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Article Notating Coptic Music: A Brief Historical Survey

In the field of Coptic music studies, scholars are now recognizing two emerging notation systems of Coptic liturgical chant: transcription into Western music notation predominately undertaken by European or Western-educated scholars, as well as an early form of notation appearing in Coptic papyri of Greek hymn manuscripts found in Egypt as early as the third century. [1] This presentation outlines the various attempts of early travelers and scholars to capture and preserve Coptic music on paper as illustrated in the Transcription Gallery, while exploring the underlying cultural contexts that prompted their efforts. Additionally, this presentation investigates how the Coptic community has wrestled with documenting and notating its own music tradition, one that is exclusively sung and orally transmitted from one generation to the next.

Transcription is best understood as the writing down of musical sounds.[2] From its very beginnings, it was a way for early explorers to capture the new and exotic sounds they encountered on their trips abroad and to bring them back home. Along with material wealth, such as gold, metals, spices and tea, they also collected other cultural artifacts including musical instruments, manuscripts and, occasionally, musicians themselves. Transcription, then, was initially a seventeenth-century colonial tool of acquisition long before it became a method of scientific analysis for the growing discipline of comparative musicology in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Comparative musicology, the forerunner of contemporary ethnomusicology, emerged in the nineteenth century as the study of cross-cultural diversity through the investigation of non-Western music. By the twentieth century, under the direction of figures such as Jaap Kunst (1891-1960), Curt Sachs (1881-1959), Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Alan Merriam (1923-1980), and Bruno Nettl (b. 1930), among many others, the discipline was slowly reconceived as the study of music within its own cultural context. By wedding the methodologies of cultural anthropology, such as participant-observation and ethnographic research, with the transcription and musical analysis inherent to the field of musicology, it became better recognized as the study of people through music, or in the words of Alan Merriam, the anthropological study of music.[3]

Within ethnomusicological frameworks, transcription took on a very different role. While it was still used as a way to write down, record, and analyze unfamiliar sounds and musical forms, scholars began to recognize that the transcriptions of non-Western music into a Western notational system had certain shortcomings. Firstly, it was not equipped to represent sounds outside of Western classical music, such as notes outside the parameters of a diatonic scale, unique instrument timbres or, for instance, different forms of embellishments. In turn, scholars improvised by devising new notation symbols and including extra-musical notes in their work to explain better what notation could not. Secondly, after the great anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) pointed out that linguists suffered from 'sound blindness,' or hearing alternate phonetic sounds due to their cultural conditioning, ethnomusicologists soon realized that they, too, were listening to music from within their own preconceived notions of Western classical training.[4] To overcome this bias, many scholars began pointing their students directly to the music, whether by performing it themselves or experiencing it through extended listening, a notion particularly emphasized by Mantle Hood, the influential ethnomusicologist who started the first American ethnomusicology program at the University of California Los Angeles.[5] This awareness began to emerge in the late 1950s, about the same time that Ragheb Moftah began recording the complete Coptic hymnody in the Music Department of the newly opened Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo. By the 1970s, the Hungarian ethnomusicologist, Margit Tóth and American musician, Marian Robertson-Wilson, began transcribing these recordings.

Athanasius Kircher, 1643

The transcription of Coptic liturgical music into Western music notation follows a story similar to that of the history of transcription itself. Initially, it was Guillaume-André Villoteau (1759-1839), a French explorer with Napoleon Bonaparte's brief expedition into Egypt (1798-1801), who was credited with the earliest transcription of Coptic music in 1809. However, a recently discovered transcription in the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room at the Library of Congress reveals that Western scholars had encountered Coptic music and had attempted transcriptions far earlier. Father Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a German Jesuit priest, offered a brief excerpt of Coptic chant in early music notation, claiming it was "from the mouth of my Coptic scribe."[6] Though regarded as a genius of his time and one of the first pioneers of Egyptology, much of Kircher's work was later discredited due to his controversial research methods, hasty translations, and lack of evidence to support many of his theories.[7]

Among his many publications on astronomy, music, medicine, and alchemy, along with variety of other topics, Kircher also established his reputation as one of the early scholars of Coptic language. His transcription of Coptic music appeared in his Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta (1643), his second book on the ancient script. Much like many of his translations that were later criticized, his transcription may not be accurate. Using the early music notation of his time, he briefly outlines a melody that he reports is from the intonation of the liturgy, yet when presented to contemporary Coptic cantors today, the melody is not vaguely familiar. According to one Coptic deacon, it sounds more like "a Western church hymn."[8] Of course, there are a plethora of reasons to explain this phenomenon. Firstly, it is quite possible that this particular hymn no longer exists and is not remembered by today's community. Also, as Kircher was not yet equipped with music notation to transcribe Coptic intervals and embellishments, he simply may have recorded the very basic melodic structure of what he heard, leaving out the ornamentation that makes each Coptic hymn distinct. Or, he could have just encountered a negligent informant who did not know the material and who rendered the hymn to him incorrectly. While all of these possibilities could certainly have been contributing factors to this unrecognizable transcription, it is likely that Kircher simply misunderstood what he heard. Many contemporary cantors are quick to point out that their sacred hymns, fervently protected and orally transmitted through the generations, are not readily divulged. Even the Coptic words that Kircher provides do not make any sense, and they appear to be a pastiche of familiar phrases that are incoherently strung together. Finally, Kircher's rendition of the Coptic includes a mysterious letter that is not a part of the language, further shaking the integrity of his transcription.

