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Article Preface from Liturgical Chants of the Copts. Notated and placed in order by Father Louis Badet, S.J.

Page 1 of Preface: Chants Liturgiques des Coptes
Page 1 of Preface, Chants Liturgiques des Coptes, notés et mis en ordre par Le Père Louis Badet, S.J. Rome: La Filografica, 1936. Reprint. Originally published in Cairo: Collège de la Sainte-Famille, [1899].

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


I. Importance of this Work

The annotation of Coptic liturgical songs is necessary if they are to be preserved in their integrity. Until now, why have they suffered modifications? Also, why are they not being performed in the same exact manner? Because, they have been transmitted from mouth to mouth, without the recourse of musical notation, going from fathers to their children, who have not always faithfully retained their fathers' songs, or have modified them, or sometimes even changed them.

But, even if one believes that there have been many modifications, and some alterations, Coptic liturgical songs have kept their special character and even their melodies have remained similar to the ancient ones, at least the principal ones, those that are known by almost all Copts.

We have tangible proof of this: Arabic music, after the Muslim invasion, became the popular music of Egypt; however, in spite of a contained contact of several centuries with a music system that uses the ordinary chromatic genre, the Coptic religious music has remained completely diatonic. Will it always be so? It is easy for us to believe that it won't, because after Arabic music, European music then invaded Egypt, emphasizing through harmony the mixture of chromatism and diatonism, and comfortably rendering to the ear alterations and cadences; the strength of one added to the other could very well replace a system that had lasted for centuries.

This would prove to be a deplorable defeat, first from the point of view of the originality of the Coptic rite, which is so venerable because of its antiquity, as well as from the point of view of science, because so many precious remainders of ancient music would be lost.

It is therefore important to prevent such a loss, and to annotate the liturgical songs of this rite, and to teach them to the students of the Coptic seminaries. Later, when they themselves are priests, they will, in turn, teach them to the schoolchildren. They will then be able to train good cantors for their churches and perhaps succeed in the congregation singing, at least the principal songs, which we would strongly desire.

As it can be seen, the transcription of the Coptic liturgical songs, will not only prevent their decline, but will help in their execution and will bring [them] more accuracy. However, for this work to be durable, it is absolutely necessary for the seminary students to receive some basic elements of music and solfege: consequently, they will be given half-hour singing lessons twice a week. It will also be useful for them to learn to play the harmonium, at least for those who manifest special musical abilities.

So that they can memorize later what they may have forgotten, we give here the music principles considered indispensable to performing Coptic chants.

II. Elementary Principles of Music

Principles common to European and Coptic music.

  1. Notes: Notes are the written representation of musical sounds.
  2. Step: We call "step" the interval found between two consecutive notes. There are whole steps and half steps.
  3. Staff or Musical scale: We call Scale or Musical scale the succession of a certain number of consecutive sounds, separated by intervals consisting of full steps and half-steps, placed in a certain order.
    As an example, let's consider the A Major scale, composed of eight steps in the following order: two full steps, one half-step, three full steps, and one half-step. Here is the A Major scale: ut, ré, mi, fa, so, la, si and ut. Between do and ré, ré and mi, there is a full step; between mi and fa, there is a half-step; between fa and so, so and la, la and si: a full step; and between si and do, a half-step; in all five full steps, and two half-steps; or, six full steps.
    N.B. Instead of ut, people, often often say do. The names of notes come from the first verse of the Latin Hymn of St. John the Baptist:
    Ut queam laxis resonare fibris
    Mira gestorum famuli tuorum
    Solve polluti labii reatum
    Sancte Joannes
  4. Intervals: The interval between ut and re is a second; between ut and mi, the interval is called a third; between ut and fa, it is called a fourth; between ut and sol, a fifth; between ut and la, a sixth; between ut and si, a seventh; and between ut and ut, an octave. Two notes in the same octave produce the same sound, but one is higher than the other, that is higher of six full steps.
  5. Staff: The staff is the group of five lines on which the notes are written:
    Image: Staff
    One can add supplementary lines underneath the first line and above the fifth line.
  6. Treble clef: The treble clef has the shape of a gothic G, because long ago, the note sol was called G and indicated where the note sol was placed on the staff. This is also the sol sung by the human voice. This note is therefore placed on the second line.
    Image: treble clef, with sol indicated
    The scale is written starting with ut which is found below sol.
    Image: scale, beginning with ut
  7. Sharp, flat, and natural: The sharp # is placed in front of a note to augment a half-step; the flat Image: flat is placed in front of a note to lower it a half-step; the natural Image: natural is placed in front of a note preceded by either a sharp or a flat, in order to get it back to its original tone. One of these signs, placed next to the clef, at the beginning of the piece affects the line on which it is placed during the length of the piece.
  8. Note value: Notes have various shapes which indicate their value in relation to their duration:
    • Simple time is represented by a quarter note Image: quarter note
    • The double of simple time is represented by a half-note Image: half note
    • The quadruple of simple time is represented by a whole note Image: whole note
    • Half of simple time is represented by an eighth note Image: eighth note
    • A quarter of simple time is represented by a sixteenth note Image: 16th note
    • An eighth of simple time is represented by a 32nd note Image: 32nd note
    • In the end, the whole note is worth two half-notes; the half-note is worth two quarter notes; the quarter note, two eighth notes, the eighth note, two sixteenth notes; the sixteenth note, 8 thirty-second notes.
    • Two consecutive eighth notes belonging to the same syllable are linked in the following manner: Image: two eighth notes; two consecutive sixteenth notes: Image: two 16th notes; four sixteenth notes: Image: 4 sixteenth notes; two 32nd notes: Image: two 32nd notes; one eighth note and two sixteenth notes: Image: eighth and two 16ths, etc.
    • One dot placed after a note augments it the duration of half its value. Examples: a dotted quarter note: Image: dotted quarter or Image: three eighth notes, a dotted eighth note Image: dotted eighth or Image: three sixteenths.
    • Two dots placed after a note augment that note of 3/4 of its value.
      Ex.: Image: double-dotted quarter
  9. Triplet: Sometimes, groups of three eighth notes, or three sixteenth, or three 32nd notes are found, and must be sung with the same duration as if there were only two notes. In this case, these notes are linked with a curve either above or underneath them, accompanied by the number 3, inside that curve.
    Ex.: Image: triplets
  10. Movement: All music cannot be sung at the same speed. That is why one must consider the word placed at the beginning of each piece, indicating the speed of the movement, most generally one of three following adverbs: moderato, lento, vivente.
    Sometimes, one must slow down on the last notes of a melody; this will be indicated with the abbreviation ral placed above the staff.
    When a note is topped with the [fermata] sign Image: fermata, it must be held longer than its regular value.
    The letter p indicates that one must sing piano, which is softly; the letter f, indicates that one must sing loudly.
    The [crescendo] sign Image: crescendo placed above the staff indicates that the sound of the voice must crescendo, that is to get increasingly loud; the [decrescendo] sign Image: decrescendo, placed above the staff, indicates that the sound of the voice must decrescendo, or diminish in strength.
    When a note is topped with a dot, one must detach it lightly with the voice. Ex.: Image: staccato

