Mu­si­cal notes from an­cient Egypt

Watani International - - الصفحة الأمامية -

“Cop­tic mu­sic is such a great mu­si­cal genre, so great that we could con­sider it one of the Seven Won­ders of the World. In fact, a cho­rus filled with the spirit of God chant­ing Cop­tic hymns can ig­nite the spir­i­tu­al­ity of the en­tire Chris­tian world. Schol­arly re­search proves that the mu­sic of the Cop­tic Church is the old­est known form of litur­gi­cal mu­sic and is con­sid­ered the old­est school of mu­sic cur­rently ex­ist­ing in the world. The Cop­tic Church has pre­served an in­es­timable her­itage of Church mu­sic thanks to its con­ser­va­tive na­ture which has lived on since its ear­li­est days.” Th­ese were the words of Cop­tic mu­si­col­o­gist Dr Ragheb Mof­tah, known as the Fa­ther of Cop­tic mu­sic, de­scrib­ing the litur­gi­cal mu­sic which be­came his pas­sion and for which he ded­i­cated his en­tire life.

Dr Mof­tah was born in Cairo in De­cem­ber 1898 and pur­sued his post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion at Bonn Univer­sity in Ger­many, where he ob­tained a BSc in agri­cul­ture in 1919. How­ever it was mu­sic, not agri­cul­ture, that was his pas­sion. He went on to study mu­sic history and ob­tained de­grees from Bonn and from the Univer­sity of Mu­nich be­fore re­turn­ing to Egypt in 1926.

Dr Mof­tah was one of the founders of the In­sti­tute of Cop­tic Stud­ies, es­tab­lished in 1954, where he headed the Mu­sic and Hymn Depart­ment. He pi­o­neered the preser­va­tion of Cop­tic litur­gi­cal mu­sic, and it is thanks to him that for the first time in history Cop­tic hymns and chants, which had been trans­mit­ted orally from gen­er­a­tion to an­other, were recorded and no­tated and thus pre­served from loss.

On 7 Jan­uary 1984, Pope Shenouda III granted Dr Mof­tah an hon­orary doc­tor­ate from the In­sti­tute of Cop­tic Stud­ies.

Dr Mof­tah died on 18 June 2001 at the age of 102, leav­ing be­hind a wealth of Cop­tic mu­si­cal her­itage. One year be­fore his pass­ing away, pro­duced a doc­u­men­tary about him, di­rected by the mu­si­col­o­gist and jour­nal­ist (1942 - 2002).

met Ms Lau­rence Mof­tah, Ragheb Mof­tah’s niece, to learn about this great man and his ac­com­plish­ments. Ragheb Mof­tah was a scholar who was self-deny­ing, ethereal and un­in­ter­ested in all worldly mat­ters. I per­son­ally worked with him ex­ten­sively from 1978 un­til he passed away in 2001. I can as­sure you that dur­ing those years he never sought fame or glory; on the con­trary, he used all the wealth he in­her­ited from his fa­ther to fi­nance his schol­arly goals. He there­fore lived for many years in poverty, ded­i­cat­ing his life to the preser­va­tion of the Cop­tic mu­si­cal her­itage; he did not marry un­til the age of 66. abil­ity to mem­o­rise hun­dreds of litur­gi­cal hymns. Dr Mof­tah’s first achieve­ment was the first ever record­ing of Cop­tic litur­gi­cal hymns chanted by the chief can­tor at St Mark’s Cathe­dral. His name was Mikhail Gir­gis al-Batanoni, and he was known as which is Ara­bic for teacher. The Cop­tic hymns chanted by Mual­lim Batanoni were also tran­scribed in Western mu­si­cal no­ta­tion with the help of Pro­fes­sor Ernest New­land­smith from Lon­don’s Royal Acad­emy of Mu­sic. This was the first time this had been done, and was an ex­ten­sive work which lasted from 1927 to 1936. In do­ing this my un­cle aimed to keep the hymns of the Cop­tic Church alive and save the an­cient tra­di­tion of the Church from ex­tinc­tion. The re­sult was 16 fo­lios of Cop­tic mu­si­cal no­ta­tion which are now part of the Li­brary of Congress col­lec­tion. Cop­tic hymns have three main sources: An­cient Egyp­tian, He­brew and Greek. The first Chris­tians in Egypt adapted some an­cient Egyp­tian hymns sub­sti­tut­ing Chris­tian texts for the orig­i­nal words. Th­ese in­clude the hymn, which is an an­cient Egyp­tian chant that was sung dur­ing the mum­mi­fi­ca­tion process and in fu­neral pro­ces­sions, and the hymn whose first half con­tains som­bre tones re­flect­ing sad­ness for the pharaoh’s death while the sec­ond half has cheer­ful tunes re­flect­ing joy for the pharaoh’s as­cent in the so­lar boat to the af­ter­life. Both th­ese hymns have till to­day been sung on sev­eral Cop­tic oc­ca­sions, promi­nently the cel­e­bra­tion of the Pas­sion of Christ and His Cru­ci­fix­ion dur­ing Holy Week. The sec­ond source of Cop­tic hymns is the He­brew tra­di­tion, from which the a cap­pella or un­ac­com­pa­nied singing was adapted. Whereas wor­ship in the Tem­ple in Jerusalem in­cluded mu­si­cal in­stru­ments (2 Chron­i­cles 29:25–27), tra­di­tional Jewish re­li­gious ser­vices in the Syn­a­gogue, both be­fore and af­ter the last de­struc­tion of the Tem­ple, did not in­clude mu­si­cal in­stru­ments. The third source was the adap­ta­tion of some Byzan­tine-Greek hymns by Pope Kyril­los IV in the mid-19th cen­tury, such as the Res­ur­rec­tion hymns (