While Kircher's work certainly misses the mark for musical and linguistic accuracy, it is invaluable for a myriad of other reasons. Besides the few Arabic accounts of Coptic music in the thirteenth and fourteenth century,[9] this seventeenth-century attempt by Kircher is the earliest known Western transcription of Coptic music. Kircher also provides a cultural context for this liturgical music tradition that had been absent from scholarly literature in any language for more than three hundred years,[10] and it is his Latin introduction that is a true gem. Not only does he describe the early performance practice and sound of the Coptic liturgy, but he also reveals his intentions for undertaking a transcription in the first place. Much like his comparative studies of language, Kircher was determined to highlight the underlying differences and similarities between two institutions: the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which had been separated since the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. Like the early transcriptions of comparative musicology in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Kircher used music to conduct a brief cross-cultural study in the hopes of understanding a much larger religious and cultural question. In that sense, he was profoundly progressive for his time.

Guillaume-André Villoteau, 1809

It was not until 166 years later that another serious account of Coptic music appeared, when Guillaume-André Villoteau took part in the short-lived but influential French occupation of Egypt from 1798 to 1801. Though it only lasted for three years, this expedition was to leave behind a profound academic legacy and to introduce Egypt to European scholarly circles. With the intention of making Egypt a French colony, Napoleon Bonaparte initiated an impressive scientific expedition to investigate both ancient and modern Egyptian history, natural history, the sciences, music, and the arts. Villoteau, among the 167 scholars otherwise known as savants who traveled to Egypt as part of the Commission des Sciences et des Arts d'égypte, was in charge of exploring all aspects of Egyptian music. Though he published extensively on ancient Egyptian and Arabic musical instruments, he briefly explored Egyptian religious expression outside these domains, including Coptic liturgical music.

Again, much like Kircher's introduction, Villoteau's prologue before his transcription provided a startling insight into his work. While it seemed that he was genuinely interested in Arabic instruments and their accompanying classical tradition, he did not hide his disdain for Coptic chant. Rather, he openly expressed that it "lacerated his ears" and acted as a nauseating poison over his senses.[11] As part of a colonial endeavor, his attitude is not surprising and is similar to many other explorers of his generation who were also encountering non-Western music all over the world for the first time. Writers such as Charles Burney, Johann Forkel, and August Wilhelm Ambros, also carried a very similar tone of derision, describing Middle Eastern music as ugly, unsophisticated, and primitive as compared to the European classical tradition.[12] This perspective was not exclusive to Middle Eastern music, but extended to all non-Western music at that time, including European folk song and dance traditions. However, it was non-European music that received the heaviest scrutiny and criticism, expressing the ethnocentrism that accompanied and justified colonialism beginning in the sixteenth century.

Regardless of his biased view, Villoteau's work is certainly monumental, both in the field of Egyptian music studies as well as the discipline of ethnomusicology. European music scholars of his time were certainly aware of the inadequacies of Western notation for their transcriptions, yet it was the only tool at their disposal to record music abroad and to bring it home for further study. Villoteau was the first to overcome these shortcomings by creating his own transcription symbols to depict intervals and embellishments that otherwise did not fit into the standardized European system. It was not until the insistence of his Egyptian teacher, who suspected his faulty performance was due to his incorrect notation, that Villoteau began to experiment with different ways to record intervals of Egyptian classical music, including the 1/3 tones that are not found in European well-tempered scales. [13] By inventing new musical symbols, he not only brought attention to modes and scales that fell outside Western theory, but he also found an alternative way of writing them down.

Ironically, Villoteau's rendition of the "Alleluia" hymn does not exist in contemporary Coptic repertoire, though in his article, "Coptic Music: Value and Origins," Ragheb Moftah does describe a chant called "the Big Alleluia," usually recited during the Advent services. Perhaps suffering from what Boaz identified as 'sound blindness,' Villoteau could have heard the same hymn, but his transcription does not vaguely match what Newlandsmith produced with Moftah a little more than a century later. Despite this discrepancy, Villoteau still manages to illustrate the elongated melodies that characterize Coptic chant by drawing double dashes to imply the extended vowels on which they are sung. Also, as Villoteau was aware that Coptic chant did not fall squarely into the fixed duple meter that he suggested, he made a cautionary note at the beginning: "Mouvement lent et abandonné," meaning slow and with a sense of abandon, highlighting the free rhythm that characterizes much of Coptic chant to this day. As this transcription was published in 1809, it is in one of Villoteau's earlier works where he is still quite conservative about his use of traditional Western notation and metrical framework. His use of dashes, however, is a precursor to some of his more creative solutions to notation that he begins using in 1826.

Jules Blin and Louis Badet, 1888 and 1899

After the French were defeated by joint British and Ottoman forces, Egypt came under the hand of an Albanian viceroy of the Ottoman Empire named Muhammad Ali. Rising quickly to prominence among his army ranks, Muhammad Ali is regarded as the "founder of Modern Egypt" for both his government reform and rapid modernization that increased Egypt's contact with Europe. Along with these reforms, a rising number of missionaries, such as Italian and French Jesuits, British Anglicans, and American Presbyterians, arrived to establish schools, hospitals, and churches as part of their missions.[14] Among them were two French Jesuit priests by the names of Father Jules Blin (1853-1891) and Father Louis Badet (1873-1933), who were working at the newly established Collège de la Sainte Famille and who devoted their time to preserving Coptic traditional chant.

