as well as other rites, such as the Feast of the Epiphany, since the machines at the Institute stopped functioning completely. But before that, we used to work with it, and the tapes used to be damaged, because we worked on machines that have expired fifteen years ago. And he was careful about changing, fearing anyone who came in – he didn’t trust anyone – people were coming in to ruin some work – I am, of course, saying some secrets here – we used to get some reels to hear them, and be surprised to find that some songs were recorded over the hymns, and things like that. So, this was something he was careful about. He also used to like things repeated once, twice, and thrice, and never got bored or tired. We might get bored and weary, but he would say “We’ll repeat it again… we’ll record it once again.” “Alright, enough for now and tomorrow we’ll continue.” We were exhausted. If you noticed, he completed 40 tapes through the Institute of Coptic Studies in the year 1994 – that is, after establishing the Institute by 40 years, or a tape every year. We, of course, used to produce 10 tapes in a year. Even in his regular life – he was somewhat of a vegetarian, and used to eat certain foods, and perhaps this is the reason for his long age – the Lord repose his soul. He used to have an organized way of life, and he used to give high regard to his home and his family. This is not the same as the psychology of any senior person, to be… Appointments – he used respect appointments always. Even if there was a meeting at the American University, or a meeting that I attended with him with the Minister of Education, Dr. Hosny, and another meeting that I attended with him with Dr. Abd-al-Raouf, who was the past ambassador of Egypt in the United States – he held a social gathering for him in Egypt when he became a leader in the Library of Congress. I was honored to be with him, and he made me go with him before the appointment by half-an-hour. So, he was very careful about appointments. Perhaps he was influenced by his relations with Europeans – he lived for some time in Germany… and this was a reason why he respected appointments. He used to be the first person in the Institute of Coptic Studies – he would open a section on time and even before the appointment, and was very careful about being ready to greet people on time, and the same with the time to let them leave. These were among the things that were noticeable in his personality. He used to have a strangely high respect to all the great professors – he would work with him, or learn from him, or teach him. He used to have a wonderful respect.

Albair: I heard that he was celibate. Is that true?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes, of course, he was celibate with his wife. And these things, when we asked him, he did not prefer to answer. His wife, too, wouldn’t respond. But we were seeing him, and the evidence is that I used to live with him in Abu Kir and in the Pyramid [Giza]. I used to live with them, and saw nothing. It is true that I lived with them when they were seniors, but it seems that this was a living reality.

Albair: Alright. Who among the cantors taught hymns in the Institute of Studies? And what was the method by which Ragheb Moftah chose those who would teach in the Institute of Studies – that is, on the basis of that method.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: The time I lived through – well, before that, I didn’t live through, but I read in books and heard that he would let Mo’allim Mikhail teach by himself, and with him the cantors who were his disciples. He once said that the Institute had six rooms working, with 300 clerical students. There was also a class for girl-students, and disabled girls too. So those who used to teach were the disciples of Mo’allim Mikhail. These things I never attended. I attended when he allowed Mo’allim Sadek and Mo’allim Farag teach. He used to like Mo’allim Sadek to teach the hymns of the Liturgy of Saint Basil, and used to like Mo’allim farag to teach the hymns of the great feasts. This is concerning the students of the Institute of Coptic Studies.

Albair: Alright. Who taught the rites – these are the rites of the Institute of Studies, approximately – who taught – I’m not sure if you know – who taught these from among the cantors: the Liturgy of Saint Basil?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Mo’allim Sadek.

Albair: Passion week.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Mo’allim Tawfiq – he used to get Mo’allim Tawfiq especially, and get him to Alexandria especially, so as to teach some parts that some people here are not concerned with, such as, for example, the different Tee-Shoori, and the hymn Yudas – these hymns are recorded by Mo’allim Tawfiq himself…

Albair: But the other hymns, like Omonogenis, Pek-ethronos?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: These are different, and he would let Mo’allim Farag teach them.

