Early Music History

Research Article

Oral and written transmission in Ethiopian Christian chant*

Kay Kaufman Shelemaya1, Peter Jefferya2 and Ingrid Monsona3

a1 Harvard University

a2 Princeton University

a3 University of Chicago

Of all the musical traditions in the world among which fruitful comparisons with medieval European chant might be made, the chant tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church promises to be especially informative. In Ethiopia one can actually witness many of the same processes of oral and written transmission as were or may have been active in medieval Europe. Music and literacy are taught in a single curriculum in ecclesiastical schools. Future singers begin to acquire the repertory by memorising chants that serve both as models for whole melodies and as the sources of the melodic phrases linked to individual notational signs. At a later stage of training each one copies out a complete notated manuscript on parchment using medieval scribal techniques. But these manuscripts are used primarily for study purposes; during liturgical celebrations the chants are performed from memory without books, as seems originally to have been the case also with Gregorian and Byzantine chant. Finally, singers learn to improvise sung liturgical poetry according to a structured system of rules. If one desired to imitate the example of Parry and Lord, who investigated the modern South Slavic epic for possible clues to Homeric poetry, it would be difficult to find a modern culture more similar to the one that spawned Gregorian chant.


* This article is a revised and abridged synthesis of three separate papers presented at a session of the same title at the fifty-fourth Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1988. The material is drawn from a collaborative study carried out by the authors, for which Kay K. Shelemay served as project director, Peter Jeffery as project co-director and Ingrid Monson as research associate. The article has been edited by Kay K. Shelemay; sections written entirely by one member of the research team appear under his or her name, while the introductory and concluding remarks are drawn from all three articles. The authors acknowledge with gratitude a grant from the Research Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which supported their work, and the advice of Dr Getatchew Haile, who served as project consultant.

A note on transliteration of G∂῾∂z terms: The transliteration system used here eliminates most diacritical markings in order to reduce confusion with notational signs. The seven Ethiopic (G∂῾∂z) vowels (referred to as ‘orders’ when combined with one of the thirtythree basic symbols in the G∂῾∂z syllabary) are represented as ε, u, i, a, e, ∂ and o. To avoid confusion in our transliteration of the written G∂῾∂z sources, we have used ε (pronounced ‘like the sound one makes while hesitating in speaking and which is represented in writing by “uh”’; W. Leslau, Amharic Textbook (Wiesbaden, 1967), p. 6) for all first-order vowels. The reader should be aware that ε is pronounced like that of the fourth-order (a) (‘like the English exclamation “ah”’; Leslau, p. 6) on the laryngeal consonants (᾿), (῾), (S0261127900000140inline001), (h′), (h). Additionally, the normally silent sixth-order vowel (pronounced ‘like the “e” in “rose”’; Leslau, p. 7) is often pronounced in musical performance, and the consonants it accompanies often carry notational symbols as well. For this reason, we have included in our transliterations many syllables with sixth-order vowels that would not be articulated in normal speech. Popular spellings are used for modern place, tribal and personal names.