Established in 1879 as a seminary with the explicit goal of educating newly converted Coptic Catholic clergy so that they could maintain their own congregants,[15] the school emerged during a pivotal moment for the Roman Catholic Church abroad. In the 1850s, in an effort to reach Eastern Churches such as the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78) allowed new Catholic converts to maintain their traditional liturgies and languages as long as they recognized the Papal authority in Rome. In doing so, Copts could become Uniate or Catholic Copts without losing their indigenous liturgical traditions or the sacred language of their old church rites.[16] Indeed, by virtue of their missionary school experiences and the Jesuit outreach into Upper Egypt, there was a significant number of Coptic Orthodox Christians who converted. By 1894, there were as many as 5,000 Catholic Copts living in Egypt,[17] particularly in large cities such as Cairo where the Collège de la Sainte Famille was located. There, Fathers Blin and Badet educated these newly converted Copts, working toward preserving their music and notating it with the hopes of standardizing the many variations they encountered during their work.

Much like the preservationist attitude that permeated early comparative musicology, the chief concern of Fathers Blin and Badet was the continued transmission of Coptic music, particulalry among the Coptic Catholic community. As Coptic music was an exclusively oral tradition, they believed that it would certainly vanish under the heavy yoke of Arabic and popular music influences if it was not written down, standardized, and taught to future generations and clergy. In Father Blin's work, Chants liturgiques des Coptes. Notés et mis en ordre par le père Jules Blin de la Compagnie de Jésus missionnaire en Egypte. [Première] Partie chantée par le peuple et le diacre, published in 1888, he recognizes the theoretical difficulties of rendering accurate transcription and forewarns readers of the imperfections of his notations. Though Father Blin hoped to record meticulously all that he heard, he admits to avoiding the usage of sharps and flats by recording Coptic chant in C major,[18] inadvertently leaving out all of the embellishments, melismas, and pitch bending inherent to Coptic melodies. He simply rendered the basic melodic outline of each chant.

In his survey of Coptic studies, Gillespie dismisses Father Blin's collection as notably inaccurate,[19] yet he overlooks some of his contributions toward the rising interest in Coptic music. Father Blin was the first to move toward a culturally relativistic investigation of Coptic culture and expression, defending it against ethnocentric criticisms such as that of Villoteau. Additionally, Father Blin's work also reflects the concepts of pivotal publications such as those of Alexander J. Ellis and Benjamin Ives Gilman, now considered among the forefathers of contemporary ethnomusicology.[20] Just as Ellis demolished notions of harmonic universalism[21] and Gilman placed the integrity of non-European music on the same footing as European classical tradition, Father Blin accomplished a similar feat. He not only emphasized the beauty and sanctity of Coptic expression, but identified it as an indigenously Egyptian phenomenon, one that is distinct from the surrounding Arabic and popular music influences, and something worthy of study, protection, and preservation.

Father Badet further stresses Father Blin's relativistic stance, saying: "Celui qui voudrait assimiler la musique des coptes à la musique européenne moderne commettrait une grave erreur" -- "Anyone trying to compare Coptic music to modern European music would be making a grave error."[22] More precisely, to compare Coptic music to the European classical tradition with the ethnocentric values applied by previous scholars would dismiss its significance as a genre unto itself, operating within its own culturally specific contexts. In an effort to bring Coptic music "closer to home" among non-Copts, Badet mentions their antiquated link to Ancient Egyptian melodies, drawing on the rising scholarship of Egyptian antiquity. With the hopes of correcting many of Father Blin's inaccuracies, he not only reviews the previous work, but also notates both the liturgies of St. Basil and St. Gregory. It is clear from his introduction that Father Badet intended this publication as a teaching tool for seminary students by supplying his Coptic Catholic audience with the elementary European music principles so that they could read these transcriptions themselves. This is clearly Father Badet's goal in standardizing Coptic chant, which he felt would better preserve it against decline.

Despite his good intentions, Father Badet's work is also largely inaccurate, predominately for leaving out many of the central melismas and ornaments that distinguish Coptic hymns. Perhaps, in an effort to standardize the hymns, he left out these embellishments deliberately, as they changed from cantor to cantor and even differed from region to region in Egypt. Also, with their tone bending, the embellishments may have simply defied his ideas of Coptic music as a diatonic tradition that did not have any chromaticism.[23] What did start to emerge from Father Badet's transcription, however, were basic melodic structures that were beginning to resemble what Coptic music actually sounded like.

In the spirit of comparative studies, the work of Fathers Blin and Badet began to incite interest that was reflected in the early twentieth-century writings of Abbé J. Dupoux, published in La Tribune de Saint-Gervais. In this monthly bulletin of the Schola Cantorum, a school of church music established in Paris in 1894, Dupoux compared Coptic, Bulgarian and Armenian chants to Gregorian plainchant in a series of articles entitled, "Les Chants de la Messe," published in 1903 and 1904. As a forerunner to more intensive studies of Coptic chant, his work does not reflect the anxious preservationist tone of Fathers Blin and Badet. Rather, his approach was steeped in comparative and musicological analysis, aspiring to bring Coptic music and other liturgical traditions closer to Gregorian chant. Though his work contributed to the rising interest in Coptology by Western academics, a more rigorous study of music would have to wait another 30 years until Ragheb Moftah's project and the generation of scholars that came after him.

Kamīl Ibrahīm Ghubriyāl, 1916

During a period of civil unrest and a weakening Ottoman Empire, Egypt was annexed as a British colony in 1882 and officially remained so until 1922. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Egyptians were beginning to clamor for their own independence, culminating in the formation of the first national wafd, or delegation, to travel to Paris and petition for their country's independence at the Paris Peace Conference in 1918. Though their requests were initially rejected, Egypt nominally gained independence in 1922, but remained largely under British control for three more decades. It was also during this time that Egyptologist Howard Carter made his momentous discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb, inciting Egypt-mania both in scholarly circles and popular culture around the globe. This, along with a rising sense of local patriotism, launched a growing national conscience in Egypt that eventually led to the bloodless revolution otherwise known as the Free Officer's Coup, and the nation's full independence in 1952.

