The History of Recording Coptic Hymns & the history of Moalem Mikhail

- by Ragheb Moftah Habashy (El-Keraza, 1975) -
Geniuses were among us & left for the other world. Yet their memories would remain alive forever as beautiful perfume. The British musicologist Ernest Newlandsmith described Moallem Mikhail by "Great Master" a title granted only for international figures. He is the source out of which is still flowing all this great old heritage for the whole church since the last part of the 19th century till after the middle of the 20th century..
This genius cantor was born of a rich father who adored Coptic music, mastered it and learned a big deal of it of the knowledgeable monk Botros Moftah El-Antony who departed on 1875

Moallem Takla

Moallem (Cantor) Mikhail was raised in a nice environment.. Since his early childhood his sight was weak.. Quickly did his father realize the rich artistic gifts his son possessed & delivered him to the church to be taught Coptic hymns.. He didn't save any money to teach him.. So he was taught on the hands of Mlm.Morcos & Mlm.Armanios who were students of Mlm.Takla (later known as Fr.Takla) who lived in the time of HH Pope Kyrollos IV - father of reformation (Abul Eslah)..

In Mlm.Takla's times hymns were almost vanishing and needed to return to their root.. The Lord assisted Mlm.Takla to accomplish this invaluable mission. Pope Kyrollos IV also provided him all needed tools.. He looked everywhere up, from the North to the south & from east to the west of the country, collecting hymns he found sound & right. Till he compiled the entire Coptic Musical Heritage cited by Abul-Barakat Ibn-Kabar in his valuable Encyclopedia in 1320 ac. in its most accurate form.

Mlm.Takla was the instructor & teacher in the (Kottab - Small Class) affiliated to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate in Ezbekia where rich people used to have their children enroll till Pope Kyrollos IV inaugurated the 'Coptic High School'. My father (who studied there) used to say that Pope Kyrollos transferred them from this Kottab to the High School & appointed Mlm.Takla, Hymn Instructor then Patriarchate Priest and finally supervisor of the High School as very knowledgeable in the church's rites..

In co-operation with the French Musician "Gro", Mlm.Takla did publish a valuable book about Coptic music.. I searched so long for a copy & never found a single trace.. He issued with Erian Efendy Gerges Moftah for the first time "The Deacon Service Book" Khedmet El-Shammas 116 year ago!!

Having the permission and blessing of Pope Kyrollos IV, he did added some Byzantine Hymns such as "Ton Sina Narkhon Logon..", "To Leesos.." & "Ee Parthenos..." to the Coptic Musical Heritage, it merged smoothly and found harmony with other hymns as happened in the past with the Greek Alphabet set..

Mlm.Takla composed once a song in the deep spirit of Coptic Music for Khedive Ismail (1863-79). The Khedive who was very impressed decorated him with the title of  "Bek". Mlm.Mikhail assured me this anecdote and sang this song to me. It is a 12 minutes long beautiful song!!  It came to my mind for a glance that Mlm.Takla was a gifted composer coming from the first centuries of Christianity! He composed other wonderful Coptic songs as well that might be considered as folklore.. Many member of the Moftah's used to perform those songs in family circles..

It is worth to note here that Pope Kyrollos assigned Erian Bek Moftah the dutie of fixing the pronunciation of Coptic Language which had deteriorated over centuries.. He succeeded in this task which later provided Coptic Hymns with easier singing..

With the Lord's blessing, 7 disciples did learn all this musical treasure from Mlm.Takla & mastered it perfectly.. It a real reformation for the old church art.. The Lord did indeed bless this work through the prayers of Pope Kyrollos to come to it's end with remarkable success.

This genius artist became crazy in the end of his life It seems this was due to overwhelming artistic feelings during his whole life.. Among those 7 some stayed in Cairo while others moved to remote governorates such as Tanta & Damanhour..


