Coptic music on the web

The Library of Congress launches a Coptic music web presentation on their online Performing Arts Encyclopedia in May 2009.

On my first day of work at the US Library of Congress Music Division this past summer, I arrived at my desk to find three old and tattered books. In 1888 and 1899, two French Jesuit priests, Father Jules Blin and Father Louis Badet, had written down the Coptic liturgy of St Basil into Western music notation. Almost thirty years later, an Egyptian officer in the army, Kamil Ibrahim Ghubriyal, had also published the congregational responses of the Sunday service in a similar book in 1916. Jan Lauridsen, Assistant Chief of the Music Division, told me to handle these books with care and, indeed, as I leafed through them, the yellowed pages croaked with age. Later in the afternoon, 17 more boxes arrived at my desk, filled with folios of music notation, recordings, correspondence, photographs, and other miscellaneous items. This was the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Chants and Hymns, the repository of one man’s 75-year career in collecting, preserving, and recording Coptic liturgical chant, otherwise known as alhan.

Digital presentation
Venerated for their antiquity, these liturgical hymns have been traditionally passed down through generations of blind church cantors known as mu’allmeen. As an oral tradition, alhan were never fully notated or recorded until Ragheb Moftah (1898-2001) began his work in 1926. Among other scholars, Moftah believed that these hymns have their roots in Ancient Egyptian music and are the last living remnants of this glorious past.
Like many items at the Library of Congress, this Collection not only preserves an important heritage, but also gives rise to myriad other interesting stories. Manuscripts of early transcriptions and music notation traced the emerging fascination of European scholars and missionaries with Coptic culture, while Moftah’s efforts reflected the Coptic community’s rising national consciousness and interest in their own cultural heritage. My job at the Music Division was to organise these materials for a digital presentation on Coptic music in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia: Explore Music, Theatre, and Dance at the Library of Congress. As both an educational and scholarly resource, this presentation would join the other digitised collections and historical items that are made freely available to the public on the Internet at

Working with a wonderful team that included Jan Lancaster, Karen Lund, James Wolf, and Maryvonne Mavroukakis, as well as a Network Development Team led by Nathan Trail, Morgan Cundiff and Betsy Miller, I organised nine multimedia galleries: one featuring essays and articles on the scholarship of Coptic music, another including biographies, galleries of video recordings, music recordings, photographs, correspondence, newspaper articles, a gallery of maps of Egypt dating as far back as 1693 and, finally, a music transcription gallery. Scheduled to launch in May of 2009, the presentation not only highlights Moftah’s preservation project, but also contextualises much of the research that came before him. For example, the earliest Coptic music research dates back to 1643, when a German Jesuit priest named Father Athanasius Kircher first captured the attention of his European audiences by attempting to translate the Coptic language and including a brief sample of what he thought Coptic liturgical music sounded like. A more serious transcription came in 1809, when Guillaume-André Villoteau, a music scholar who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt (1798-1801), reported on a service he attended. In order to contextualise these events, particularly within broader Egyptian history, I structured a three-part timeline that outlines this rise of Coptic music studies by Western and, later, indigenous researchers. This presentation culminates with Moftah’s own comprehensive recordings and transcriptions, as prepared with the help of British violinist and composer, Ernest Newlandsmith (1875-after 1957).

Father of Coptic music
Due to the breadth of his work, Moftah is recognised as the father of Coptic music studies. Working with Dr Aziz Atiya (1898-1988), Moftah played an instrumental role in establishing the Institute of Coptic Studies in 1954, located in the heart of the Anba Ruweiss Patriarchate compound. This institution—now home to many departments, including Coptic art, iconography, history and music—launched an era of burgeoning studies on Coptic religious culture and artistic expression. It was in these classrooms that Moftah completed his project, following the spirit of Lieutenant Kamil Ghubriyal. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ghubriyal had urged "the Coptic nation" to preserve and celebrate their musical heritage in his manual The Musical Notation of the Responses of the Church of Saint Mark (1916).
In 1926, Moftah engaged Ernest Newlandsmith to notate the complete liturgy of St. Basil as well as 25 major seasonal hymns in hopes of preserving and standardising the genre, and also making it available to Western audiences. He worked with the acclaimed cantor, Mu’allim Mikhail Girgis al Batanoni, for the next decade and, with the help of Newlandsmith, produced 16 folios of Western music notation. Newlandsmith and Moftah briefly toured in England, presenting lectures about Coptic music to audiences at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. By 1932, Moftah was invited as a guest speaker to the prestigious Congress of Arab Music, which included among the attendees, composers Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, and scholar Henry George Farmer.

Spanning three centuries
With the opening of the Institute of Coptic Studies in 1954, Moftah became the chair of the music department, and he engaged Mu’allim Mikhail Girgis al Batanoni as the first professor of liturgical chant. There, he formed a large choir and, with various well-known cantors such as Sadeq Attallah, recorded the Coptic hymnology in full. With the help of Hungarian ethnomusicologist Margit Tóth, and retired American missionary and educator Martha Roy, Moftah’s career culminated in the 1998 publication of The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription by the American University in Cairo Press. Upon its publication, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, personally thanked and eloquently praised Moftah’s efforts during his centennial birthday party that same year. In 2001, Moftah died at the age of 102, his life spanning three centuries and his accomplishments strongly resonating within the Coptic community. Both his birthday party and funeral have been documented and these videotapes are a part of the Library’s Coptic music Web site.

Today, the same Coptic renaissance and community awareness that inspired Moftah continues to flourish. During my time at the Library, Marian Robertson-Wilson, another scholar of Coptic music, had announced that she would be donating a collection of her own recordings undertaken during her time in Cairo at the beginning the 1970s. Academic and Coptic communities are rapidly undertaking new scholarships, forthcoming dissertations, publications, and recordings all over the world. The Coptic diaspora has also become fertile ground for emerging scholars and researchers, with projects focusing on questions relating to history, art, culture, antiquity, gender, identity, and contemporary Coptic life. Long after his death, Moftah’s work continues to unfold, and the U.S. Library of Congress Web site on Coptic music is a small testament to its influence.

Carolyn M. Ramzy is a second year Ph.D. student of ethnomusicology at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music specialising in Coptic music culture. She completed her masters at Florida State University College of Music and has presented her work at numerous conferences in Egypt, the U.S., and Canada. Among other works, she has contributed previous articles on Coptic music to Watani

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