Albair: And what about Tee-epistoli, since it is recorded differently from Mo’allim Farag by the choir of the Institute of Studies. Mo’allim Farag told me that Mo’allim Sadek is the one who taught it and changed it in its beginning.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Well, in truth, they used to appeal to Mo’allim Sadek, since Mo’allim Farag – I’m sorry to say the word – wasn’t committed. Like, I attended in one of the years when Mo’allim Farag was teaching the Clerical College choir and the choir of the Institute of Studies. Perhaps throughout the year he didn’t attend except twice or thrice. And this was the reason that made us bring Mr. Milad Shokr to teach, since we felt that he wasn’t committed. There were, of course, the reasons of his illness and his traveling to Australia, so they had a need to get someone like Mo’allim Sadek, or someone who learnt the hymns well.

Albair: Alright. The Fast of the Apostles?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: I didn’t attend that.

Albair: The Feast of the Nativity?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Mo’allim Farag.

Albair: The hymns for the Patriarchs?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Also Mo’allim Farag.

Albair: The Midnight Praise?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: The Midnight Praise – Mo’allim Tawfiq contributed in it, and Mo’allim Ibrahim Ayad contributed in it.

Albair: Teaching, or…?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: He taught a part, and recorded a part. And he recorded a part that he taught to the Clerical College and the choir’s classes, and Mo’allim Farag contributed in it.

Albair: The Holy Lent?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: The Great Lent I didn’t attend.

Albair: The Vespers Praise?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Also Mo’allim Farag, and Mo’allim Ibrahim Ayad. And even until the present the tapes have… and the choir.

Albair: The Feast of the Resurrection?
Fr. Mettias Nasr: I do not recall.

Albair: The Glorifications?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Mo’allim Tawfiq – the whole of it.

Albair: Yes? Kiahk?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: For Kiahk, a cantor named Mo’allim Malak came, and I, in fact, disagreed with his recordings, and I told Mr. Ragheb that there is a danger in recording these hymns and publish them with our name, and this was for more than one reason: at that time Dr. Ragheb wasn’t feeling well, and in the whole department there was no one to help him, except Nader, and Nader took care of the recordings along with Mo’allim Malak.

Albair: Who is this Mo’allim Malak?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Mo’allim Malak was a cantor in Anba Roweiss. A young youth. So I told him, “Dr. Ragheb, there is a danger in letting these things out,” especially since they wanted to record all the Lobsh’s, record the Intercessions (hiten’s), the hymns of the Liturgy, and these things. So I told him to wait for a while. And for this reason we didn’t just wait for a while, but for a whole year, and we didn’t publish the rite of Kiahk that year. We waited for a whole year, and then the following year we began to take out these available recordings, and see what we can take out of these recordings and what we could learn and record from these recordings. And so from the beginning of the rite of Kiahk, and through Bright Saturday, the Ascension, the Epiphany, and whatever is after that, I was, more or less, teaching them.

Albair: Who was the cantor who taught – I’m not sure if you know – who was the cantor who taught the following cantors. I mean, who taught the following cantors: Mo’allim Tawfiq?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: He was taught by someone named Mo’allim…. Umm..

Albair: Agathon?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Aghabius. Mo’allim Aghabius. He was the one who taught Mo’allim Tawfiq.

Albair: He learnt some hymns from Mo’allim Mikhail, right?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes, he learnt some of the hymns. They used to send to him – Dr. Ragheb used to send Mo’allim Mikhail especially to teach Mo’allim Tawfiq.

Albair: Are you aware of what he learnt? What hymns he got…

Fr. Mettias Nasr: At least, as I remember, he learnt the Great Teoi, the Hos, Alle-el-Hos… and he learnt…

Albair: Alle-el-Asr?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: No. The evidence behind this is that the Alle-el-Asr that Mo’allim Mikhail taught here is different than that chanted in the Moharraq. Even though there are two from Cairo in the Moharraq, who taught great hymns – I don’t want to mention their names – he learnt from them. Mo’allim Tawfiq learnt some hymns from these cantors.

Albair: And the melismatic Evol-hiten Maria?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: I’m not sure.

Albair: Alright. Mo’allim Faheem?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: For Mo’allim Faheem, I’m not sure who his sources were, since he lived in Jerusalem for a long time, and when he came from Jerusalem and served in Cairo, we were surprised to find that some of his hymns are different than those we say here. But I have no idea who his sources were.