Mlm.Mikhail Gerges El-Batanony

Since an early age Mlm.Mikhail considered seriously learning the hymns with incomparable love from two of the 7 Cantors: Mlm.Morcos & Mlm.Armanios.. Shortly after his study, Pope Kyrollos V (who loved and mastered Coptic hymns) realized his genius, provided all attention and support & supervised his study by himself.. When any cantor was avaricious to teach him precious hymns.. The Pope used to hide him under his large seat at the Patriarchate, call the cantor and ask him to recite the requested hymn.. and asked him to repeat it when needed.. Mlm. Mikhail with his large memory could easily memorize and master most elaborate just by listening to them once.
By his 19s Cantor Mikhail mastered all hymns of the church and got appointed as Archpsaltos (Kappelmeister) at the Patriarchate. He got also appointed as first music professor at both the Coptic Theological Seminary & the Cantors' Institute. Yet it didn't bind him from increasing his treasure when any chance was provided. As example, he acquired a beautiful hymn at El-Menia governorate "Apinav Shopi.." which wasn't known in Cairo.. He didn't save any time to study, assure & compare what he knew with other cantors anywhere.
He was a loud "Baritone" which is the most suitable voice for Church Music. His rhythm & accurate counting was also good, performing notes clearly without no mistakes nor deviations.. That's why although his voice went hoarse with the old age, he was still the favorite teacher to those seeking perfection..
Even his sub-conscience was sensitive to music. It happened for him as old man to fall asleep while one of his students performed a hymn. A single mistake in the reciting of the hymn by the student was just enough to wake him up. He falls really asleep yet his musical conscience never fainted.. This phenomenon happening before many of us many times and never failed..
During his working life in the church (70 years), he led all the church musical life and annual even seasonal modes & rites allover the Nile valley with no concurrent... Not anyone could memorize what he did.. Fewer people could come closer to the amount of hymns he memorized by heart amongst were Mlm.Nassif Abdel-Messih who is still living..
Some of his best disciples of the second generation, loved to be known by people to have mastered all what he knew. And behold the truth:  I asked 4 of them that I wanted to record the Gregorian Mass in their voices.. These 4 were Mlm.Farid Ibrahim, Mlm.Mikhail Salib, Mlm.Beshay, Mlm.Boules Iskander (Mansoura). They accepted at first hand but seeing that I really meant what I said they replied: "We should like to revise the hymns with Mlm.Mikhail". That 'revision' was almost learning the whole mass from it's very beginning!
To conclude, each of them focused only on one part to master which took about 2 months of laborious work & concentration in Alexandria till I was able to record.. Among them  also came Hegumen Morcos Gerges (Matay) who recorded the "Reconciliation" and another student at the Theological Seminary in Mahmasha.. All of them are currently priests & deacons.. The study began in Alexandria and flourished, ten years before the inauguration of the HICS Higher Institute Coptic Studies.. It had indeed a remarkable impact.. They consecrated all their time and effort to study all day long with a knowledgeable Cantor who was never bored.. They had hunger to learn and enjoyed also passing the hot summer time by the shore in Alexandria..
Among those who studied then, did I mention, Mlm.Tawfik Youssef Cantor of El-Moharak Monastery, Mlm.Sadek Attalla, Dr.Youssef Mansour & other deacons from Cairo & all over Egypt's.
I inaugurated a center then in Old-Cairo, and another one close to Bab el-Hadid Square in Cairo for older cantors so that they enhance and learn their pe.. Mlm.Mikhail made a big effort with a lot of patience & love.. Every student who enrolled in those classes used to be remunerated at 25 Pt. for transportation.. That work brought a big profit on adjusting and spreading hymns in Liturgical services & Specialized institutes.
I assigned Mlm.Mikhail twice to travel to Virgin Many (Moharak) Monastery without taking his opinion.. He did leave there a big print which I can still feel..