It is no surprise then that the first indigenous scholarship of Coptic music, promoted by the fervor of Egyptian nationalism, emerged during this time. In 1916, Kamīl Ibrahīm Ghubriyāl, a lieutenant in the Egyptian army, notated Coptic hymns into Western music notation and published them just two years before the Egyptian wafd traveled to Paris. In his introduction, he not only urged Copts to return to their indigenous traditions, but he explicitly targeted Coptic youth, particularly girls and young women in Coptic schools.[24] This is fairly surprising considering the fact that the Coptic liturgical genre is predominately performed and transmitted by men, even to this day. To compete with other secular music, such as the imported piano parlor songs accompanying the arrival of pianos in middle class Egyptian homes, Ghubriyāl was determined to make Coptic chants more attractive by adding rhythmic accompaniment played at the octave. Though he does not include any other harmony, he altered some notes and traditional rhythms to accommodate his newly introduced duple meter.

Ghubriyāl's work oddly resembles some of the earliest ethnomusicological notations coming out of the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Alice Cunningham Fletcher, who worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology, and John Comfort Fillmore, recorded and notated Omaha Indian music for piano performance, with the hope that they would join the other parlor songs played in the homes of middle class Americans.[25] Unlike Ghubriyāl, Fletcher and Fillmore added simple harmonies that were not originally part of the American Indian songs they recorded. Yet, their rhythmic adjustments correspond with Ghubriyāl's efforts, not only in relation to the added bar lines, but to make the notations more appealing for performance. It was in the hope of continued transmission through performance that scholars such as Fletcher and Fillmore, as well as Ghubriyāl, hoped to preserve the music they notated. While Fletcher and Fillmore were motivated by their scholarly interest in preserving Native American music, Ghubriyāl was moved by far more nationalistic reasons.

In the face of rapid modernization, British and American missionary schooling, and increased contact with the West, Ghubriyāl feared that traditional Coptic culture, much vested in church life and having a religious foundation, would disintegrate due to community apathy and ignorance of their own heritage. He was not the only one. Only a year after his publication of The Musical Notation of the Responses of the Church of Saint Mark, another Egyptian by the name of Tawfik Habib published a similar appeal: "Alhan al-kanīsa al-kibtīa," translated as "The Tunes of the Coptic Church,"[26] urging fellow congregants to get involved in preserving their own music, and taking an active part in scholarship that had been undertaken largely by non-Copts. Ghubriyāl, however, did not think that scholarship was enough. Believing in the negative influences of secular music that would ultimately harm the larger social fabric of what he specifically articulated as the Coptic nation, Ghubriyāl was hoping that modified Coptic chant would replace the performance of non-religious music performed in Coptic schools, social gatherings, weddings, and community organizations. In pursuit of Protestant models, recognized for their lively worship services, Ghubriyāl proposed modernizing Coptic music and liturgical services by adding an organ to all the churches in Cairo. He even proposed to help finance such an endeavor.

Ghubriyāl's renewed interest in Coptic culture, history, and expression coincided with what is today recognized as the most influential reform from within the Coptic Orthodox Church: the Sunday School movement. Begun informally in 1908 by the man who would later become the archdeacon of the Patriarchy, Habīb Jirjis, it was an effort to protect young Orthodox children from missionary influences by educating them about the lives of Coptic saints, Orthodox history and rites, by teaching them the Coptic language, and by reviving interest in spiritual songs and hymns. Rooted in the Egyptian middle class, this movement drew upon the existing political situation and awakened a distinctly Coptic nationalism. By 1918, it was an official Coptic renaissance, counting 42,000 children enrolled in Sunday school classes all over Egypt.[27] Interestingly, this revival started in the Fagalla district, precisely where Ragheb Moftah was growing up.

Ernest Newlandsmith, 1927-1936

By 1918, Ragheb Moftah was already 20 years old, yet most of his childhood and youth were steeped in the social and religious reform burgeoning in his local church, as well as the nationalism that was peaking in Egypt's political scene. His family was already quite active, with his great uncle, Yusuf Moftah founding the Coptic Philanthropic Society, known as Al-Jam'iyyāt al-Khayriyyā al-Qibtiyyā Qubrā, as early as 1881, and his sister Farida establishing the first orphanage for girls in Egypt in 1923. Deeply influenced by the examples around him and inspired by his love for Coptic music, he abandoned his vocation as an agriculturalist after returning from university training in Germany in 1926, and he began dedicating himself to the preservation of the Coptic liturgical genre. Driven by similar concerns as Habīb Jirjis about missionary encroachment on Coptic culture, he was eager to safeguard Coptic heritage against outside influence. He rejected outright Ghubriyāl's proposal to modernize Coptic hymns by adding piano accompaniment, convinced that they would adulterate their Ancient Egyptian roots. Instead, he investigated how to collect and notate them for the purpose of standardizing and teaching them to future generations. Moftah's work began in earnest when he stumbled into British violinist and composer, Ernest Newlandsmith, en route on pilgrimage as a minstrel friar to the Holy Land in 1926.

