It All Makes Sense. Hallelujah!
A Psalm of David. Alleluia!
We see the true beauty of the psalms in understanding their purpose;
“A psalm is a blessing on the lips of the people, a hymn in praise of God, the assembly’s homage, a general acclamation, a word that speaks for all, the voice of the Church, a confession of faith in song… What is a psalm but a musical instrument to give expression to all the virtues? The psalmist of old used it, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to make earth re-echo the music of heaven.” – St. Ambrose of Milan
In the Coptic rite, the litany of the gospel is prayed, followed by the chanting of the psalms. The tunes of the psalms are among the most beautiful hymns the Church has preserved. Surprisingly enough, some of these tunes are labeled by their region of origin. This is a very rare occurrence, especially because the majority of our hymns have no documented regional origin.
The psalms are split into four ‘words’ (lit. كلمات), meaning phrases. The melismatic portion is reserved for the first two phrases in most of the individual tunes. At the beginning of the third phrase, the tunes become recitative and the priests begin a special procession.
With that in mind, let’s discuss the history of the psalm chant in the Coptic rite. I’ll start by referencing three of our most valuable ritual texts.
1. A Lamp in the Darkness (Mesbah al Zolma) – Ibn Kabar the priest – page 162; 178
As previously mentioned, Mesbah al Zolma is one of the oldest available ritual texts in the Coptic Church (early 14th Century). The first mention of the psalm chant is during the matins (morning) raising of incense.
“After [ V] nai nan @ ;es ounai eron @ senhyt qaron ] ‘God have mercy on us, settle mercy upon us, have compassion on us,’ the congregation says [ Kurie eleycon ] ‘Lord have mercy’ 17 times. After this, the litany of the gospel [ Vnyb P[oic ] ‘Master Lord’ is said, and the psalm is chanted (the word used here is [يطرح ] ‘yotrah,’ which literally means “to be thrown aside” or “divided”). The priest then ascends to the altar to raise one hand of incense and it is the seventh time.”
Fr. Ibn Kabar then mentions this rite again, describing it in more detail, when writing about the Divine Liturgy of the Word.
“The priest prays the litany of the gospel, and the psalm is divided and read (‘yotrah natran‘), and responded to with its hymns. The tradition of the people of Cairo, Egypt, and the northern face, is that one of the younger deacons reads, and then the choir responds to him. In Upper Egypt, one or two of the elder deacons chant with the tune, and then the rest of the group respond to them also saying the first ‘word’ (phrase) with the tune. The Alexandrians have the archdeacon read the psalm. In the monastery of the great saint Abu Maqar the ‘psalmodseyeen’ (chanters) read/chant it in the middle of the church; no one responds to them. The current practice now: by the hands of the celebrant presbyter is the first word, the second to whomever says it; the third and fourth words for the deacons together. The priest then rises to the sanctuary and raises incense. He processes before the gospel, the candles in the hands of the youth, with the gospel lifted and open on the hands of the deacon.”
Note: The Coptic language had influence on the pronunciation of Arabic words in Egypt. A clear example is the phrase “yotrah natran” which is actually ‘yotrah nathran,’ meaning, “to be read.” This is due to the lack of the “th” sound in the proper phonetics of the Coptic language. This phrase is indicative of the method of chant. Although it is rare nowadays, up until about fifty years ago, a select person would read the words of the psalm out loud. The cantors would then respond to him, placing the tune of the season/region on the words that were recited. This was done frequently in the old cathedral of St. Mark by Cantor Fahim Girgis and Dr. Youssef Mansour. It isn’t clear whether this method was developed to aid the cantors, who were predominantly blind, or if this was common practice.
