Article Survey of Twentieth-Century Studies of Coptic Music

Format Web Pages
Contributors Robertson Wilson, Marian
Dates 2008
Subjects Article
Songs and Music
Survey of Twentieth-Century Studies of Coptic Music
Contributor Names
Robertson-Wilson, Marian -- 1926- (author)
Created / Published
May 30, 2008.
Subject Headings
-  Articles
-  Songs and Music
-  Paper presented at the 9th International Congress of Coptic Studies (International Association of Coptic Studies), Cairo, Egypt, 14-20 September 2008, and to be published in the Proceedings of the International Association of Coptic Studies. (source note)
-  Courtesy of Marian Robertson-Wilson. (Copyright Notice)
11 x 8 1/2 in. ; 11 p.
Music Division
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Image: [The music of St. Basil's liturgy]
[The music of St. Basil's liturgy] [manuscript] / transcribed by Ernest Newlandsmith. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Musicians and other scholars who study Coptic music face many questions. For example: Have these myriad melodies any formal structure, or do they just go on and on depending on the desire of the performers? Are they based on rigid formulae or are they derived from scales? Are they unique to Egypt, or have they counterparts in other ancient musical traditions of the Near East? Most of these questions still await further research and do not yet have definitive answers. However, one basic question to which twentieth-century studies may provide a clue is this: How ancient, how old are these melodies?

Brief Description of the Music and the Problem

Coptic sacred rites are sung from beginning to end, including the Canonical Hours, the liturgies, or those special services known as Psalmodia. The music is monodic (i.e., there is no harmony), sung by men only, and without instrumental accompaniment except for special pieces that permit the use of small cymbals and triangle.[1]

Until recently there were no documents that recorded these melodies, for over the centuries, they had been preserved strictly by an oral tradition, wherein each melody was passed from one generation to the next by master chanters who themselves had learned the music by rote. But because the music was regarded as sacred, the melodies were carefully taught with no change allowed.[2] However, there was one caveat: Tradition allowed the singer to embellish these melodies, each in his own way. Thus, while the basic melody (Urmelodie) likely remained the same, certain variations in ornamentation became inevitable. Furthermore, because no two singers sing any given melody in exactly the same way and, indeed, because no singer ever sings any given melody exactly the same way twice, the chance for change increased over time. Another complication arose from the fact that in ancient times communities were separated with little constant contact one with another, so that each region developed its own local tradition for performing these melodies. Therefore, with neither notated manuscripts nor audio recordings to rely on, early scholars had no definitive way to determine the antiquity of these melodies or gauge the amount of change they may (or may not) have undergone.[3]

Then, in the late 1920s, important and long-lasting documentation became available thanks to the dedicated pioneering work of devout Copt, Dr. Ragheb Moftah, who truly must be hailed as the "Twentieth-Century Father of Coptic Music."[4]

Documentation Sponsored by Ragheb Moftah

Though not a master chanter himself, Dr. Moftah loved and mastered the many intricate melodies of his tradition and sought to preserve them in some tangible way for future generations. To that end, he generously provided means whereby this music was first notated, then audio-recorded.

His first notable effort came in 1926, when he arranged for British musician, Ernest Newlandsmith, to transcribe the liturgical music of the Copts.[5] As a guest of Dr. Moftah, Newlandsmith lived on a houseboat anchored on the Nile in Cairo, and there, day after day, hour upon hour, he listened to and notated the sacred melodies sung to him by the best master chanters of that era. Among these chanters was the greatest of them all: al-Mu'allim Mīkhā'īl Girgis al-Batanūny. The complete project lasted about ten years (1926-1936), and resulted in sixteen folio volumes of music containing the complete Liturgy of Saint Basil and numerous other special pieces reserved for particular holidays, or to be sung only when the Patriarch is present.[6]

The next significant step in preserving Coptic music came in the 1940s, when Ragheb Moftah initiated an ambitious program of audio-recordings headquartered at the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies. Here, under the aegis of Institute Director, Dr. Aziz Suriyāl Atiya, Moftah became head of the Music Division (Qism al-Mūsīqy wa al-Alhān); using state-of-the-art recording equipment--which evolved over the years from reel-to-reel paper tapes to vinyl discs then cassette tapes--he recorded almost all of the sacred melodies of his venerable tradition. These recordings, many of which are still housed at the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, remain non-commercial with but one exception, the album: Coptic Music, recorded in the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark, with notes by Aziz S. Atiya (New York: Folkways Records, FR 8960, 1960).[7]

