The Heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church

The History of Praising

Albair Gamal Mikhai
January 29, 2004

A short article written by HCOC Servant, Albair, on the history of praising, beginning with the evidence we have from the Holy Bible, to the history of Coptic music in modern times. The article was written in Arabic, and translated by Bishoy K. R. Dawood & Ragy Sharkawy, and edited by Alexander A-Malek. An audio recording of it is available in the HCOC’s Annual Sunday Vespers Praise CDs.

In the beginning, God created the angels and the heavenly hosts to praise Him. Then He created man so that he may join with the heavenly hosts in praising and glorifying Him. After the fall of man, and sin becoming part of his nature, man became separated from God, and a barrier existed between both God and man. So man was not able to live with the Holy One, and the response of the Lord was that without the shedding of blood there could be no remission of sins (Heb. 9:22). Thus, the bloody sacrifice was established between God and man, becoming the only means through which man could come into the presence of his Creator.

Praising was lost, and was replaced by blood. Thereafter came Moses the Prophet, who saved Godís people from Pharaoh and his army. Through the lamb of the Passover, salvation was established. What was the outcome of this freedom? “Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord” (Ex. 15). It is the same praise chanted by the heavenly hosts as we find in the Book of Revelation, for praise is the result of salvation. Praising is the natural response when returning to the bosom of God.

Then came David the Psalmist, who composed psalms with beautiful and mournful melodies, and taught the people how to sing. He then conducted the first religious musical celebration, in which many people participated. This occurred when David returned the Ark of Covenant from the hands of the Philistines. At the celebration, musical instruments such as rebecs, timbrels, cymbals, and many others were used. He gathered 4000 Levites for the service of praising, dividing them into groups for praising in the mornings and evenings throughout the week.

Thus, David the Psalmist, a great Poet and Musician, established this new service, which he called the “sacrifice of praise.” When Solomon the King resided on the throne, he maintained and developed this service. However, after the division of the kingdom, this service was weakened, and it ended with the exile of the Jews to the land of Babylon.

Prior to the time of exile, Gentiles longed to hear the praise of the Temple because of the greatness of this service of praise. For this reason, the Babylonians requested the exiled Jews “sing us one of the songs of Zion” (Ps. 137:3). After the return of the Jews to their lands, and the rebuilding of the Temple, Ezra was determined to restore the service of praise once more, and Nehemiah completed his work. The service of praise progressed and improved until the time of our Lord Christ, to Him is glory. During this period, there were two types of Jewish music: the music of the Temple, which permitted the use of instruments along with singing; and the music of the synagogues, which depended on the human voice only, without the use of musical instruments.

After the acceptance of Christianity by many Jews, they went preaching their new faith. Meanwhile, the Gentiles were left to practice prayers and worship according to their own customs and traditions.

When Christianity came to the land of Egypt, the Church, through the various gifts of the Holy Spirit, began to compose the lyrics for the hymns of its services, as well as its music. The music of the Coptic hymns was greatly influenced by the music of the Pharaohs, since this was the common type of music in Egypt at that time. It was also influenced by Jewish music, since there were Jews who resided in the city of Alexandria, most of whom escaped the persecutions of Jerusalem. Some of these Jews became Christians. It seems that the early Church was affected by the Jewish rite to a large extent. For this reason, we find that in most of the ancient churches, and among them the Coptic Church in Egypt, musical instruments were not used during worship, just as in the Jewish synagogues.

At a very early period when Christianity entered Egypt, the hymns of the Church were set and organized by the Church Fathers, who were inspired by the Holy Spirit during a time when the gifts of the Holy Spirit descended widely upon the Church. The Church then continued to pass down this spiritual and musical treasure from generation to generation orally, without anything written down. This was also common with the Ancient Egyptians. Thus, the hymnists chanted the hymns and passed them to the youth of the Church and its deacons.

In the past century, the departed Dr. Ragheb Habashy Moftah invited the English musicologist Ernest Newlandsmith, to note down the music of Coptic hymns for the purpose of preserving them without change, forever. This work was the first of its kind, and was an excellent step towards instituting the academic study of Coptic music. The drawback in the project, however, was that the notes were written down by a non-Egyptian professor, who was not a member in the Body of the Coptic Church. As a result, the work was not accurate due to the absence of the true musical tunes, as well as the lack of the Coptic spirituality within himself.

However, the Lord willed and permitted a long life for the Cantor Mikhail Girgis el-Batanouni, who lived through the period when audio recording was invented. With this new invention, he recorded by his own voice many hymns from the Coptic musical heritage for the Church. With it, he preserved the past for us and conserved it from perishing.