Liturgical Music #
A Short History of the Musical Tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church #
One of the better known affirmations of the Church Father’s on the subject of Ecclesiastical Music and the performance of is: “Those who sing well pray twice.” In the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church St. Yared is the one who perfected the Liturgical Musical tradition of the Church. He was born around beginning of the sixth century, circa 505 A.D. The son of devote and affluent Tewahedo Orthodox Christians, St. Yared became known in his own time and even to this day as the furthermost composer of Church music in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
The account of his life of service to the Orthodox Tewahedo Church began on a very sad note. At the age of seven years our Saint suffered the terrible loss of his earthly father (Isaac). His Mother (Christian), being a pious women, sent him to live with his Uncle, Gedewon, who was a wise and learned man serving at the Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion in the Imperial City of Axum.
Over a period of Twenty-five years St. Yared learned from his Uncle knowledge of Sacred Theology, Church Music and History. After the death of his Uncle, St. Yared took over the great task of his Uncle and became a talented teacher of the Churches Sacred Theology as well as the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As would be expected he was ordained a Deacon; then married and later was ordained to the Priesthood.
In or around the year 500 A.D. St. Yared began have contacts with the Nine Monks who came from Alexandria to translate the Sacred Scriptures, Liturgical books etc into the spoken language of the Ethiopian people at that time, Ge’ez. The most ancient tradition of the Church is for the Sacred Scriptures and Liturgical books etc, to be in the language of the people. One of the Nine Monastic Fathers, an Abba Pantelewon, remained in Axum. St. Yared acquired a great deal of information from Abba Pantelewon about the Liturgical traditions, customs and way of life of those who lived in the West. From his desire to learn more, St. Yared visited the eastern Roman Imperial Capital of Constantinople twice. There he observed and learned of the Liturgical traditions, customs and way of life of those living in the eastern Capital of the Roman Empire.
From his exposure to the Liturgical and musical traditions of the Churches, St. Yared began to compose the music used for the Ethiopian Church. Of his works (skillfully rooted in the Old and New Testaments) the music all speaks of the Creation, Prophecies and the life of Christ (His Advent, Incarnation, Nativity, Baptism, Saving acts, Crucifixion, Death, Resurrection, Ascension and His Second Coming) while also reflecting the national heritage and ideals of the Ethiopia and its people.
During the reign of Emperor Gabre Masqal (A.D. 55O-64), Saint Yared compiled the famous Mazgeba Deggua (Hymn of Sorrow). It includes three main stages: 1. “Ge’ez,” the first stage of song; 2. “Uzil,” the second stage, to be sung together with the first; and 3. ‘Ararai," a sorrowful, plaintive song. The original Mazgeba Deggua composition is believed to have been written by St. Yared himself, and can be found today in one of the oldest Monasteries of Ethiopia, which located on Lake Tana, the Tana Krikos Monastery, were for two years the Saint lived. After this period he went to Gaient and built the Church of Saint Mary at Zur Amba. It is said that the Emperor, Abba Aragawi, and St. Yared, while going to the hill on which they built the Church, had difficulty finding their way until a guide from God came to them and said to Abba Aragawi, “Zur Abba Mengale Misraq,…” which means “Abba, turn to the east; you will find the way to the hill.” The place is now called Zur Amba because of this miracle, for through the grace of God, they were able to find the right way and to build the Church there. At this particular place Saint Yared taught Zimmare and Mewasit for three years. Since then Zur Amba has become the seat of the principal of the Zimmare and Mewasit faculty. After three years in Gaeint, Saint Yared came back to Axum and Medebaytabir, where he composed the fourteen Anaphoras. He then went to Telenit, and there he c’om posed the Merraf, which is the Psalm of David. Afterward he traveled to Wagara and Agew, teaching and performing his duties.
St. Yared begins his works with the words, “Halleluiah to the Father, Halleluiah to the Son, Halleluiah to the Holy Spirit.” His divine composition is from the Old and New Testaments and from the works of the Church Fathers: Saint Athanasius, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Cyril. His work is intricately done, with words suitable for prayers and for the glorification of Almighty God.
Though he visited the eastern Roman Capital City of Constantinople, his work is uniquely Ethiopian, bearing no resemblance to Western or Greek notation. It consists of Ge’ez syllabic characters and projects the tradition and culture of the Ethiopian people.
St. Yared’s hymns are divided into four parts characterizing the four seasons of the year: “Messow” (Fall), “Hagie” (Summer), “Tseday” (Spring) and “Kiramt” (Winter) and were planned to bring a greater sense of reality in the praise of the people. The different sounds of his chants indicate the joy or sorrow and brave determination of the Christian Ethiopian.
Finally, as a holy man, Saint Yared died in one of the Monasteries of the northeast, on May 11, AD. 571, according to the Ethiopian calendar. Gabre Maskqal also died between A.D. 570-80 and was buried at Enda Kaleb, near his father.
St. Yared’s sacred works were continued by his students Sawiros, Sandros, and Beldados. Following the method and philosophy of the saint, these three men were able to preserve for generations to come the glorious works of a beloved Saint of the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
According to the Book of Yared, the following students are responsible, as disciples, for the continuation of the great work of the noble saint: Yared, Sawiros, Sandros, Beldados, Keffa, Gabru, Abba Gera, and Abba Georgis, who was the teacher of Lisane Eferat, the Debtera of Bethlehem, in Begemdir Province.
Lisane Eferat wrote a book of Deggua with notation (1434-68 A.D.) during the reign of Emperor Zera Yacob. Between the time of the reign of Emperor Lebna Dengel and Sersa Dengel, it was very difficult to find any ecclesiastical books throughout the country (because of the unfortunate destruction by the Islamic invader Ahmed Gran) of canonical and historical properties of the Ethiopian Christian Churches. Through God’s grace, however, one book of Deggua similar to the one written by Lisane Eferat was found ad Sede Gagne Georgis, near Bethlehem. This finding made Bethlehem the seat of the principal for the faculty of Zema, Deggua, Meeraf and Tsome Deggua. This was done by the imperial orders of Emperor Sersa Dengel in A. D. 1553 (Ethiopian calendar).
After Lisane Eferat, the list of disciples continues with ZekaleAb, Ichege kale Awadi, Hinsa Haimanot, tetemqe Madhim Wolde Melekot, Sersa Mariam, Kinfe Michael, Gabre Egziabher, and Gabre Madhin.
In later years other works of Saint Yared were found all over the country. Original manuscripts were found in Wollo Province at Debre Nagodgad Church, Atronsa Mariam, and Tedbaba Mariam in Tigre Province at Abba Gerima Monastery, in Shoa Province at Debre Libanos Monastery, and in Gojam Province at Mertula Mariam.
It is said that the notation of the Deggua was rearranged by two well-known scholars, Azzaze Gerra and Azzaze Raguel, who were appointed to serve as debteras at the Church of Tadbaba Mariam during the reign of Emperor Galawdewos in (1540-1559).
Except for certain Monasteries where the Rule of the Monks is a silent discipline, the works of Saint Yared can be heard throughout all the land of Ethiopia to this very today.