After World War II and especially during the 1970s, scholars from Europe and America began visiting Egypt to study this ancient music. Among them, one must cite American John Gillespie, who translated the Liturgy of Saint Basil into English to accompany a Moftah recording of the same, and Hungarians Ilona Borsai and Margit Tóth. While Borsai made preliminary analyses and described the rites, Tóth notated the melodies in an extremely detailed manner, emphasizing their ever-present embellishments. Unlike Borsai, who did not remain long in Cairo,[8] Tóth stayed many years. Spending many hours at the Moftah home in Giza, she notated music from the aforementioned recordings, notably the Liturgy of St. Basil, a monumental work which she completed in the late 1990s.[9]

However, like all notation of Coptic music (including that of Newlandsmith), Tóth's work has certain shortcomings.

Anyone attempting to adapt these intricate melodies to our Western system of notation finds nuances of pitch and rhythm inherent in this music that simply cannot be indicated accurately. At best, the Western system--which allows only twelve half-steps within the octave and which reduces every rhythm to a basic count of two or three notes per beat--represents an imperfect outline of any given Coptic melody. Furthermore, since every person hears these melodies colored by his/her particular background and training, each transcriber may emphasize a different aspect of the music.[10]

Therefore, truth to tell, the most reliable documentation of these melodies is found in the recordings thereof. In order to really comprehend the unique qualities of this tradition--with its intricacies so foreign to non-Eastern ears, one must carefully listen to and then dispassionately examine the melodies as sung by the best master chanters. [11]

Fortunately, many of these recordings are now available in several libraries. In 1992, thanks to the generosity of Ragheb Moftah and his devoted niece, Laurence Moftah, many of the aforementioned reel-to-reel paper tape recordings were given to the Music Division of the (USA) Library of Congress. Dr. James Pruett, then chief of the Music Division, asked Marian Robertson (aka Marian Robertson Wilson), then music editor of the Coptic Encyclopedia, to identify and organize all the music thereon. Using cassette tapes dubbed off from the original paper tapes, Robertson successfully identified the melodies, transcribed the texts in Coptic, then transliterated and translated them into English.[12]

In 1996, Robertson completed the project and compiled a companion guide to be used in conjunction with the cassette recordings. However, due to the discrepancies in the order of pieces identified in the guide and those found on the recordings, this solution was not satisfactory. Therefore, Robertson--with the help of recording engineer Kenny Hodges--re-recorded all the music on state-of-the-art CDs, with all the melodies reorganized, placed in their proper order, and accompanied by a companion revised guide so that anyone listening to the music could simultaneously identify the piece and follow the texts very easily.[13]

Subsequently, at the instigation of Laurence Moftah, Robertson (aka Robertson Wilson) and Hodges also recorded four CDs of the Liturgy of Saint Basil, sung nonstop in its entirety by al-Mu'allim Ṣādiq 'Attallah, a pupil of the aforementioned master chanter, al-Mu'allim Mīkhā'īl Girgis al-Batanūny. These CDs are meant to be used primarily as teaching-tools for the deacons as they learn the chants. Robertson also compiled a modest guide identifying specific sections of the liturgy.[14]


Thanks to the twentieth-century documentation of Coptic music--whether by notation or audio-recordings--one can confidently compare melodies dating from 1916 to those of the late 1990s. In so doing, one finds that the basic melodies have remained constant with no change for one hundred years, and therefore, one may cautiously suggest that they have remained so for centuries. Of course, this is due to the meticulous training given by the master chanters of the past and of this past century. The preservation of this ancient tradition still rests --as it always has-- in their hands. What the future may bring no one knows.

However, thanks to the audio-recordings and musical notations largely sponsored by Ragheb Moftah, scholars now have ample materials to study as they seek answers to the questions posed at the outset of this paper.

