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Collection Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Chant and Hymnody


De Ecclesiae Coptae, by Athanasius Kircher. 1643.

Thanks to Ragheb Moftah and other scholars in the field, the entire Coptic hymnody is archived as sound recordings at the Library of Congress, and includes music that has been notated into Western notation for scholarly study. This Web presentation traces the earliest-known transcriptions of Coptic music by explorers and missionaries from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, and focuses especially on the music collected, recorded and notated in the twentieth century by Ragheb Moftah and his colleagues. Moreover, this presentation investigates these early studies within their cultural and social contexts, better illuminating the first encounters with this tradition. While Coptic music studies were predominately undertaken by Western scholars up until the twentieth century, Kāmil Ibrahīm Ghubriyāl became the first indigenous Copt to notate Coptic music when he published his book, Al-Tawqī'āt al-Mūsīqiyah li-Maraddāt al-Kanīsah al-Murqusiyah, or The Musical Notation for the Responses of the Church of St. Mark in 1916. Ten years later, Moftah encountered Ernest Newlandsmith in 1926 and, until his death in 2001, Moftah undertook the most comprehensive preservation project of Coptic hymns.

It is also important to mention the music notation that has been emerging from within the Coptic community for centuries, otherwise known today as hazzāt. As dashes or dots, hazzāt appeared in Egypt as early as the third or fourth century, but it does not resemble Western notation in any sense. While hazzāt serve the same purpose in prescribing the musical motion, they do not imply pitch, intervallic motion, meter, or a specific rhythm. Rather, they serve as a mnemonic device for an exclusively oral tradition, reminding deacons of melodic directions, embellishment on vowels, and the upward or downward motion of extended melismas. Since early Coptic cantors were blind, these notations were reserved for their students and deacons who continue to use them to this day, modifying them according to their own needs.

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