How early can you go? Coptic Chant in Western transcription


  • Mena Mark Hanna


The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt has produced one of the world’s most extensive and profound liturgical traditions, consisting of three liturgies (St Basil, St Cyril, and St Gregory Nazianzes), services for the Offices (Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, the Prayer of the Veil, and Matins), hundreds of hymns included in a special office called the Psalmody (Arabic: Psalmodiyya), and a wealth of chants used for feasts and special occasions (Holy Week, Nativity, Epiphany, Resurrection, Lent, and Pentecost, to name a few). There is no known notational system devised specifically for this musical corpus; the chants have been passed on from generation to generation, through oral teaching and rote learning. There is even a firm belief amongst its participants that Coptic melodies originated during Pharaonic times, and it is certain that some Coptic liturgical rites, and with that perhaps even a measure of the Coptic hymnology, have survived since at least first millennium: a liturgical and musical treasure that is ancient.

There have been a handful of scholars—most notably Ernest Newlandsmith, Ilona Borsai, Margit Tóth, and Marian Robertson—who have dedicated much time and thought transcribing this sacred monophonic vocal tradition into Western notation. Though this body of collected transcriptions spans decades and has been produced under a variety of scholars with different methodologies and different sources, there is a degree of notational consistency in terms of melodic content. This is an indication that a measure of constancy has indeed been attained in this oral tradition.

For this paper, I intend to delve deeply into the work of the aforementioned scholars, analysing their methods of transcription and comparing them to one another. Beginning with a brief history of the ambitious efforts of those who dedicated themselves to the study Coptic chant and transcription, all of whom lived in the 20th century, I will trace the development of the understanding of this complex and vast musical canon from its most prescriptive insight— as realized by Newlandsmith—to the most recent and meticulous notational rendering by Tóth, who dedicated much of her time to the intricacies of rhythm and notation in the melodic embellishments common in Coptic chant.

Conference Papers



How to Cite

Hanna, Mena Mark. 2020. “How Early Can You Go? Coptic Chant in Western Transcription”. Journal of the International Society for Orthodox Music 3 (January):138-50.