|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
7 - 13 January 1999
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Songs of praiseIt has been a century since his birth, and he has devoted the better part of these 100 years to a scrupulous, monumental task. Now, another project is in the offing
On 21 December 1998, in the presence of Pope Shenouda III and many dignitaries, the Choir of the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo sang happy birthday in Coptic. It was Ragheb Moftah's hundredth birthday, but this was not the only cause for celebration. The same month witnessed the publication, for the first time in history, of the musical notation, accompanied by verbal transcription, of the Liturgy of St Basil. This is only part of Moftah's life-long project of preserving the hymns and liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which have been handed down orally for two millennia.
In the 1920s, when Moftah embarked on the formidable task of documenting the musical heritage of the Coptic Church, he enjoyed neither papal patronage nor any form of institutional support. As Moftah recalls it, what gave him the impetus to begin his project was an iconoclastic, Westernised -- or modernising, depending on your vantage point -- movement, initiated by the influential Father Ibrahim Louqa and a number of Coptic notables in the 1920s. Contemptuous of what they considered to be the antiquated traditions of the Coptic Church, this group wanted to introduce into the church mass such extrinsic elements as the organ and do away with "the ouey, ouey of church hymns", as Moftah says, his face creasing with laughter as he mimics their mockery. At the time, however, Moftah was deeply disquieted by this trend and felt that the only way "to subvert their movement would be to transcribe all the hymns and thus preserve them for all eternity".
Born to a prominent Coptic family, Moftah's accomplishment is all the more remarkable when one considers that his formal education did not prepare him for the task he was to set himself. In the 1920s, he had just returned from Germany where, amid walks by the Rhine and concert-going, he had obtained a BSc in agriculture. The youngest of eight siblings, it would seem that he was being groomed to take a leisured interest in the family estate in Abul-Shukouk, possibly with a bureaucratic job on the side. Not that involvement in church affairs and Coptology was without precedent in his family. Ironically, perhaps, in view of Ragheb's work, an ancestor of his, Eryan Guirgis Moftah, who taught Coptic at the Patriarchal College in the 1850s, advocated the "modernisation" of the Coptic language along the phonetic lines of modern Greek, according to the Coptic Encyclopedia. Ragheb also mentions another 19th-century relative, the monk Boutros Moftah, whose book recommending the creation of a clerical school and fewer fasts, among other changes, was suppressed by the then Pope Cyril V.
A few decades after these forebears, the task of preserving the liturgy would require that Ragheb Moftah become a whole institution: the Institute of Coptic Studies was not yet in existence (in fact, he was to be one of its founding members in 1954). It was around 1927 that Moftah made the acquaintance of the British author, composer and ethnomusicologist Ernest Newlandsmith. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, Newlandsmith was a self-styled "minstrel-friar" who took up lengthy residences in a hermitage on Mount Carmel, Palestine. Moftah immediately invited Newlandsmith to transcribe the Coptic liturgy, a collaboration that lasted for almost a decade.
Described by Moftah as a very pious, learned man, Newlandsmith also appears to have been a somewhat colourful, larger-than-life person. Among the demands he made of Moftah when the contract was being drawn up was that he should be lodged on a houseboat, complete with a piano. (A minor motif in the Moftah-Newlandsmith correspondence -- now in the Library of Congress in Washington -- concerns the shipment of the piano to Palestine, during the spells Newlandsmith spent at the hermitage.) But it would be misleading to suggest that Moftah's role was merely that of sponsor. As an insider, versed in the rites of the Coptic Orthodox Church, he was Newlandsmith's ideal guide.
After the introduction of Christianity into Egypt by St Mark around 45AD, according to church tradition, the hymnology of what was to become the Coptic Church evolved over several centuries. Predominantly vocal, the musical heritage of the church grew through assimilating and reworking indigenous and regional influences. It has been suggested that "aspects of the Jewish services were adopted by the Christian church in Egypt", through the Old Testament and the Jewish presence in Alexandria, as traceable in hymns like the Coptic "(e)Khouab, (e)Khouab, (e)Khouab" (or "Holy, Holy, Holy"). However, scholars have asserted that "no specific melodies have been identified as belonging to both traditions", according to the Coptic Encyclopedia's entry on music, compiled by Moftah, Margit Toth, Martha Roy and Marian Robertson.
The argument goes far beyond such staple assertions as the Copts being descendants of the ancient Egyptians. There is the affinity some have identified "between the Kyrie and the ancient Egyptian rites of the sun-god" and the fact that the titles of certain hymns make reference to ancient Egyptian place-names (as in the Lahn Sinjari, thus named after an ancient village near Rosetta). More pertinently, an essential characteristic of Coptic music -- "the prolongation of a single vowel over many phrases of music that vary in... complication", and that can last up to a whole minute in the case of vocalise -- seems to have come down from ancient Egypt, as Coptologists have pointed out on the strength Middle Kingdom texts in which a certain consonant is repeated. Another likely survival from Ancient Egypt is the reliance on blind cantors (the 'arif or mu'allim) for the performance of the Coptic liturgical service, in the belief that their blindness enhances their sense of hearing and ability to memorise.
It was one such blind cantor, Mu'allim Mikhail Guirgis El-Batanouni, who was selected to pay daily visits to the houseboat moored opposite the old Semiramis. In those pre-tape-recording days, Newlandsmith took down the notation from live performances of the liturgy, and El-Batanouni, the master-cantor of the old Coptic Cathedral in Clot Bey Street, was chosen for his purist delivery. Over several seasons, Newlandsmith compiled some 16 folios of notation, including the Liturgy of St Basil (used in the Coptic Church throughout the year except during the feasts), the Liturgy of St Gregory (used during the four major feasts of Nativity, Epiphany, Resurrection and Pentecost), and a number of special services like the ordaining of new priests.