30 May 2008


  1. For more details see Ragheb Moftah et al., "Music, Coptic §Description of the Corpus and Present Musical Practice," The Coptic Encyclopedia, Aziz S. Atiya, editor-in-chief, vol. 6 (New York: The Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), pp. 1715-1729 (henceforth referred to as CE). [back to article]
  2. Anecdotal stories scattered throughout The History of the Patriarchs attest to this fact. [back to article]
  3. The texts for these rites had long been written, and many scholars have analyzed and discussed them. However, the music itself to which these texts are sung usually has little or no correspondence to the words, for one syllable may extend over many notes for as much as one minute duration while at other times one note per syllable may be the norm. Therefore, analyses of the texts give no clue to the music involved. For a list of some of these textual studies, see Marian Robertson, "Music, Coptic §Bibliography," CE, pp. 1744-1747. [back to article]
  4. Actually, one small work preceded that of Ragheb Moftah when Kāmil Ibrahīm Ghubriyyāl published a modest volume entitled The Musical Notation of the Responses of the Church of Saint Mark [al-Tawqī'āt al-Musīqiyyah li-Maraddāt al-Kanīsah al-Murqūsiyyah] (Cairo, 1916). Mr. Ghubriyyāl wished to provide acceptable, wholesome melodies for Coptic youth to sing in place of the current secular music, which, in his opinion, had an excitable, inappropriate effect on society. [back to article]
  5. For a brief biographical sketch of Mr. Newlandsmith, see Marian Robertson, "Music, Coptic §Ernest Newlandsmith," CE, p. 1742. [back to article]
  6. These original manuscripts are now housed in the Music Division of the (USA) Library of Congress. Microfilms thereof are at the University of California, thanks to John Gillespie; enlarged copies of these microfilms are in Special Collections, at the University of Utah Marriott Library, thanks to Marian Robertson. [back to article]
  7. For a list of these recordings, see Marian Robertson, "Music, Coptic §Bibliography," CE, 1744. [back to article]
  8. For a biography of Ilona Borsai, see Martha Roy, "Music, Coptic §Borsai, Ilona," CE, p. 1741. [back to article]
  9. This work is entitled The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998), and also has Coptic and Arabic texts added, thanks to the assistance of Martha Roy. [back to article]
  10. For example, whereas Tóth emphasizes the details of ornamentation and embellishment, Robertson hears the same melodies as colored with a constant wide vibrato, not as separate notatable embellishments. Whereas Tóth indicates bar lines, Robertson notates with a flexible rhythm unhampered by bar lines, and the pitch to the nearest quarter-tone. For his part, Newlandsmith transcribed only to the half-step, was not consistent within a given melody as to pitch, and forced the melody into the strict rhythm and bar lines of Western music. Ghubriyyāl (see Note 4) added a bouncy piano accompaniment completely out of character for the responses he notated. [back to article]
  11. On the other side of the coin, this author has always been impressed to hear her Coptic friends--untrained as musicians but familiar with their tradition--sing these intricate melodies spontaneously with perfect precision as to the nuances of pitch and rhythm. [back to article]
  12. This was a daunting task. Firstly, many of the original paper reels were so fragile that they fell apart and literally had to be pieced together like jig-saw puzzles by Library of Congress expert recording engineer, Mike Donelson. Hence, the music on the cassette tapes sent to Robertson had no order, with the melodies in short scraps where one line from a certain melody was often interrupted only to be followed by a short phrase from an entirely different piece. [back to article]
  13. There are twenty-one CDs of the highest quality with all surface noise removed so as to give the clearest sound possible. The revised guide, entitled Revised Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant Recordings (Salt Lake City, 2005), consists of two large volumes. This material is available in Special Collections at the University of Utah Marriott Library; in Special Collections at the Brigham Young University Lee Library; at the Library of the Institut für Ägyptologie und Koptologie at Westfälische Wilhelms Universität, Münster, Germany; and in the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the American University in Cairo. The originals are housed in the Music Division of the Library of Congress. [back to article]
  14. The complete title is: Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Recording of the Liturgy of St. Basil as Sung by al-Mu'allim Ṣādiq 'Attallah (Salt Lake City, November 2005). Copies of these four CDs and the Guide can be found at the libraries listed in the preceding endnote (#13). This project was sponsored by Laurence Moftah, who has generously provided copies to deacons in Cairo. [back to article]