Detail from [Ragheb Moftah and Margit Tóth review the Ernest Newlandsmith Collection]. Photograph courtesy of Laurence Moftah.
While it was Martha Roy who undertook the transliteration of Coptic and Arabic liturgical texts in the 1998 publication of The Complete Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription, it was Hungarian ethnomusicologist Margit Tóth who meticulously transcribed the Coptic melodies. Born on June 20, 1920, in Budapest, Hungary, Tóth initially began her studies at Ranolder Institute as an educator of women in 1940. Five years later, she became a nun and joined the Bakony Blessed Virgin Cistercian Sisterhood and, in step with her spiritual calling, continued her education as a pianist. She studied with György Faragó, who could trace his prestigious tutelage to the renowned pianist and composer, Franz Liszt. During her time at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, she also started studying ethnomusicology with one of the most influential Hungarian composers and scholars of her time, László Lajtha, and one of the earliest pioneers of ethnomusicology, Zoltán Kodály. Later, she was also to study liturgical music with musicologist, Benjamin Rajeczky.
Under Kodály's supervision, Tóth's training stressed the practical and educational aspects of ethnomusicology, with specific emphasis on music transcription. Additionally, Kodály was also working with Béla Bartók, the founding father of the Hungarian school of transcription. Unlike the English style of notation, which only captured the basic framework of a melody, the Bartók method notated every nuanced embellishment, ornament, and melisma that a singer produced. By the time of her graduation in 1956, Tóth had inherited a technique that was perfectly suited for her work with Coptic liturgical music, a genre full of turns, long melismas on vowels, and intricate personal embellishments by the singers. Her perfect pitch made her an even more suited match for this work.
In her interview with Moftah's niece, Laurence Moftah in 2002, (Laurence Moftah Interviews Margit Tóth and Martha Roy, March 13, 2002, Ragheb Mofath Collection), Tóth recalls her first encounter with Coptic music. In the late 1960s, UNESCO approached Kodály regarding international efforts for the preservation of musical and cultural heritage among developing countries. At the time, he was working at the Academy of Science, and he recommended a fellow musicologist, Ilona Borsai. Borsai made three research trips to Egypt and, between 1967 and 1968, she met Ragheb Moftah at the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo and recorded Coptic liturgical music.
Upon her return from Egypt, Borsai collaborated with Margit Tóth in transcribing some of the materials that she collected, including a few hymns of the Coptic liturgy of St. Basil. Tóth, as the head of the Folk Music department at the Museum of Ethnography starting in 1964, was already quite experienced notating Hungarian folksongs. Her Coptic music transcriptions with Borsai were not only published, but were also sent back to Egypt for Moftah's review. Moftah was so pleased that he mailed back more recordings and for two years, Tóth worked on transcriptions from Hungary. In 1970, Borsai recommended that Tóth travel to Egypt to continue the project.
In the Ragheb Moftah Collection, Tóth's correspondence with Moftah begins on July 11, 1970, when Tóth first began seeking permission from the Hungarian government to go to Egypt. When she arrived in November of that year, she took up residence in Moftah's Giza home for six months, transcribing recordings that he made at the Institute of Coptic Studies. Tóth remembers how, one day, Moftah surprised her and showed her the 16 folios that Ernest Newlandsmith had notated 34 years earlier. Curious as to how her own work compared with that of the British violinist and composer, she reviewed the collection. She was awed that despite their own distinct styles of notation and different schools of transcription, they had counted the exact number of measures for one piece. In her 2002 interview, she commented on her respect for her predecessor, "I must say, it is a very great work. Imagine in the 1930s there was no metronome, no [gramophone], no instrument which you can go back and hear several times. And when the singers repeat, they add variation.... He has [made] an excellent work. It is very good for comparison for our work and his work. It is very important." (VHS 35:00)
In 1975, as the Director of Music at the Institute of Coptic of Studies, Moftah granted Tóth a scholarship for another 6-month research trip to Egypt (see letter, Ragheb Mofath to Margit Tóth, 1 February 1975), but it was not until July 1, 1980 that Tóth arrived for good. Two years later, Egyptian musicologist and Dean of the Cairo Conservatoire of Music, Samha Amin El-Kholy, invited Tóth to teach ethnomusicology at the faculty while transcribing Egyptian folk music. For the next sixteen years, she worked with Ragheb Moftah and Martha Roy to prepare the monumental publication, The Complete Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription by the American University in Cairo Press in 1998. On March 12, 2001, she was honored for her scholarly work by the Hungarian Republic Order of Merit award from Zoltán Rockenbauer, the Minister of Culture. She is now residing in Budapest, Hungary.
We are especially indebted to Ken Nyirady, reference specialist at the Library of Congress European Division, who kindly translated into English a biography about Margit Tóth on the Hungarian Heritage House Web site. This allowed us to provide a more complete life portrait of Margit Tóth and her involvement with Coptic music.
Danielson, Virginia. "Review: The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription by Ragheb Moftah, Margit Tóth, Martha Roy." Notes, 2d ser. 57(December 2000): 481-482.
Dobszay, László. "The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil. With Complete Musical Transcription by Ragheb Moftah; Margit Tóth; Martha Roy." Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 41, nos.1-3(2000): 303-306.
Laurence Moftah Interviews Margit Tóth and Martha Roy, March 13, 2002. Videotape in the Ragheb Moftah Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
"Margit Tóth." Hungarian Heritage House. http://www.hagyomanyokhaza.hu/page/522/ (accessed 25 August 2008). Translation provided by Kenneth Nyirady, European Division Reference Specialist (Hungary and the Finno-Ugrian Areas of Russia).
Moftah, Ragheb, Martha Roy, and Margit Tóth. The Coptic Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998.