Psalm 150 – Communion Hymn in the Coptic Rite
There are common traits and tunes amongst these four hymns. The first is a melismatic introduction to the psalm using the word Alleluia. The second trait is a distinct short/recitative tune for the verses of the psalm. The third characteristic is a melismatic conclusion that usually begins at the last two additional sections “Alleluia Alleluia Glory be to our God.” It is also evident that even groups of musical notes are shared among the hymns.
1. Annual Weekday Tune
- This is the original tune used during annual weekdays, even though it is now used for all annual days including Sunday.
- You can clearly hear: 1) the melismatic introduction, 2) the shorter verses of the psalm, and 3) the elongated conclusion (beginning at the last two sections). I would like to point out that the transition between the melisma and the verses is of extreme importance.
- The recording by Cantor Wadee3 of Tahta is very interesting because he uses another hymn, known as Alleluia of Vespers, as the conclusion of the communion hymn (rather than as the conclusion of Psalm 150 in the vespers praises’ Fourth Hoos). He is the only cantor to chant it during communion.
2. Lent Weekday Tune
Originally, the only difference between the lent weekday and annual weekday tunes was the introduction. After the introduction, the continuation of the hymn was chanted identically in both hymns.
- This is proven by Cantor Habib Hanna’s recording in which he continues the verses of the psalm during lent with the same tune as the annual weekdays.
- Cantor Wissa Attia’s recording also adds to the evidence, because when he transitions into the verses of the psalm, he starts in the annual tune, then tries to switch to the lenten tune, but does not alternate correctly so he uses the current Lenten weekend tune.
- Cantor Tawfik Youssef’s recording also reflects some confusion with the transition itself into another tune.
- Both the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies and Cantor Farag Abdelmessih end the introduction exactly the same way as the annual.
- The first cantor to conclude the melismatic introduction differently was Cantor Fahim Girgis, who was basically trying to perfect the transition into a newer tune. You can also see that Cantor Fahim did not record a refrain in the first recording for Jonah’s fast, but rather jumped into the next verse.
3. Kiahk Weekday Tune
The Kiahk tune of Psalm 150 for communion is one of the most beautiful pieces of music the Coptic Church has, in my opinion. In many instances you can see the joy on the chanters’ faces while they pray this hymn.
- In this tune there is also: 1) the common melismatic introduction, followed by 2) the verses of the psalm in a separate tune, and 3) an elongated conclusion which begins again just prior to the section “Glory be to our God.”
- Generally, the majority of this hymn’s melismatic introduction is also part of the hymn Alleluia of the Great Hoos.
- Cantor Fahim, and another hymnist from Alexandria named Mr. Moawad, used to take the tune of the elongated conclusion of this Kiahk communion hymn and use it during the midnight praises.
- Cantor Fahim kept the tune identical to that of communion, until he concludes the hymn in the midnight praises (the ending of the Fourth Hoos), where he changes the ending to that of another hymn in the midnight praises.
- Mr. Moawad, however, chants Alleluia of Vespers instead of the normal tune for the final section of the Fourth Hoos in the midnight praises.
After comparing all the common traits and the exceptions between these three tunes, you’re probably wondering:
4. “Well, where is the fourth hymn?”
The truth is, the tune for Psalm 150 chanted on Sundays and Feasts is now lost, and this has caused major confusion and discrepancy.
- Cantors began taking other tunes already in use for the wados doxologies, sherat, and melodies, and using them during each respective season. They fit them onto the verses of Psalm 150 without properly understanding the system that existed for Psalm 150. The wados tunes are used in a four stanza verse with eight syllables to a piece, give or take.
- Because the number of syllables in each verse of the Psalm were too little to fit the musical structure of the borrowed tunes, they began to create refrains in between each verse to fill the musical gap. When the length of time during the distribution (communion) began to increase (due to the growing congregation), the cantors decided to lengthen the introductory verses by using the melismatic form of the tune they borrowed.
- This resulted in the current Psalm 150 tunes and refrains for the feasts of the Lord, the two feasts of the Cross, the month of Kiahk, and for the weekdays and weekends of lent.
Therefore, technically speaking, there should be no refrains for any Psalm 150 communion hymn, and they were never supposed to be matched to the tunes of the wados doxologies, sherat, or melodies. With this understanding, we reach two important points.
- Since each tune used for the feasts of the Lord (and the other instances as aforementioned) during the year was recently fabricated, there is no purpose for arguing over a “proper way” to chant them. In recent years there has been much tumult and confrontation on this subject. Unless someone has an extremely rare and old recording of the original festal psalm 150, it is up to the cantor or chorus, to an extent, to determine how to chant the hymn.
- It may be necessary at some point in the future for the Church to train Coptic musicologists and create a hymn using similar music as the tunes that already exist so as to remove any discrepancy and restore some of the order that was originally placed. This would inherently rid us of creating new responses and releasing new decisions every so often. Of course this would take years of study and proactivity, but I believe it is time that we begin rebuilding some of our rites using the talent that God has given the members of our Church.