One of Mlm.Mikhail characteristics was his sharp musical memory.. During the 40 years we were together till his last days, I never saw him forgetting one hymn.. Only in few times, counted on ones hand fingers did he revise few melismata in one hymn or another & get sure of it..
He was also able to recite any hymn starting at any middle point without the slightest hesitation.. Sometimes he knew two versions for the same hymn. Amongst were The Joyful Trisagion and the big Ti-shory. We did record both versions in the Coptic repertoire. Also did we record the 50 min. "Tee oy en hikanos.."!! Nobody now can memorize it but Mlm.Nassif Abdel-Messih & Mlm.Tawfik Youssef (Moharek). So none of the hymns perished..
Mlm.Mikhail once assured me that St Cyril Mass old music did perish long ago.. Nothing is on hand but "Ouoh Nay.." & Not we O Lord "Oukoty je anon.." the response of the Commemoration of the Saints in St.Cyril Mass which is sung in the Ayoub Tune (tune of sorrow)
Mlm.Mikhail too composed music for some parts of St Cyril mass and taught them.. Among people who learned them Fr.Athanasios Boutros before leaving for St.Mina Church - Fleming, Alexandria and other who claimed those are the original tunes of this mass which is not true.
Concerning the tune which HH Pope Makarios III used.. we found a document in his hand writing, which he wrote when he was Metropolitan of Assuit.. he wrote that he used it since he composed it and found it nice!
I didn't record any of the previous two fearing that one claims in the future that they are the original tunes of this mass..
Here am I revealing a secret for the first time. The monk Fr.Abdel-Messih El-Massoudy (junior) wrote in his hand writing & signature claiming that Mlm.Mikhail introduced some prolongements to the responses of the Mass & to some "Awashies" which are of his own inside the heart of the Coptic Heritage, those were not there at the beginning of the 20th century
After a laborious study of this issue, I found all the "responses" of the mass accurate, harmonious & beautiful.. No prolongements were made except in very few of them such as "Ke to Pnevmati so" which is better when shortened. Also "Kyrie eleison" which was preserved.. Knowing that some responses "maradat" have equivalent tunes for "Sayedeya" feasts like nativity & resurrection.
Some parts of the liturgy which are common between the 3 major liturgies (e.g. the commemoration of the saints) seem to have the same music in St Gregory Liturgy and St Basil's Liturgy, yet they are grand & ornamented in some sections since St Gregory is more a ceremonial Liturgy for Nativity, Baptism & Easter..
It seems that Hegumen Abdel-Messih El-Massoudy who scientifically revised the 3 liturgies, supplied them with footnotes was influenced by the "Zeeneya Bahary" style (Near Luxor). This style merges the church music with "rhymed speaking" or reading during the mass or what was called in monasteries to a very close era "recite in one's heart" which aims to reduce the liturgy's period of time
I presume it is extremely necessary for the priest and deacons to master the church musical heritage in order to feel, recite and enjoy it.. It won't take more than 90 minutes from the offering of the incense till the end  of the liturgy with some 12 min. for the homily.. which should be with the Mass' Prayers, the readings & hymns short & concentrated...
On winter 1928, I began to work with Mlm.Mikhail as I had already invited the world known musicologist Prof. Ernest Newlandsmith to transcribe the music of liturgies and offices of the Coptic Orthodox Church. By this time, people claimed that Mlm.Mikhail is changing and adding to the original hymns which made me avoid asking him at first. I compiled a list of names of all cantors all over Egypt & asked them all of them to come to Cairo to perform before Prof. Newlandsmith. This latter listened carefully to them & finally told: "I should like to apologize & cancel our deal since I can't do this job accurately.. Those cantors' voices are not clear & pure & include a lot of deviations.."
I could nothing but bring Mlm.Mikhail who rescued me!! I still remember this decisive instant in recording the Church Heritage as if I see it now! We were on a Golden ship in the Nile in front of El-Dobara Palace.. Under us, still water of the Nile flew in peace and we were surrounded by wonderful gardens on both banks.. Mlm.Mikhail entered and behold two great musician met!! I asked him to recite a Coptic hymn to the professor. An example to show the beauty & value of the Church Music.. He performed the hymn: "Vi et ou enmashg..." - "He who has ears let him listen what the Spirit says unto the churches". On the mode of the Hymn of Virtues & other hymns...
