Which Came First, the Music or the Words? (A Greek Text and Coptic Melody:
Musical Transcription and Analysis of the Setting)
(A Greek Text and Coptic Melody: Musical Transcription and Analysis of the Setting)
Coptic Encyclopedia, University of
Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah
I am happy and honored to write this
article as a tribute to Dr. Hugh W. Nibley, my longtime friend and teacher. As
the only courageous soul enrolled in Advanced Greek at Brigham Young University
(1946-1948), I was privileged to sit at his feet for a lesson thrice-weekly
— time which he readily granted to me alone even though he usually
carried a teaching load of much more than thirty hours per quarter. For these
very special classes, we often went outdoors, and as I chanted aloud mighty
lines, carefully prepared, from Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and many,
many others, we both would gaze northward to imperial Mount Timpanogos, or
southwestward to hazy, distant Mount Nebo. These memories, the challenge of his
genius, and his constant support have been, and will always be, important in my
life. God bless you, Hugh and Phyllis.
This article is an expansion of a paper
presented at the Third International Congress of Coptic Studies (Warsaw,
Poland, 1984), which dealt with a Coptic melody that is performed at Easter
time to two completely different texts.1 It is hoped that the
following discussion will provide a clue as to the antiquity of the music in
The dating of Coptic melodies is a
difficult problem for musicologists, for no Coptic manuscripts have as yet been
identified as definitely containing musical notation, and those texts that may
perhaps show some rudimentary form of ekphonetic notation have not as yet been
deciphered.2 Consequently, deprived of manuscript documentation, scholars must at present
rely on internal evidences gleaned from studies of the oral tradition and
analyses of the texts and music at hand.3 The transcription and
analysis herewith presented are an example of the latter.
The melody is a short but subtle little
tune that has remained essentially the same through the years, no matter what
the language.4 It is
metrical and consists of eight measures broken into two phrases by a distinct
caesura in the fourth measure.5 On Maundy Thursday it is
sung as a response during the Morning Office of Incense with a text in Greek
and Arabic; during the Sixth Hour on Good Friday, it is heard again as a
response, but with quite another text in Coptic and Greek. In both the Maundy
Thursday and Good Friday settings, this brief melody is repeated many times
over as the hymn text unfolds, line after line, verse after verse. It is the
Maundy Thursday setting of the Greek text which will now be discussed.
Description of the Greek Text
The Greek text is comprised of
seventeen verses, each having two lines of varying length.6 It treats the betrayal
of Christ by Judas Iscariot, and is identified by its opening lament,
“Judas, Judas. . . .” Anton Baumstark has reconstructed the Greek
from a liturgical text printed in Coptic letters, which he dates from the
seventh or eighth century.7 It may be translated as follows (each verse is indicated by a Roman numeral):8
I. Judas, Judas, Judas, Judas, Judas,
Judas, the cruel traitor,9
II. Sold Christ to the unjust10 Jews for a piece of
III. Lo, those violent ones11 seized Christ, and,
with a cross,
IV. They drove [Him] towards Golgotha.12
V. Refrain: Judas, Judas, etc.
VI. They released Barabbas, the
VII. And crucified Him, [our] Judge and
VIII. And thrust a sword into His side,
then placed [Him]
XI. Refrain: Judas, Judas, etc.
XII. [And indeed], just as Jonah
remained three days in the belly of the whale,
XIII. So did our Savior stay three days
XIV. Among the dead. They sealed the
XV. Verily, He is risen, and the mob18 did not know that
XVI. Thus the Savior of the world was
raised [from the dead], He who suffered,
XVII. And was resurrected for mankind.19 [O] Lord, glory unto
Transcription of the Music and Text20
Analysis of How the Text Is Set to the
The foregoing translation and
transcription both show discrepancies in the setting of the text with the
music, some of which are more disturbing than others. Throughout the hymn, the
syllables do not always correspond to the notes of the melody, either as to
quantity (long or short) or stress. Long syllables may fall on a short note,21 or a short syllable
may be lengthened, and even extended over many beats.22 Likewise, a stressed
syllable (i.e., one bearing an accent) may or may not fall on a strong beat.23
But the most surprising discrepancies
are found in the various phrasings of the text and melody, which often do not
correspond at all. There seems to be little feeling for the mutual needs of
either the words or the melody, with the persistent demands of the music prevailing
throughout. The above-mentioned caesura of the melody in measure four often
separates words that belong together in a single phrase,24 and on two occasions,
words themselves are cut in two.25 However, the most
prominent breaks in the text occur at the end of the melody, i.e., at the final
cadence of measure eight, where the words are separated not only in
midsentence, but sometimes in midphrase.26 Thus musically one
verse ends and another begins, but if scanned apart from the music, the text
continues unbroken. Especially with verses eight through ten, which comprise
but one sentence, it is very difficult to reconcile the words with the definite
breaks in the music.