III. Characteristics of Coptic Chants

Anyone trying to compare Coptic music to modern European music would be committing a serious mistake.

  1. Tonality: Coptic music is a diatonic mode without chromatism. This means that the tetrachords, used to form various scales, or modes, always consist of 2 steps and one half-step.
    Image: modes
    To be more specific, any mode that has only two half-steps, wherever they are placed, is a diatonic mode. That is the way it is in Coptic music.
    Instead, a chromatic mode is one that has a tetrachord with 2 half-steps and an interval of a minor third.
    Ex.: Image: mifasolla
  2. Rhythm: Rhythm also has a particular characteristic: time consists of monopodies, i.e., single beats. This rhythmic time can be written in two ways: 1) in two eighth notes of equal duration, but not in intensity. The first one must be strongly accentuated, while the second one does not receive any special impulse from the voice. This is referred to as equal rhythm. 2) In two eighth notes, the first one being double the second one in duration, as well as in intensity. This is referred to as double rhythm.
    a) The duration of equal rhythm is represented by a quarter note, which is either represented whole Image: quarter note, or divided as follows:
    Image: multiple notes
    If the quarter note is whole, the second beat is not emphasized separately from the first one. The same is true if the note is a half-note: the second beat is not heard separately from the first one; but the voice, after having given the first beat its intensity, leaves the note the entire duration of its value.
    If the quarter note is divided, only the first note of the group, whatever it is, is strongly accentuated. The others follow with their respective value.
    b) The value of the double rhythm is represented by a dotted quarter note, which sometimes is written whole Image: dotted quarter note, sometimes is divided as follows: Image: combination notes
    The double rhythm is used only in theImage: Coptic text, even though it is mixed in with the equal rhythm.
    N.B.: When the rhythmic divided time is spread over several syllables, the accentuated note is topped with an acute diacritic.
    Ex.: Image: example
  3. Rests: Rests indicate the moments where one should breathe. They are represented by a vertical line through the staff.
    In order to respect them, one must shorten the note preceding them to allow only enough necessary time to breathe, and one must then go on with the piece, without stopping.
    Two vertical lines together or a double rest, indicate the end of a musical phrase, or of a piece, and allow one to stop longer.
    One must not stop at other places.
    It sometimes happens that the 1st note of a song is not placed on the strong part of the rhythmic beat, but on the weak part of a beat of which the strong time is not expressed; one must then accentuate only from the 2nd note, which will be topped with an acute accent to indicate the initial accent.
  4. Pronunciation: When there are several notes or several groups of notes on the same syllable, one must avoid changing the sound i into and the sound ou into wo as the arifs[1] do. One must be very careful to pronounce the Coptic without altering the sound of the consonants and vowels, without uniting two consecutive consonants with a euphonic vowel, as do the arifs who say Image: text for arifs or Image: coptic text etc...
    Lastly, if one wants to obtain a truly beautiful and sacred song, deserving of the honor of the Church, one must avoid yelling loudly, singing from the nose, or singing from the throat. If several people sing together, one voice must not dominate over the others, and all must apply themselves to sing in unison, stopping at the indicated rests, and observing the indicated movement for each song.