An example of this method can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/girgisdanny/videos/10154725889206610/
From this passage, we can see that: (1) various regions were given the freedom to practice in their unique ways, but they all adhered to a general structure; (2) the rank of the psalter (chanter), which some claim to be a new innovation, is mentioned here. The rank clearly existed, and there were several chanters in the monastery of Abu Maqar, chanting with the laity in the middle of the church; and (3) a procession with the holy gospel is referenced, and the timing is specified to be at the time of the third and fourth words (phrases) in the psalm. ALL Orthodox Churches practice this procession, except the Assyrian tradition. In the Byzantine Church, it is known as the Little Entrance. These concepts are important foundations for the rest of this study.
2. The Precious Jewel in the Sciences/Studies of the Church (Al Gawhara al Nafeesa) – Youhanna Ibn aby Zakaria Ibn Siba’ – pages 96-98
Al Gawhara is another important resource from the 13th century. It also mentions the rite of the psalm chant.
“After this the archdeacon commands one of the chanters to say/read two verses/passages from the Old Testament, which are the Psalms of David. Their text shall align with the time/purpose of the assembly: whether it be a feast of the Lord, or a feast of the Virgin Lady, or that of a martyr or saint. The psalm will also align with the passage of the gospel for that time. Then the chant begins with the appropriate tunes, be they sad, joyful, annual, or kiahky, or of the holy fifty days. Then the priest circles the altar with the deacon carrying the holy gospel, with the servants before him with candles. The deacon carries it until they descend from the altar. Meanwhile the people chant and say ‘Cause me to hear thy mercy in the morning; for I have hoped in thee (Maricwtem).
We see a slightly different practice than that which was stated by Ibn Kabar. The chanting of the psalms is done by the chanters, and the procession around the altar, inside the sanctuary, occurs with the deacon carrying the gospel book; the other servants holding candles before it. However, Ibn Siba’ describes the tunes of the psalms and their texts. He mentions five tunes, and that the psalms are related to the gospel readings and the occasion.
3. Order of Liturgical Prayers (Al Tarteeb al Taqsy) – Pope Gabriel 88th Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria – page 54; 72
“Then he takes the censer and says the litany of the gospel till the end, then the psalm is read (‘yotrah’) and responded. The priest turns towards it with the incense and during the third ‘word’ the priest offers incense to the gospel while saying, [ Ouwst `mpieuaggelion `nte Iycouc Pi,rictoc. Hiten nieu,y `nte piiero’altyc Dauid piprovytyc. P[oic arihmot nan `mpi,w ebol `nte nennobi.] ‘Worship the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through the prayers of the psalmist David the prophet. Lord grant us the forgiveness of our sins.’ At the fourth ‘word’ he ascends to the altar and kisses it and signs the cross upon the box of incense while saying, [ Ouwou nem outaio ] ‘Glory and honor.’ Then they process with the gospel around the altar while singing, [ P[oic aiws oubyk cwtem eroi ] ‘Lord I cry to you, hear me’ in its entirety, with the deacon around the altar carrying the gospel. Before him are the deacons with the candles for one round.”
“When the reading of the Praxis (Acts) in Coptic and Arabic ends, they say the three ‘Agios.’ The priest says the litany of the gospel until the end. Then the liturgy psalm is read ‘yotrah’ and responded to. The priest ascends above the altar and raises one hand of incense as he says, [ Ouwou nem outaio ] ‘Glory and honor’ in its entirety. The order of the incense occurs here, and the psalm and procession of the gospel.”
Pope Gabriel is the first to describe the prayers of the priest as he offers incense and begins the procession with the gospel book. He also specifies that the secondary psalm chanted is linked to the priest and deacons circling the altar. This is known as the ‘tawwaf’ psalm. The term comes from the Arabic word يطوف which means “to walk around” or “to process.” These psalms, in current practice, have recitative tunes, and are chanted antiphonally. There are several different ‘tawwaf’ psalms which alternate based on the seasons, feasts, and the presence of our fathers the bishops. All three of these liturgical resources agree that the psalm is chanted separately before the procession of the gospel.
Written tradition in manuscripts also makes this point evident.