Albair: Mo’allim Farag once told me that Mo’allim Faheem once learnt from someone named Mo’allim Badee’ originally; then he lived for 40 years in Jerusalem, and then came back, and attempted to change for Mo’allim Mikhail, and served with him for 12 years or so?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes, he served with Mo’allim Mikhail. And he learnt some hymns from Mo’allim Mikhail. I also remember when he used to tell me in our meetings in Alexandria that people commented on his difficult voice, and say that the voice of Mo’allim Tawfiq was strong. He used to say these things that he noticed.

Albair: Mo’allim Farag?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Mo’allim Farag learnt from Mo’allim Mikhail, and this is by the witness of Dr. Ragheb as well.

Albair: Mo’allim Naseef?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Mo’allim Naseef lived in the days of Mo’allim Mikhail, and learnt some hymns from Mo’allim Mikhail. But there are hymns that are very different, among them Share-Efnooty, and other hymns, so I don’t know who he learnt from, since I didn’t live in his time.

Albair: Mo’allim Bishay?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: I don’t know.

Albair: Mo’allim Sadek Atallah?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Mo’allim Sadek Atallah learnt, of course, from Mo’allim Mikhail, since most of the time he traveled with him and was his disciple. But Mo’allim Sadek wasn’t able to learn everything. He was of the quite type, play the piano… he was interested in sitting with Mo’allim Mikhail and the Pashas, and so on. So he was the kind who loved the Liturgy and learnt some great and lovely hymns, but he wasn’t competent.

Albair: Mo’allim As’ad?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: I don’t know who he learnt from.

Albair: Not from Mo’allim Mikhail?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: I’m not sure.

Albair: Alright. By the way, Mo’allim Bishay recorded some things from Mo’allim Mikhail… and recorded in the Liturgy of St. Basil, and in the Catechumen Liturgy he recorded with Mo’allim Sadek, in some of the readings.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes.

Albair: And with them was Mo’allim Mikhail – he was saying with them and was leading them.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes, this is probable, but I don’t know whom he learnt from.

Albair: We move now to the Liturgy of St. Cyril. What was the scholarly method that you relied on to arrive at some hymns of the Liturgy of St. Cyril that have not been handed down to us?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: The first thing we did was to gather everything that was available, and what was available we recorded as is. What was available? The diptych, the prayer for the patriarchs, which is Oukoti je anon, the ‘atika, which was recorded by Mo’allim Mikhail. Everything that was available, we recorded as is. When I made sure that there are some recordings by the voice of Anba Daniel of Lebanon, which was not authentic, and some by the voice of Abouna (…), which was not authentic. We gathered a lot of things. Some things by the voice of the present Abouna Saweeros – the Liturgy of St. Cyril, which he recorded with Mo’allim Ibrahim Ayad. We, of course, heard all these things. The things we were made sure of, we recorded. There were some things we found unavailable, such as the litanies. For example, the Great Litany of Peace, the Great Litany of the Assemblies, the Great Litany of the Fathers, we took them from the litanies that are recorded in the rite of the Vespers Prayer. There are some litanies that we don’t say, such as the Litany for the Priesthood, so they were adjusted to the litanies of the Vespers Prayer. Their organization is common, since when we recorded the Liturgy of St. Gregory, Mo’allim Sadek and the cantors who recorded the Liturgy of St. Gregory, did not have a source to learn the litanies for that Liturgy at all. So, they adjusted the hymns.