A brief note should be made about the
influence of Arabic upon the pronunciation of the text. Whereas in Greek many
syllables begin with two or more consonants, in Classical Arabic a syllable may
begin with only one consonant. Therefore, it is natural for the present-day
Copts — whose language is Arabic — to insert an extra vowel between
(1) within a word,28 (2) between words,29 or (3) at the beginning of a phrase.30 Sometimes this
inserted vowel is even prolonged as a sort of vocalise over several notes.31
Comments and Conclusions
In view of the foregoing data, the
following statements may be made: The distortions of the language caused by the
music show that the melody was certainly not composed for this particular text.
Indeed, the situation was somewhat reversed in that the melody must have
already been in existence and was simply “borrowed” by whoever set
the text to it. One may even speculate that this haunting tune was probably
already well known and familiar to the people when these words were put with
it.32 When one also
considers the Good Friday setting, which is simpler both as to the music (less
ornamentation) and text (fewer verses, shorter phrases), it is tempting to
propose that this melody had already become an established part of the Good
Friday services, and that the more extended “Judas, Judas . . .” was
a later addition to the Maundy Thursday rites.
In conclusion, it does seem logical to
postulate that the music is at least as old as the text, which would date it
from the seventh or eighth century if one accepts Baumstark’s dating (see
above). Likely it is much older.33 Admittedly, the
ultimate origin of this melody yet remains a mystery, but there can be no doubt
that it is sung and heard today as a living remnant from the distant past.
1. Marian Robertson,
“A Coptic Melody Sung Interchangeably in Different Languages: Comparisons
Thereof and Proposed Dating Therefor,” to be published in the Proceedings of the Third International
Congress of Coptic Studies, Warsaw, Poland. Henceforth referred to as
2. See the Coptic
manuscripts in the John Rylands Library and the Copto-Greek liturgical and
biblical manuscripts in the Insinger Collection at the Museum of Antiquities in
3. See Robertson,
“Coptic Melody,” 6-7. For comparative studies indicating the
antiquity of certain Coptic melodies, see Marian Robertson, “The
Reliability of the Oral Tradition in Preserving Coptic Music . . ., Parts I and
II,” Bulletin de la Société
d’Archéologie Copte 26 (1984): 83-93, and 27 (1985): 73-85. For a general
historical discussion, see Ilona Borsai, “Die musikhistorische Bedeutung
der orientalischen christlichen Riten,” Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientarum Hungaricae 16 (1974):
“Coptic Melody,” 3-5.
5. See transcription
6. These verses are
followed by an Arabic translation of the Greek which is condensed into fourteen
verses, thus making a total of some thirty-one verses for the entire piece.
7. Anton Baumstark,
“Drei griechische Passionsgesänge ägyptischer
Liturgie,” Oriens Christianus 3
(1929): 69-77. Baumstark took this text from Kita Dalal wa-Tartib Jumcat al-Alam wa-cId al-Fash al-Majid . . . (Book of
the Order [of Services] for Good Friday and Holy Week . . .) (Cairo: n.p.,
1920), 111ff. It contains some Greek grammatical and spelling errors which,
however, reflect the Coptic pronunciation. This text is also found in Epgom ente pipaskha ethouab (The Book of
Holy Easter) (Cairo: The Patriarchate, 1981), 303.
8. Because of
inherent differences in Greek and English, the author has adapted the text,
rather than translate it verbatim, in order to have a smooth, comprehensible
English reading. Thus some words (mentioned in footnotes) have been
paraphrased; some words (enclosed in brackets) have been added; certain Greek
participles have been rendered as verbs; and the order of verses eight and nine
has been reversed. Every effort has been made to keep the original meaning
9. (ho paranomos, “contrary to law and
custom, unjust, violent, cruel”).
10. (paranomois; see n. 9).
11. (paranomoi; see n. 9).
12. (en to kranio topo, “the place of a
skull,” which is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Golgotha). In this phrase, the genitive (kraniou, “skull”) is usually used instead of the dative (kranio). Cf. B. F. Westcott and F. J. A.
Hort, eds., The New Testament in Greek (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 68, 111, 234.
