On musical transmigration and the origins of ‘Wa Habibi’

We’ve all heard Wa Habibi, a Christian hymn of the Syriac/Maronite rite.

Also known as the Mother’s Lament, the hymn has been epitomized by Lebanon’s Fairouz and is played/performed every year, without fail, on Good Friday.

A few days ago, a friend of mine, Tony, posted it to Facebook. Curious, I asked him if he knew more about the origins of the tune since I had heard it performed by European musicians, namely Catalan Jordi Savall and Galician Carlos Núñez. I wanted to know if it was European/Celtic in origin or Syriac. He gave me a few YouTube links that seemed to provide an answer. But, I realized after going through them that the answer remained obscure.

In the report below, OTV’s Abdo Helou interviews Fr. Youssef Tannous, the Director of USEK’s ‘Choir of Kaslik’. Tannous attributes the tune to 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Draghi (best known as Pergolesi), specifically the intermezzo from the opera Il prigionier superbo, titled La serva padrona.

The opera was unsuccessful in its day and is still not a recognized title in today’s operatic repertoire. Its intermezzo, La serva padrona (1733), which tells the story of a servant girl who tricks her master into marrying her, however, is considered a quintessential piece that bridges the gap from the Baroque to the Classical period.

According to Tannous, missionaries took a sample from this intermezzo and turned it into the hymn Lorsqu’un Dieu daigne répandre. The Lebanese, Father Michel Hayek to be specific, adopted it too and turned it to what is now known as Wa Habibi. But it’s the problematic plot of Pergolesi’s opera that prevents Tannous from performing the hymn.

“We don’t perform it because it’s originally a love song … If people heard us, they’d laugh at us,” he tells Helou in the interview.

I listened to the entire opera buffa, but failed to make the connection. After multiple online searches, I too could not find anything that links this specific opera to the hymn. What I did find though is that the origin of the melody remains unclear to this day. Some sources attribute it to Pergolesi, others to Antoine Albanese, an 18th century opera singer.

The melody, across many sites, is referred to as a variant from the French folkloric tradition. It appears as Que ne suis-je la fougere (a sung poem written by Charles-Henri Ribouté) and the Provencal Carnival song Adieu paure Carnaval.  In the video below it is performed as both Adieu paure Carnaval and Wa Habibi. 

As a hymn, it also has an English version titled God of Mercy and Compassion. The words of the song were written by a Redemptorist priest named Edmund Vaughan who was born in 1827.

But my favorite will always be Núñez’ and Savall’s version. (If you’re a fan of Savall’s make sure you attend his Lebanon concert on July 5th).

We may never know who the creative force behind the melody is, but what we do know is that the transmigration of music, i.e. the transmission of an elusive musical essence from musician to musician and place to place, can produce beautiful results.

Happy Easter to all.


Nadine Mazloum is an Australian born, Beirut bred multimedia journalist, editor, and blogger. Currently StepFeed's Senior Editor, she most recently worked as news editor and resident blogger for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International [LBCI] and has held several positions with well-known media outlets both locally and internationally. Her work appears online both on LBCI and on her personal blog, NewsroomNomad©.


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