IV. Order of the Work

This work is divided into three parts:

Part I: Songs sung by the congregation and the deacon for the Office of the Mass -- One can also find the finals sung by the priest, so that the congregation answers in the same tone. These finals also belong to the Mass of Saint Basil.
One will wonder why this part was redone, since Father Jules Blin had already annotated it and published it. The work of this indefatigable missionary, who died before he completed his final work, had to be restarted for several reasons:
1) Because of the great deal of inaccuracies due to the unfaithful rendering of the arifs with whom he was dealing. There are very few songs without inaccuracies. To this end, the only revision deemed serious is a public audition in a Coptic Church, so that the congregation can judge the accuracy of the transcription and recognize its traditional songs. Unfortunately, this revision did not take place in the work of Father Blin. It is therefore not surprising that it presents some flaws in this area. Father Blin himself recognized it, since he left a copy that he had begun to correct.
We can assert that the present work is entirely accurate: the songs were sung by seminary students: the first time in the presence of Monsignor [Bishop] Macaire and two arifs, and two other times, in a church, for the offices of Christmas and the Saint Anton feast. Monsignor [Bishop] Macaire and the congregation both judged them to conform completely to the traditional songs of the Coptic nation.
2) Father Blin annotated all the songs using bar measures with two beats: he was not completely aware of the Coptic rhythm. We have carefully examined the arifs while they were singing: they perfectly mark the beat with their foot, the hand, and even with their head, but it is always with monopodies. This mistake embarrassed Father Blin several times: where it needed a half note Image: half note he wrote a quarter note with fermata Image: quarter note with fermata instead; where 3 quarter notes Image: quarter note were needed, he wrote a triplet Image: quater note triplet instead; in other places he replaced quarter notes with eighth notes, half notes with quarter notes, all to keep his dipodies [two beats].
3) Father Blin had annotated all songs in a tone that was too high to sing. Consequently, two unfortunate results followed: The first one: it caused the seminary students to sing out of tune by having to learn the songs in a lower tone than those in the book. The second one: it was difficult to find an accompanist who would be able to transpose [the songs].
4) Some passages are missing in Father Blin's edition: Two responses to the preface, Image: response to the prefacce at the end of the Mass, and the Hosanna to lead the Bishop from his palace to the Church.

Part II: The liturgy [here] includes: 1) the Mass itself, referred to as Saint Gregory's Mass, or messe solennelle [the solemn Mass]. 2) the Mass referred to as Saint Basil's Mass, for the less important holidays. The text that is not sung will not be repeated there.
There exists a Saint Basil Mass for minor holidays and ordinary Sundays, but it is sung in a uniform tone, which sounds more like a psalmody than a true song, and is very easy to learn without music. That is why we have not annotated it.
As far as the accuracy of this part of Coptic songs, there still exists a great difficulty to overcome: there might not be two priests inside Egypt who sing exactly the same way. Which version should be adopted? The one that we put in the hands of the seminary students is the one of deceased Father Abouna Thomas, priest of Colosnah, which he learned from Monsignor [Bishop] Agabios Bichaïe. We know that Monsignor [Bishop] Agabios Bichaïe reformed Coptic liturgical songs; he even transcribed them; but his work got lost for the most part, and nobody observed what remains of it.
Later, this version will be the one followed by a great number of priests. If it is approved, then it can be published in a more refined manner.

Part III: Songs sung by the congregation and the deacon for offices other than the Holy Mass: funerals, baptisms, confirmation, wedding, etc. This volume will be published later.

Cairo, April 3, the 2nd holiday of Easter 1899 [Easter Monday].

From Badet, Louis. Chants liturgiques des Coptes. Notés et mis en ordre par Le Pére Louis Badet, S.J. Cairo: Collège de la Sainte-Famille, [1899]. Reprinted in Rome: La Filografica, 1936. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call number: M2160.4.C6C435 1936


  1. Traditionally, a mu'allim, or a professional cantor of Coptic Chant was known as an arif, literally "one who knows." Like a mu'allim, meaning teacher, they are employed by the church to teach Coptic hymns and, during a liturgical service, lead congregational singing. [back to article]

About this Item


  • Preface from Liturgical Chants of the Copts. Notated and placed in order by Father Louis Badet, S.J.


  • Badet, Louis -- 1873-1933 (author)
  • Mavroukakis, Maryvonne (translator)
  • Ramzy, Carolyn M. (editor)


  • -  Articles
  • -  Songs and Music


  • article


  • -  From Chants Liturgiques des Coptes, notés et mis en ordre par Le Père Louis Badet, S.J. [Première] Partie Office de la Sainte Messe, Chants du Peuple et du Diacre. Cairo: Collège de la Sainte-Famille, Petit Séminaire Copte, A.M.D.G., [1899]. Reprint. Rome: La Filografica, 1936. Music Division, Library of Congress. Call Number: M2159.8.C6L5 (General)

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