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Article About the Music of the Copts

Image: Detail from Alleluia
Detail from Alleluia, Chant Qobtes (shown fully below)

Translated from the French by Maryvonne Mavroukakis
Edited by Jan Lancaster and Carolyn M. Ramzy

If something remained in Egypt from the ancient music of this country, music of which Plato praised as marvelous perfection, we should have found it again in the songs of the Copts, since these Egyptians are indigenous. However, in spite of the fact that they are the only ones able to transmit to us such a precious document, deserving the wisdom of their ancestors, they neglected this prerogative, as well as all their other rights. For so many centuries, they have been used to being treated as foreigners in their own country, and to seeing Egypt governed by laws other than their own, and have become indifferent to anything that could honor their homeland. Greed and meanness, the only motives of their actions now, have kept them from the love of sciences and arts so that they feel in themselves the least desire to distinguish themselves in these areas. Of all the inhabitants of Egypt, they are, except for a few, the most ignorant and the most stupid.

Therefore, there can not be much to say about their music; and it is for this reason that, instead of beginning with it, in giving an account about the status of the art of music in Egypt among Africans, we believe that it deserved only the last rank.

If the songs of the Copts were as pleasant as they are monotonous and boring, we could compare them to those hymns sung by the ancient priests celebrating Osiris, singing with seven vowels. As with these priests, the Copts only need one vowel to sing, sometimes for as long as a quarter of an hour, and it is not rare to see them prolong their song for more than twenty minutes with only the word: Alleluia.

Since all their religious songs are executed in this manner, one can easily conceive why their offices are excessive in length. Hence it would truly be tortuous for them to be obliged to attend them, since they are not permitted to sit, kneel, or to position themselves otherwise than to stand up in their churches, if they did not take the precaution to have with them a long crutch, called in Arabic, "ekāz,[1] which they place under their arm, to lean on and support themselves all this time. We who attended their services several times, and who, lacking an 'ekāz on which to lean, were obliged to lean our backs against a wall, never left without having our legs benumbed with fatigue, and without being overcome with boredom.

Nevertheless, we do not believe this has influenced the opinion that we formed about their chants, nor that it would be unfair to say that nothing is more insignificant and more irksome than the melodies comprising these chants. Moreover, we did not stop at the first impression that we received; because seeing that we could not succeed in understanding something of this savage and soporific melody, and persuaded that this came from several distractions caused by the painful situation where we found ourselves while listening to it, we summoned the zeal and the courage to the point of asking one of the most skillful Coptic singers to come to us to see if we could finally unravel something in the harsh and baroque modulations of these chants; but the experience only confirmed our first judgment; or rather the unpleasant and heavy manner in which our Copt sang, strengthened it even more.

After having heard the first chant--it was an Alleluia--we had him repeat it, so we could copy it; but we could not define the nature of the effect it caused us. The chant of the Egyptians lacerated our ears; this one did even more; it spread over all our senses a kind of poison which nauseated our hearts and irritated our souls to an intolerable point. It was necessary, however, to continue to the end, since we had undertaken it. When this first chant was finished, we asked the Copt if there was only one kind of chant in his church, for we believed it to be so: he replied that on the contrary there were ten different tones. We resigned ourselves to hearing him sing on all ten tones: but we were soon beyond any appreciation of them; they benumbed our ear drums, and wearied our attention to the point that we only heard them as one hears when one is three-fourths asleep; and perhaps if the Copt had retired without saying anything to us, we would not have noticed it, so great was the kind of stupor in which these chants had thrown us.[2] One can well understand that we were not tempted to have him begin them again so we could copy them more easily, and we confess in good faith, we did not even consider it; it would have been impossible for us to do it. In order to justify our discouragement and the disgust that these Coptic songs gave us, it will suffice, without doubt, to offer here the one we have copied.

Alleluia, Chant Qobtes, page 1
Alleluia, page 2

From Villoteau, Guillaume-André, 1759-1839. "Chapitre V: De la Musique des Qobtes (Chapter V: About the Music of the Copts)," a brief description of Coptic music by Villoteau and his transcription of Alleluia. In Description de l'égypte, ou, Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en égypte pendant l'éxpédition de l'armée française, publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l'empereur Napoléon le Grand. Paris: Imprimérie impériale, 1809-1828. 21 vols. Text from Vol. II, pt. 1a, Paris: Imprimérie royale, 1809, pp. 754-757. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Call number: DT46.F8.


  1. [This footnote is original to Villoteau's transcription and is translated here.] Example: 'ekaz 'ekāz. The double-cross [staff] of the Copt Patriarch is also called Example: 'ekaz megouz, 'ekāz megouz, that is to say, a double ekazm, or double cross. Would it not be from this Arabic word that the name échasses comes, [a name] which we give to the long stilts in the middle of which is placed a kind of stirrup to place the foot, and which are commonly used by the inhabitants of the lands around Bordeaux? This seemed all the more likely to us since we have recognized in the Arabic language a great number of words which, in material form and meaning, have a perfect resemblance with some words of our language. It may be possible that those [words] were borrowed by the first historians of the Crusades, as was the name naqaires, for example, that was given in France to timbales, around the fourteenth century; because this name evidently comes from noqqâryeh which has always been, in Arabic, the name of the same instrument [small hand cymbals]. This would be the same reason that we find the name of naqaires given to the timbales by Froissart, in the first book of his Histoire, page 170, where it is said: "The king mounted his horse, as did the queen, the barons [and] the knights, [and] they rode together toward Calais, and entered the city to an abundance of trompettes, tambours, naqaires and buccines." In Book IV, page 57, which is about the embarkment of the Duke of Bourbon [Bourbon per Froissart; not the Duke of Burgundy as stated in Villoteau] and the Genoese [Genoa per Froissart; not the inhabitants of Geneva as stated in Villoteau] on an expedition to Barbary, one reads again: "Such great beauty and pleasure it was to hear these trompettes and these claronceaux ring out and soar, and [to hear] other musicians playing their pipes, chalemelles and naqaires, so that the sound and the voice which issued forth from them, echoed over the entire sea." Laborde, in his Essai sur la Musique [Essay on Music], did not define this instrument [the naqaire]: there is perhaps no one in Europe today who knows what it is; we would be equally unaware of it, had we not been present ourselves in Egypt, to make this connection. [back to article]
  2. This section was translated in John Gillespie's article, "Coptic Chant: A Survey of Past Research and a Projection for the Future," in The Future of Coptic Studies, edited by R. McL. Wilson. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1978, pp. [227]-245. [back to article]

About this Item


  • About the Music of the Copts


  • Villoteau, Guillaume-André -- 1759-1839 (author)
  • Mavroukakis, Maryvonne (translator)
  • Lancaster, Jan (editor)
  • Ramzy, Carolyn M. (editor)


  • -  Articles
  • -  Songs and Music


  • article


  • -  From Description de l'Égypte, ou, Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l'éxpédition de l'armée française, publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l'empereur Napoléon le Grand. Paris: Imprimérie impériale, 1809-1828. 21 vols. Text: Vol. II (1809), pt. 1a, pp. 754-757: Chapitre V: De la Musique des Qobtes, a brief description of Coptic music and Villoteau's transcription of Alleluia on pages 756-757. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Call number: DT46.F8 (General)

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