Over a 10-year span, Moftah and Newlandsmith worked together to produce 16 folios of Coptic liturgical music notation, 14 of which are now at the heart of the Ragheb Moftah Collection at the Library of Congress. Proving to be the most comprehensive undertaking on Coptic music of its time, Newlandsmith notated the complete liturgy of St. Basil as well as 25 major seasonal hymns. Unlike his North American and European contemporaries who were already using the phonograph to aide their transcription process, Newlandsmith notated what the great cantor, Mikha'īl Jirgis al Batanūnī sang to him when the two met on Moftah's houseboat. Newlandsmith's transcriptions, particularly his drafts, reveal this live-performance dynamic and how he struggled to find the best key in order to avoid adding unnecessary accidentals. Additionally, they also reflect his repeated attempts to capture the same hymn. Unlike a musical recording that renders the exact replica of a piece upon every listening, live musicians, including Mikha'īl Jirgis al Batanūnī, may sing a different variation upon every performance due to ornamentation style, embellishments, inspiration of the moment or, simply, fatigue.

In contrast to Kircher, Villoteau, and Fathers Blin and Badet, Newlandsmith admits to leaving out ornamentation and embellishments on purpose, describing them as the "appalling debris of Arabic ornamentation."[28] Actually, after auditioning several singers, both Moftah and Newlandsmith agreed to work with Batanūnī for his clear rendition of Coptic hymns, devoid of an overtly embellished style. Working with Moftah to standardize the Coptic hymnody for easier transmission, Newlandsmith's transcriptions are largely prescriptive, meaning that they only capture the basic melodic structure of the hymns, and most of them are outlined in duple meter, with simplified rhythms.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Newlandsmith's work, however, was his preoccupation with finding the most authentic elements of Ancient Egyptian sound in Coptic chant, especially because he believed Western classical music had its roots, not in ancient Greek origins but, instead, in Ancient Egyptian music. During one of his lecture tours across England, Newlandsmith declared, "After a careful study of these very simple themes, we cannot but feel that much of the music of Western civilization must have its source in the Orient."[29] His argument is not surprising, considering the rising fascination that England had with its newest prosperous colony, and the rest of the Western world with their presence in the Middle East, India, and parts of East Asia. Better known today as Orientalism, this interest shaped much of the scholarship that was to come out of Western academia.[30] Though Newlandsmith's audiences were not necessarily convinced, his talks served to spark further interest in Coptic music, with scholars such as John Gillespie, Ilona Borsai, Marian Robertson-Wilson, and Margit Tóth traveling to Egypt to work with Moftah.

Margit Tóth, Ragheb Moftah, and Martha Roy, 1998

In 1954, Coptic historian and scholar, Professor Aziz S. Atiya founded the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies (HICS)[31] at the Anba Ruweis Patriarchy in Cairo, with the hopes of initiating research on Coptic art, music, and language. Among the eight departments, Ragheb Moftah became the head of the Music Division and was responsible for training all HICS students as well as those enrolled in the Clerical College. At this time, Moftah also began making recordings of Coptic chants in the Institute's studio, some of which were disseminated outside of Egypt beginning the early 1960s. This included some recordings that traveled back to Hungary with Romanian musicologist, Ilona Borsai, in 1967, where she later worked with Hungarian ethnomusicologist, Margit Tóth. By 1970, American music professor, John Gillespie had already deposited a Coptic collection at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress from his work with Moftah in 1964.

It was Margit Tóth's transcriptions that were particulalry significant to Moftah's preservation project, which he initially began about 40 years before her arrival in Cairo. Using the recordings that Moftah made, she notated the entire liturgy of St. Basil as sung by two soloists including Mu'allim Sādiq 'Attallah and the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies choir of deacons. What is unique about her transcriptions is that she was the first to notate extensively the melodic ornaments that make Coptic hymns so distinctive. Using the Béla Bartók system, otherwise known as the Hungarian school of transcription, she notated every nuanced embellishment, turn, and vibrato that Mu'allim Sādīq chanted on these recordings to showcase the melodic complexity of Coptic chant. Tóth even devised a system to distinguish the traditional hymn from personal variations. By transcribing individual embellishments using smaller notation with stems pointing downwards, and the basic melody using larger note heads with stems pointing upwards, she preserved both the integrity of the traditional Coptic hymnody while featuring an example of the improvisation and virtuosity that distinguish every singer.[32]

Close to thirty years in the making, Tóth's transcriptions were finally published in The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Transcription in 1998. With the help of Martha Roy, a retired educator and missionary who translated and transliterated the Coptic into English, and Ragheb Moftah who supplied the recordings, this became the useful resource on Coptic music and was the culmination of Moftah's 75-year career in the collection of Coptic chant. Tóth's descriptive transcriptions--conceived more as specific renditions of Mu'allim Sādīq's performance rather than as a prescriptive singing manual--became a primary tool of scholarly preservation. However, due to the technical complexity of Margit Tóth's transcriptions, and the fact that most of the Coptic community do not read Western music notation, it was Moftah's recordings, rather than these notations, that were embraced as a teaching tool by cantors and deacons. In turn, these recordings complimented the indigenous notation system that Copts were already using.

Closely translated from its Arabic singular name hazzā, meaning "motion" or "movement," hazzāt are a series of dashes and dots that imply the melodic direction of Coptic chants. Though it has not been confirmed to be the same ekphonetic system found in Greek manuscripts found in Egypt as early as the third century, this notation system shares a similar mnemonic function and does not operate in the same way as Western music notation. Instead, the Coptic cantors use it above hymn texts to remember the specific melodic motion of a particular chant. Also identified as "kharāyet" or "maps" in Arabic, this notation does not supply the cantors with pitch, intervallic motion, meter, or a specific rhythm, but rather, reminds singers of the length of melismas, placement of words, transitions, the motion of extended melodies, and the upward or downward direction of embellishments. They also help deacons to distinguish similar hymns from one another. In other words, they are "maps" on how to maneuver through a particular melody of a chant. As part of an exclusively oral tradition, hazzāt are primarily a tool of education and hymn transmission, and are rarely ever used during performance, though deacons have been known to use them during seasonal hymns that are rarely performed throughout the year.