In 1931, Moftah and Newlandsmith (who by then was introducing himself as the "Hermit of Mount Carmel") decided it was time for a lecture tour on Coptic music in England. Even after so many years, the impact of their addresses in Oxford, Cambridge and London still resonates in the trail of write-ups they left behind, with such excitable headlines as: "Origin of Western Music: Ancient Egyptian Melodies Discovered"; "The Ancient Music of the Coptic Church"; "Ancient Music of the East". To audiences "packed to the point of discomfort", Newlandsmith asserted that "this music... is not Arabic, nor Turkish, nor Greek in origin, often as these elements appear. It seems impossible to doubt that it is Ancient Egyptian." The distinguished Egyptologist F L Griffiths, who introduced the lecture-recital given in the lecture-room of St Mary's at Oxford, and attended by Einstein, is reported to have said that "Oxford might be going about soon 'humming, whistling or even shouting' Coptic melodies."
There is no doubt that the success of the lecture tour owed something to the new wave of Egyptomania that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in the 1920s. "They found it novel, exotic," offers Moftah. The British lecture-tour, widely reported in Egypt, was followed by similar ones in Cairo, accompanied by recitals by El-Batanouni. One "exotic" response to the project came in the form of a letter to the editor of an Egyptian newspaper from a Mohamed Ghaleb of the Ministry of Public Works. Ghaleb, after rebuking Moftah for sponsoring Newlandsmith rather than an Egyptian musicologist, cited what he saw as the "purely Coptic melody" of a song sung by Miss (Al-Anissa) Umm Kulthoum, "Sikitt wi'l-Dam' Itkallim" ("Though I Fell Silent, My Tears Spoke for Me"), composed by Mohamed El-Qasabgi.
By the late 1930s, the notation of Coptic liturgy was more or less complete. For lack of a publisher and with funds depleted, Moftah was unable to have it printed; the Second World War put paid to Newlandsmith's attempts to get the transcriptions published in Europe. Moftah, undaunted, continued the task of preserving and keeping the Coptic musical tradition unalloyed by recording on reel the full liturgy. This lasted well into the mid-fifties, when El-Batanouni died.
Moftah's other angle of approach was to form a rigorously trained choir which, as head of Hymnology and Music Department of the Institute of Coptic Studies, he continues to supervise. At the birthday celebrations, Pope Shenouda III spoke at length of "the Moftah school" of choir training, before jokingly describing the great severity of Moftah's touch. Of the choir's recital destinations in Egypt and Europe, none could have been more memorable than the Temple of Horus at Edfu many years ago, when Moftah had them chant in the inner sanctuary reserved for the high priest in order to test the acoustics and effect. "A miracle of voice distribution" is how he sums up the outcome.
Like Newlandsmith, who married in late middle age (to a Maria Romero, billed in the British press as being "of ancient Aztec ancestry... [a] great race... said to have had its origins in the lost Continent of Atlantis"), Moftah married, almost as an after-thought, in the late 1960s. There is a palpable sense of companionship in his relationship with his wife, Maria Rizk. Moftah explains that he got married because he felt he needed "to be looked after". Throughout his life, apart from his faith, Moftah's mainstay has been the women of his family, from his mother, then his two sisters, Farida and Blanche, to his niece, Laurence. It is indeed thanks to Laurence Moftah, head of the Reference Department of the American University in Cairo Library, that the entire corpus of her uncle's lifetime project is now preserved as the "Moftah Collection" in the Library of Congress. The collection comprises the folios of notation transcribed by Newlandsmith, Ragheb's voluminous correspondence not only with Newlandsmith, but also with such distinguished Coptologists as O H E Burmester and the recordings of El-Batanouni's recitals, now transposed onto cassette.
As for The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St Basil, most recently published by the American University in Cairo Press, this was given unmitigated support by Pope Shenouda III and is the fruit of Moftah's collaboration with two ethnomusicologists, the Hungarian Dr Margit Toth and the American Dr Martha Roy. When, in the early '70s, Moftah invited Toth to transcribe the Liturgy of St Basil, the musicologist did not draw on Newlandsmith's work. Toth explains that, unlike Newlandsmith, she had the benefit of recordings and, by playing them at slow tempo, could attain a higher degree of accuracy and nuance.
Toth, the former head of the Folk Music Department of the Hungarian Ethnographic Museum, follows the Bela Bartok school of musical transcription, which is "much more detailed and shows the lines for ornamentation."
The musical transcription of the liturgy is accompanied by Roy's no less impressive achievement of phonetically transcribing the Coptic text, providing English translations and editing the Arabic text. Of Moftah's role in the work, Roy explains: "He is the most experienced in the correct performance of the liturgy and is very meticulous about the correct pronunciation, tonal performance and rite of the liturgy... he went through it all with a fine-tooth comb."
"A question that has preoccupied me," said Pope Shenouda III at the December celebrations, "is: what would have become of our church hymns had not God brought forth Ragheb in that generation?" Ragheb himself, delighted and gratified though he is by the celebrations and the coming to fruition of his life-long project, feels there is a great deal more work to be done. With another relative, Abdullah Moftah, he is writing a monograph on his family's genealogy and history and has so far tracked his ancestors back to 1613. But this is just by the by. The Liturgy of St Cyril, considered the most Egyptian of the three Coptic liturgies, has long since fallen into disuse, but fragments of it survive in distant parishes, and urgently need to be documented. It is on this project that Ragheb Moftah has now set his heart.
photo: Sherif Sonbol