13. Cf. n. 8.
14. (xulo, “cudgel” or
15. (mnemeio, “monument”).
16. (egeiras, “awakened” or
“raised from the dead”).
includes an additional refrain at this point in the text. However, it is not
sung in the recordings from which the transcriptions were made (see n. 20).
18. (stratia, “army” or
19. (dia to genos hemon, “for our [human]
20. This hymn was transcribed from
cassette recordings of the Holy Week Services, edited by Ragheb Moftah (Cairo:
Institute of Coptic Studies, 1972). The author is indebted to Mr. Moftah, who
generously presented her with copies thereof, and to the late Dr. Aziz S. Atiya
and Mme. Lola Atiya, who also lent her their recordings for comparison
The criteria of
transcription are as follows: (1) “A” above “middle C”
equals 440. (2) All notes actually sound one octave lower than notated (the
singing is done by men only — the treble clef was used for convention’s
sake). (3) A minus sign (—) above a note indicates that the note is
sounded one quarter-tone lower; conversely, a plus sign (+) above a note
indicates that the note is sounded one quarter-tone higher. (4) Measures are
indicated by bar lines, but close scrutiny reveals that the number of beats in
a measure may vary (see verses one and two, measure four; verses eight and nine,
measure seven, etc.); also, the number of eighth notes in a beat may vary (see
verse ten, measure seven; verse seventeen, measure two, etc.). (5) Letters
written in parentheses above the text indicate extra vowels that are inserted
into the text by the singers.
21. For example,
verse two, measure one, beat three; measure two, beat two, etc.
22. For example,
verse one, measure seven; verse two, measures six to seven, etc.
23. For example,
verse one in its entirety; verse two, measure one, beat two; or measure two,
beat one; or measure three, beat three, etc.
24. See verse two, (tois / Ioudaiois, “to the /
Jews”); verse four, (en to / kranio
topo, “in the / place of a skull,” see n. 12); verse fourteen, (ton / taphon, “the / tomb”);
verse sixteen, (ho soter / tou kosmou, “the Savior / of the world”).
25. Verse three (epilabou / menoi, “seiz/ing”);
verse six, (ton kata / kriton, “the con/demned”).
26. Verse nine ends
with the word (ethekan, “they
placed [Him]”), and verse ten begins with the phrase (en mnemeio, “in a sepulcher”). In Baumstark’s text the
order of these two phrases is reversed, which intensifies the problem. Verse
fifteen ends with the words (ouk egnosan stratia hoti, “. . . the mob did not know that”), and verse sixteen continues the
clause . . . (ountos egerthe ho soter . . .
, “Thus the Savior . . . was raised . . .”).
27. This vowel is
usually pronounced as the “e” in “let”; however, in verse
sixteen, measure two, it becomes a prolonged “a,” pronounced as the
“a” in “father.”
28. For example, in
verse fifteen, measures four through six, stratia becomes s(e)t(e)ratia. Other examples
are found in verse nine, measure three; verse ten, measure one; verse twelve,
measure one; verse fourteen, measure five; verse sixteen, measure three (cf.
also n. 29).
29. In verse three,
measures five to eight, ton Christon
stauro becomes ton(e) Christon (e)
stavro. Other examples are found in verse eight, measure three; verse nine,
measure three; verse ten, measure one; verse twelve, measures two and three;
verse fifteen, measures two and three. In this last example, measure two
becomes a syllabic chant, cf. transcription.
30. At the beginning
of verse four, proselo 36n becomes (e)p(e)roselo37n. Other examples
are found in verse four, measure four; verse six, measures four to five; verse
nine, measure three.
31. See verse three, measures six to
seven; verse seven, measure three, etc.
indications in nn. 27-31 as to the pronunciation are meant only as cursory
remarks. A more exhaustive analysis could well be the subject of another
32. It is interesting
to note that even today when a Copt is asked to sing something from the Holy
Week Services (particularly those of Good Friday), this song is usually the
first one to come to mind. In contemporary liturgical books, the Arabic rubrics
specifying the use of this melody refer to it as al-Lahn al-Macruf (“The Familiar Melody”), e.g., Khidmat
al-Shammas (Services of the
Deacon) (Cairo: The Patriarchate, 1965), 296.
33. René Ménard has
suggested that those melodies with Greek or Coptic texts predate the Arab
conquest of Egypt (A.D. 642-43). Ménard, “Note sur la mémorisation et
l’improvisation dans le chant copte,” Etudes
gré̩goriennes 3 (1959): 143.