Some scholars, such as Hans Hickmann have argued that hazzāt stem from the Ancient Egyptian practice of chironomy dating back to the Fourth Dynasty between 2723 B.C. to 2563 B.C. Chironomy is the traditional teaching method of mu'allimīn, in which they used their hands to represent the melodic motion of a hymn. Since there is no standardized chironomy system among Coptic cantors, however, scholars such as Ragheb Moftah were hesitant to make this connection, clarifying that these hand motions are related more to rhythmic setting than to directing the pitches of a given melody.[34] As with the entire practice of hazzāt, more research is needed to investigate how Copts have preserved, transmitted, and notated their own hymns throughout the centuries.

Hazzāt are not officially published in hymnbooks, but are generally found on scraps of paper, personal notebooks, or even chalkboards where hymn learning takes place, thus emphasizing their primary role as mnemonic aides. In a recently-discovered phenomenon in the last few years, hazzāt have been codified by some Copts living outside of Egypt. In a Web site entitled, what had traditionally been dashes, dots, and arrows, have been modified to computerized fonts that have been inserted in the Coptic text itself. Seasonal pamphlets have also been organized and distributed among some of the churches for broader use among the entire congregation, rather than for cantors and deacons alone. This certainly exemplifies the broader participation in hymn chanting that is taking place in the diasporic Coptic community. Though male singers are still the primary disseminators of the hymns, women have become active participants in the singing from their seats in the pews and in non-liturgical contexts, such as religious community concerts and performances.


Today, the Coptic hymnody is recognized as one of the oldest living music traditions in the world. Yet, it was only a little more than a century ago that scholars such as Fathers Blin and Badet, and later Kamīl Ibrahīm Ghubriyāl and Ragheb Moftah, thought that Coptic liturgical chants were on the brink of extinction. If only they were to live to see this: on any given Sunday morning, one may walk into any Coptic Orthodox Church, whether in the cathedrals of Cairo, the humble single-room churches in Luxor, the monasteries of the Egyptian desert, or in the bustling diasporic communities all over the world and hear them being performed. Not only would they witness them being rendered by cantors, but by young deacons, youth, and women in the congregation. Moreover, they will also hear them being sung in languages other than Arabic and Coptic. Ragheb Moftah's relentless collecting, building on the transcription efforts of scholars dating as far back as the seventeenth century, as well as an indigenous effort and determination to transmit these hymns, have contributed to such a living legacy. This presentation by the Library of Congress offers only a brief survey of the burgeoning field of Coptic music studies, particularly those linked to the Ragheb Moftah Collection in the Library's Music Division. More work is certainly needed to investigate Coptic music culture thoroughly, its relation to Ancient Egypt, and how music facilitates one's Coptic identity today, whether one is a Coptic Egyptian, Coptic Canadian, or even a Coptic American. Thus, the future of Coptic music studies is assured as there are so many avenues for scholars to explore and new fields awaiting discovery.