In this same moment Prof.Newlandsmith said: "I could finally understand what he sang. Now I can do my job accurately" & he went on doing this job daily (Except in the summer) for nine years in a silent corner. But active as a bees cell.
On his side, Mlm.Mikhail realized the importance of this work to the whole church and culture.. He performed hymns with a genuine heart and preferred it to all his other duties (which were numerous..) In winter 1930, we had to move because the ship had to undergo repairs.. We moved with our equipment to the village where my father had just built the new summer house.. We stayed there working in seclusion for three months.. Mlm.Mikhail left everything: his home & duties in the church, Theological Seminary & societies all just to achieve it.
He was so active that Prof.Newlandsmith felt he was putting pressure on him & complained saying:"An artist should be left to work with no pressure, pressure is not a suitable atmosphere for our work.." I would never forget Mlm.Mikhail at the end of each working season (before summer) asking & begging Prof.Newlandsmith to transcribe one more hymn just one more! The prof. replied: "I am preparing myself for traveling" but the cantor was insisting on asking in all sincerity & children's curiosity. That is an evidence of what I stated previously (from his words) is concerning St.Cyril Liturgy.
There were for sure, interesting story, I remember bringing one day Mlm.Salama of el-Mahala el-Kobra (who was old & couldn't come before) He was an old man wearing a black beret similar to the priests'. Upon the arrival of Mlm.Mikhail, Mlm.Salama stayed silent in his room that nobody would notice him. The priority was always for Mlm.Mikhail.. A long time after Mlm.Salama's departure I informed Mlm.Mikhail about it. He laughed from his heart and felt happy for this accuracy of work that everybody was seeking.
One day we were wandering in the fields while some sheep & cattle were at a distance.
He stopped for a moment, remained still, pointed them and said: "There are sheep over there". I was impressed and asked: "how could you tell although they didn't produce any sound or movement". He was indeed full with feelings & sense.
Another time, Pope Youannes XIV visited us for he liked the job we're doing very much.. He expressed his great joy about it.. After a while, we went to pay the visit back to the Pope and have His blessing. This latter was praising Mlm.Mikhail so much that Prof. Newlandsmith told HH that it's not enough to thank him. He should get him a respectable insurance, be assigned only major duties & get a personal car for his transportation.
The work lasted till 1936, all hymns were transcribed, as well as both St Cyril & St.Basil Liturgies and all church offices in 15 volumes.
The great archeologist and musicologist Hans Hickman who spent all his life searching for Ancient Egyptian's Music and the best to have written aboit asked me once to help him studying Coptic Music, I gave him some of those volumes. I visited him frequently accompanied by Mlm.Mikhail & he visited the Patriarchate also. It was proved that hand signs made by Mlm.Mikhail when reciting hymns are the same done by Ancient Egyptian singers & musicians while singing (cheironomy). Mr.Hickman is one of the people who support the point of view that Coptic music has it's old sources in Ancient Egyptian art..
The third characteristic of Mlm.Mikhail during his 70 working years is that he was working all day long, since early dawn till he did finish his work at 10:00 pm night of April 18th, 1957 and departed at 12:00 pm (midnight) of the same night.
He mastered both Coptic and Arabic language and church's rites. He was very kind in his heart, sincere & humble easily depicted since he had all characteristics of artists. He lived in an apartment in Fagalla (Cairo) in a street that looked at the vaste "Collège de la Sainte Famille" calm gardens and courtyard. His first wife was a great Coptic lady.

During his last 3 months before his departure, he visited me frequently in my office and said: "I am leaving" - "Ana Mashy" I was joking at the time saying: "No wait! wait! we still need you" he replied: "I love you so much.. you are the one who preserved the Church musical Heritage" I told him from the very genuine belief :"Everything is owed to You"

Translated by Shenouda Mamdouh

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Copyright ©1996, Shenouda Mamdouh, Last Updated 2 May 2000