Albair: So, not even Mo’allim Mikhail recorded it for the Liturgy of St. Gregory?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: No, he didn’t record it. So it is common that some adjustment be done. There is another scenario, and that is when some hymns are identical in the other liturgies; that is, it is not possible that Peklaos Ghar of the Liturgy of St. Cyril be different than Peklaos Ghar of the Liturgy of St. Gregory – the hymn. Well, what I’m saying here is not just my opinion, but I always sought the advice of Dr. Ragheb, and this is why we published the Liturgy in the life of Dr. Ragheb. Even His Holiness the Pope himself, when he was asked to comment on the work, encouraged Dr. Ragheb in the task of the Liturgy of St. Cyril. There remained with us a problem, and this is what is making news these days. What is the problem? It is that we had two choices to make: either to publish what we have gathered and adjusted, and so the liturgy would have parts missing – the Liturgy of St. Cyril would have missing parts; or, the parts that we don’t have at all be adjusted and then published. When we asked Dr. Ragheb on how to adjust a hymn, he told me that it is to be adjusted on the Liturgy of St. Gregory. He has this recorded by his voice – I have a copy of this recording by his voice – that the Liturgy of St. Gregory and the Liturgy of St. Cyril are from one musical school.

Albair: How did he know this?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: I also don’t know where he got this information, but at least we, for example, find that the blessings for the Liturgy of St. Cyril is close to those for the Liturgy of St. Gregory; the part of Peklaos Ghar is close to the Liturgy of St. Gregory; we find, for example, the famous tune for the Liturgy of St. Gregory – that long one – is repeated in the Liturgy of St. Cyril; with the exception of the litanies – they are all like the Vespers Prayers, since there are 12 or more litanies in the Liturgy of St. Cyril. Those are prayed in no other way except that of the Vespers Prayers, which is a different way than the Liturgy. So, we had those two choices. We made the second choice, so that the Liturgy comes out complete. Also, if anyone is found to have the capability of trying something better than this, welcome to him, and this is something good. But this is our capability. The second thing is that there is a way of studying the Liturgy – just like, for example, the preface of the Liturgy of St. Cyril, it has a part on the oblations. This was adjusted to be like the litany for the oblations. And when it was adjusted, we found no reason to change it, just as if its original tune was like that. Do you see what I mean? We found the words matching the music of the hymn, and close to the words of the litany of the oblations and its hymn. Another thing is, there is a theory that says that the Liturgy of St. Gregory carries the hymns of the Liturgy of St. Cyril, fearing their loss. That is, for example, the way Pek-empsha is chanted…

Albair: Yes, Mo’allim Tawfiq says this.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: He says this and it is recorded. Just like another thing: Peklaos Ghar. You’ll find that the part that is in the Liturgy of St. Gregory – and I say this to those who are interested in hymns and study them in an academic way – Peklaos Ghar of the Litrugy of St. Gregory has a longer part than Peklaos Ghar of the Liturgy of St. Cyril in the sentence that says: “they ask You, and through You, to the Father with You, saying…” This sentence, when we listen to its Gregorian hymn (Fr. Mettias Nasr sings it), it sounds like a long sentence that has no tune (of its own) so he does what…

Albair: He repeats it.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: This is evidence that in the Liturgy of St. Cyril, when the sentence that addresses the Son was added to it, “they ask You, and through You, to the Father with You, saying,” he had to…

Albair: Repeat the musical part for it.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Repeat the part. This has been studied, and this study has been submitted to the Institute of Coptic Studies as a doctorate thesis on the Liturgy of St. Cyril. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anyone to advise on this thesis, until now, but the study is done and is available, so if anyone would like to see its theories, he is very welcome.

Albair: What are the reasons that made some of the cantors disagree with the Liturgy of St. Cyril, before the production was released, despite the fact that there was among those who disagreed who were supportive of it – and I saw recordings of you with some certain cantors – they were agreeing and everything, but after it was released…

Fr. Mettias Nasr: It was a fear of taking responsibility – a fear of us saying that these were the people who said and did so. It is a responsibility. And I never said that anyone of them adjusted or did a hymn at all, and I won’t say it, since whoever did so there I have a recording of it with their voices. That is, I’m not inventing. But it is a fear of taking responsibility. But if there is someone who can do something better than this, I hope he can tell us.

Albair: No, no one can do it!

(laugh)

Fr. Mettias Nasr: I mean that there is plenty of effort that could be made, but, believe me, we did put a lot of effort into it.

Albair: The effort is clear.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes.

Albair: Anyway, thank you very much, Abouna. And may our Lord keep you for the Church, and hopefully you can do more and more work. God bless your service.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Thank you.