  1. Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, and Martha Roy, "Music, Coptic: History." The Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. Aziz S. Atiya (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), p. 1731-1732. It is important to note that these manuscripts contained the Greek texts of a Psalter with only dashes and dotes inserted above the text. [back to article]
  2. Ter Ellingson, "Transcription." Ethnomusicology: An Introduction, ed. Helen Myers (London: Macmillan Press, 1992), vol. 1, p. 110. See Ellingson's article,"Transcription," pp. 110-152, as well a second article, "Notation," pp. 153-163, in which he clarifies the differences between these two terms. Ellingson defines transcription as the "writing of musical sounds" (p. 110), while notation is "the representation of music through means other than the sound of music" (p. 153). Drawing on Charles Seeger's monumental work, "Prescriptive and Descriptive Music-Writing," Ellingson reiterates the functional difference between "prescriptive" and "descriptive" transcription: prescriptive transcriptions are "a blue print of how a specific piece of music shall be made to sound," while descriptive transcriptions are "a report of how a specific performance of [music] actually did sound" (Seeger, p. 184). In his article, "Notation," Ellingson further clarifies that transcription is really shorthand for "descriptive notation." In other words, it musically documents one performance at a particular time. In the case of Coptic music studies, early attempts to put Coptic music to paper are better identified as "transcriptions" as they were not written down for the purpose of having musicians perform them, but rather to represent what scholars and missionaries such as Athanasius Kircher, Guillaume-André Villoteau, and Ernest Newlandsmith heard during their travels and work with the Coptic community. In this same article, Ellingson clearly defines "notation" as a "written graphic system of representing pitch, rhythm, and other features of music, usually for prescriptive purpose" (p. 153). Notation is primarily a performance aid. Coptic cantors use hazzāt -- an indigenous system of music dots, dashes, and arrows to indicate and prescribe how singers should perform alhān -- which is appropriately identified as music notation. Kamīl Ibrahīm Ghubriyāl's book is also an ideal example of Coptic music notation since he intended it to be used as a performance aid.[back to article]
  3. Alan Merriam, The Anthropology of Music (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1964).[back to article]
  4. Franz Boas, "On Alternating Sounds," American Anthropologist 2, no. 1 (January 1889): 47-53. [back to article]
  5. Mantle Hood, "The Challenge of 'Bi-Musicality,'" Ethnomusicology 4, no. 2 (May 1960): 55-59. [back to article]
  6. Kircher, Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta, p. 515. See English translation. Though he never had traveled to Egypt, he relied on secondary sources, namely, people who had traveled to the country, Copts, and manuscripts that he encountered in Rome. [back to article]
  7. For more on this, please see Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, ed. Paula Findlen (New York and London: Routledge, 2004). [back to article]
  8. Personal interview, 26 August 2008. [back to article]
  9. Please refer to the presentation timeline. [back to article]
  10. Please refer to the presentation timeline. [back to article]
  11. Please refer to John Gillespie's "A Survey of Past Research and a Projection for the Future," in The Future of Coptic Studies, ed.R. Mcl. Wilson. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1978), pp. 227-245. For a complete translation of Villoteau's introduction, please refer to the English translation kindly provided by Maryvonne Mavroukaksis and edited by Carolyn Ramzy. [back to article]
  12. Virginia Danielson and Alexander J. Fisher, "History of Scholarship: Narratives of Middle Eastern Music History," in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East, vol. 6, ed. Virginia Danielson et al. New York: Routledge, 2002, pp. 15-32. [back to article]
  13. See Guillaume-André Villoteau, "De l'état actuel de l'art musical en Egypte" in Description de l'égypte (Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1826), text vol. II, pt. 1a, pp. 754-757. For a brief analysis of his transcriptions, please see "Transcription" by Ter Ellingson in Ethnomusicology: An Introduction, ed. Helen Myers (London: Macmillan Press, 1992), pp. 110-152.
  14. Initial missionary contacts with Egypt begin as far back as 1439, but did not fully begin in earnest until 1825 when the British Anglican Missionary Church Society arrived in Cairo. For a detailed account on missionary activity in Egypt, please refer to Heather Sharkey's American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), and Alastair Hamilton's The Copts and the West, 1439-1822: The European Discovery of the Egyptian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). [back to article]
  15. For more on this, please see Victor Guérin's La France Catholique en égypte (Tours: Alfred Mame et Fils, 1894). [back to article]
  16. Heather Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 32. [back to article]
  17. Sharkey, p. 32. [back to article]
  18. Please refer to the translation of Father Blin's introduction, kindly provided by Maryvonne Mavroukaksis and edited by Carolyn Ramzy. [back to article]
  19. Gillespie, p. 231. [back to article]
  20. Alexander J. Ellis, "On the Musical Scale of Various Nations," Journal of the Royal Society for the Arts (27 March 1885): 485-527. Benjamin Ives Gilman, "The Science of Exotic Music," Science,n.s., 30, no. 772 (15 October 1909): 532-535. [back to article]
  21. The notion that all scales and modes must conform to the European diatonic scale, and anything that does not is a negative diversion from it. [back to article]
  22. Louis Badet, Chants Liturgiques des Coptes, notés et mis en ordre par Le Père Louis Badet, S.J. [Première] Partie Office de la Sainte Messe, Chants du Peuple et du Diacre. (Cairo: Collège de la Sainte-Famille, Petit Séminaire Copte, 1899.Reprint.Rome: La Filografica, 1936), p. 5. Maryvonne Mavroukaksis has kindly translated this introduction. [back to article]
  23. Please refer to Father Badet's section translated as "III. Characteristics of Coptic Chants." [back to article]
  24. See the translated introduction of Kāmil Ibrāhīm Ghubriyāl's, "Al-Tawqī'āt al-Mūsīqiyah li-Maraddat al-Kanīsah al-Murqusiyah" or"The Musical Notation of the Responses of the Church of Saint Mark." [back to article]
  25. Alice C. Fletcher, "A Study of Omaha Indian Music." Archaeological and Ethnological Papers of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, 1, no. 5 (June 1893). John Comfort Fillmore, "The Harmonic Structure of Indian Music," American Anthropologist, n.s., 1, no. 2 (April 1899): 297-318. [back to article]
  26. Cairo: Ramses Press; Gillespie, p. 234. [back to article]
  27. S.S. Hasan, Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 76. [back to article]
  28. Newlandsmith mentions this a few times, such as in his lecture at the Oxford University Church entitled, "The Ancient Music of the Coptic Church," on May 21, 1931. Also see his three-part article, "Music of the Orient: Recent Discoveries in Egypt," in The Musical Standard 37(May, June, and July 1932): 146; 161-162; 184-185. [back to article]
  29. Ernest Newlandsmith, "The Ancient Music of the Coptic Church," Pamphlet of lecture delivered at the Oxford University Church, May 21, 1931, p. 9. [back to article]
  30. For more on this, please see Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). [back to article]
  31. The Higher Institute of Coptic Studies was later shortened to the Institute of Coptic Studies. [back to article]
  32. In the late 1970s, Dr. Marian Robertson-Wilson, an American cellist and later scholar of Coptic music, began notating excerpts from the Liturgy of St. Basil and the services for Holy Week. Working with audio-tapes, she notated the hymns to the nearest quarter-tone and omitted bar lines. According to her, this only served to complicate the flexibility of the rhythm. Specializing in music sung by the choir, in which the pitches and embellishments are blurred by the individuality of each singer, she does not notate the ornamentation with the same detail as Tóth. In fact what Tóth notated as ornamentation, Robertson-Wilson heard as a wide vibrato, a fact borne out by video-recordings of the tone frequencies. Explanations in her essay, "The Challenges to Notating Music in General and Coptic Music in Particular: Observations of a Professional Cellist, Composer, and Linguist," describe this phenomena. Examples of her work appear in articles published in encyclopedias and scholarly journals in nine countries. [back to article]
  33. Three of these papyri were edited by Denise Jourdan-Hemmerdinger in "Nouveaux fragments musicaux sur papyrus (une notation antique par points)," Studies in Eastern Chant 4(1979): 81-111. [back to article]
  34. Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, and Martha Roy, "Music, Coptic: The Oral Tradition," in The Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. Aziz S. Atiya. (London: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), p. 1730. [back to article]


Atiya, Aziz S., ed. The Coptic Encyclopedia. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991.

