A group of elderly Egyptian men in white robes crowds around a lectern, upon which sits a dusty tome. The eldest moves his finger slowly across the open page as they chant, crawling from letter to letter of the Coptic script. One of them is holding a pair of cymbals, another, a triangle. At certain points in the tune, they begin to play, completing their piece with a few dramatic strikes, after which the chant settles back into a gentler, more solemn tone, unaccompanied by the instruments’ metallic voices. With the occasional exception of a microphone or projector screen, this scene has not changed much in more than a thousand years.
Coptic chant is often a strange sound for Western ears. It lacks the refined, orderly quality of the Byzantine and Russian traditions. The Coptic Church has never had a musical educational program through which initiates must pass before they can be allowed to sing in Church; all tunes were traditionally passed from elder (mu’allim) to student purely through practice and repetition. Until Western musicologists like Ernest Newlandsmith brought Western musical notation to Egypt (and of course, the advent of modern recording equipment), every tune’s survival depended entirely on the presence of living cantors who remembered it. Despite these valiant efforts, countless Coptic tunes have slipped silently into the sands of time with the death of some white-haired cleric in a nondescript Egyptian village.
Losses aside, the Coptic Church still possesses a vast and complex body of music, which it uses to express the powerful range of emotions through which Christians travel yearly with Christ. As a form of worship, however, this musical tradition is notoriously inaccessible to those who are unused to it. To non-Coptic ears, it often sounds crude, disjointed and needlessly lengthy. The reason for this, at least in part, is that Coptic chant is as much a dramaturgical tradition as a musical one; the time and place at which a hymn is sung and the ritual actions performed with it are often inseparable parts of the hymn itself.
One of the most haunting and mystical examples of this is the Good Friday hymn, ‘Pek-ethronos,’ which is Coptic for ‘Your Throne.’ Its words are taken directly from Psalm 45:6: “Your Throne O God, is forever and ever.” In Coptic, this translates into a mere eight words (including a final ‘Alleluia’); and yet in most churches, the hymn takes more than twenty minutes to chant. The hymn’s length is a result of way it hangs on each and every vowel, a feature which some musicologists think originates in ancient Egyptian temple music. The hymn’s governing theme is paradox; the stunning mingling of tragedy and joy, death and salvation, cruelty and beauty, hatred and love that takes place at the storm-beaten peak of Golgotha.
Given the darkness and misery of this point in the service, ‘Pek-ethronos,’ whose words are taken from a psalm of praise for the triumphant King of Israel and the God to whom he owes his success, seems rather out of place. The only throne Christ has now is the stone slab of his sepulchre, and his God has not protected him from the humiliation of death.
In the traditional logic of veneration, there is little sense in praising a dead and defeated king. Yet, either in brave defiance or sheer ignorance of the irony of their words, the cantors sing a song of praise and glory to the condemned and crucified Christ. And as the cantors progress, something strange begins to happen. A musical theme with a starkly different, brighter tone begins to break through. It happens very slowly. The tune will switch over to this second mode for thirty seconds, and then return to its dark equilibrium for another five minutes before the second mode breaks through again. What had begun as fleeting glimpses and whispered promises of a light in the darkness breaks fully into being, and the darkness begins to fade. The lighter tone, however, is still pained, still expectant, still hopeful; it seems to be climbing towards a climax that never quite comes.
When the cantors reach the final ‘Alleluia,’ the tables turn. The second, lighter mode begins again, with the same notes as before, and it breaks into a cascade of high-pitched, joyful notes, accompanied for the first time by the cymbals and triangle which have lain dormant thus far. The horror, tragedy and darkness of the Crucifixion is slowly but surely overpowered by the infinite, unending love that motivated it.
This is the story of Christ’s passion, but it is also the story of the entire Creation’s liberation from death and tragedy. Chanting this hymn of praise before the battered and broken body of Christ has always, for me, been the most powerful moment in the entire liturgical calendar. The tune’s ingenious weaving together of darkness and light, its careful but ever-quickening ascent into ecstasy, are to my mind, the perfect metaphor for what Christians believe Jesus effected in his crucifixion. It captures in music the at-once childishly naive and powerfully visionary Christian hope that this world of darkness, futility, and death will one day be transfigured with the light of eternity.
The Coptic Church faces an uncertain future in the wake of the recent departure of its leader, Pope Shenouda III, and the sweeping political change occurring in Egypt. For Egypt's Copts, this year's Good Friday prayers (which fall on April 13th) will no doubt be a source of familiar comfort and hope for the future.
“Your Throne O God, is forever and ever. A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.” (Psalm 45:6)
Samuel Kaldas is an Arts undergraduate at the University of Sydney and a first-time contributor to First Things.
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