Badet, Louis. Chants Liturgiques des Coptes, notés et mis en ordre par Le Père Louis Badet, S.J. [Première] Partie Office de la Sainte Messe, Chants du Peuple et du Diacre. Cairo: Collège de la Sainte-Famille, Petit Séminaire Copte, [1899]. Reprint.Rome: La Filografica, 1936.

Blin, Jules. Chants liturgiques des Coptes. Notés et mis en ordre par le Père Jules Blin de la Compagnie de Jésus missionnaire en Egypte. 1 Partie chantée par le peuple et le diacre. Cairo: Imprimerie nationale, 1888.

Danielson, Virginia. Reviewed work(s): The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil: With Complete Musical Transcription by Ragheb Moftah, Margit Tóth, and Martha Roy. Notes, 2nd series, 57, no 2(December 2000): 481-482.

Ellingson, Ter. "Transcription." In Ethnomusicology: An Introduction. Ed. Helen Myers. 2 vols. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1992, vol. 1, pp. 110-152.

Ellingson, Ter. "Notation." In Ethnomusicology: An Introduction. Ed. Helen Myers. 2 vols. London: Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1992, vol. 1, pp. 153-163.

Findlen, Paul. Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Guerin, Victor. La France Catholique en Egypte. Tours: Alfred Mame et Fils, 1894.

Hasan, S.S. Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Kircher, Athanasius. Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta. Rome: Apud Ludovicum Grignanum, 1643.

Moftah, Ragheb. "Coptic Music: Value and Origins." Cairo: 1958. Translated from the Arabic with permission for Copt-Net Archives. (accessed 6 January 2009).

Moftah, Ragheb, ed. The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998.

Seeger, Charles. "Prescriptive and Descriptive Music-Writing." The Musical Quarterly 44, no. 2(April 1958): 184-195.

Sharkey, Heather. American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Villoteau, Guillaume-André. "De la Musique des Qobtes." Description de l'égypte, ou, Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en égypte pendant l'éxpédition de l'armée française, publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l'empereur Napoléon le Grand. Paris: Imprimerie impériale, 1809. Text vol. II, pt. 1a, pp. 754-757.

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  • Notating Coptic Music: A Brief Historical Survey


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Thanks go to the following persons and organizations for granting permission for the use of items in the online presentation Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Chant and Hymnody.  Users may need to contact these rights owners for any re-use of materials:

Wassif Boutros-Ghali, President, Société d’Archéologie Copte, Cairo, for permission to reproduce articles on O.H.E. Burmester by Otto Meinardus, an atlas of Christian sites in Egypt by Meinardus, a photograph of O.H.E. Burmester, and a brochure on a map of Christian Egypt by Burmester, all published by the Société d’Archéologie Copte. 

Yasmine El Dorghamy, Turath, for permission to reproduce the article on Ragheb Moftah by Dr. Raymond Stock from Turath, August 2008.

Estate of John E. Gillespie, for permission to use two articles by John Gillespie and to reproduce the Gillespie correspondence in the American Folklife Center.

Chi Keat-Man, Syndication Account Manager, Telegraph Media Group Limited, London, for permission to reproduce three 1931 and 1932 articles on Newlandsmith from The Daily Telegraph

Claire Lamont, The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, for permission to reproduce Oriental Hymn Tunes by William Henry Temple, 1930.

Karen Lee of Cengage Learning, Belmont, California, for permission to use a selection of texts from The Coptic Encyclopedia.

Father Charles Libois, S.J., Collège de la Sainte-Famille, Cairo, and Lebanon, for photographs of Fathers Jules Blin and Louis Badet, as well as biographical sources on them.

Stephen McArthur of Multicultural Media, for permission to digitize four tracks from Echoes of the Nile: Aspects of Egyptian Music.

MVF - Michael Video, Heliopolis, for permission to reproduce film of Moftah’s funeral, 18 June 2001.

Simon O’Neill, Group Editor, The Oxford Mail and The Oxford Times, for permission to reproduce two articles on Newlandsmith’s lectures in England in  May 1931.

Alan Powell, The Star, Sheffield, for permission to reproduce an article on Newlandsmith in the Sheffield Mail, 1931.

Sinead Porter, NI Syndication, London, for permission to reproduce an article on Newlandsmith from The Daily Herald, 1931.

David Ramm, Editor-in-Chief, AMS Press, Brooklyn, New York, for permission to reproduce The Coptic Morning Service for the Lord’s Day by the Marquess of Bute.

Dr. Geoffrey Rutowski and Dr. Carl Zytowski, University of California, Santa Barbara, for permission to reproduce their memorial article on John Gillespie.

Father Thomas Sable, S.J., Director, Center for Eastern Christian Studies and Editor of Diakonia, The Theology Department, University of Scranton, Scranton, Pennsylvania, for permission to reproduce Marian Robertson’s article on Newlandsmith’s transcriptions, and for giving us a copy of Diakonia.

His Grace, Bishop Serapion, Bishop of Los Angeles, and His Grace, Bishop Youssef, Bishop of Southern USA, for permission to reproduce The Divine Liturgies of Saints Basil, Gregory and Cyril, 2001.

Youssef Sidhom, Editor-in-Chief, Watani Newspaper, for permission to use the documentary film, Eminent Copts in Egyptian History: The Power of Coptic Music, Ragheb Moftah 1998, which includes an interview with Moftah by the late Egyptian musicologist, Dr. Adel Kamel.

Welcome Video Film, Cairo, for permission to reproduce film of Moftah’s 100th birthday, 21 December 1998.

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