) and the hymn for the Holy Vir­gin ( ). Be­fore the es­tab­lish­ment of the In­sti­tute of Cop­tic Stud­ies in 1954, Dr Mof­tah es­tab­lished two cen­tres for the teach­ing and record­ing of Cop­tic hymns in 1945. One of th­ese was lo­cated in the Cairo cen­tral dis­trict of Bab al-Hadeed and the other in Old Cairo. He also or­gan­ised sum­mer camps in Alexan­dria to teach Cop­tic hymns, as well as the first voice record­ing stu­dio in the Pa­tri­ar­chate. Th­ese early cen­tres were con­sid­ered break­throughs in the history of the Cop­tic Church. My un­cle was the first per­son to record an­cient Cop­tic hymns to make sure they were passed down to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions through state-of-art tech­nol­ogy. He also played an im­por­tant role in es­tab­lish­ing the In­sti­tute of Cop­tic Stud­ies, an es­tab­lish­ment that he al­ways con­sid­ered his pride and joy, be­cause he wanted to pro­vide a more aca­demic ap­proach to the study of Cop­tic hymns. Dr Mof­tah was al­ways try­ing to dis­cover the ori­gins of Cop­tic mu­sic, es­pe­cially be­cause it is the only sur­viv­ing oral tra­di­tion among all an­cient civil­i­sa­tions. As for th­ese civil­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing the an­cient Egyp­tian, their her­itage is passed down through the texts in­scribed on manuscripts, papyri, tem­ple walls and obelisks. Dr Mof­tah was there­fore re­search­ing the ori­gin of the Cop­tic lan­guage and rit­u­als which are a con­tin­u­a­tion of the an­cient Egyp­tian civil­i­sa­tion. To this pur­pose, he stud­ied many Cop­tic manuscripts and papyri kept in the Bri­tish Mu­seum in Lon­don; the Bi­b­lio­thèque Na­tionale in Paris; the Egyp­tian Mu­seum; the Cop­tic Mu­seum and the Old St Mark’s Cathe­dral in Cairo. Dr Mof­tah had the vi­sion of adding an aca­demic di­men­sion to the study of Cop­tic mu­sic as a newly es­tab­lished field of study at the In­sti­tute of Cop­tic Stud­ies. He wanted to unify the man­ner in which melodies were handed down orally, and worked hard to­wards achiev­ing this goal. Fi­nally in 1971 Pope Shenouda III an­nounced that the Egyp­tian Cop­tic Ortho­dox Church would start uni­fy­ing the melodies used in the liturgy. In ad­di­tion, af­ter the es­tab­lish­ment of the Mu­sic and Hymn Depart­ment at the in­sti­tute, he faced the huge prob­lem of lack of pri­mary teach­ing re­sources. Nonethe­less, he never stopped re­search­ing and dig­ging into the range of Cop­tic mu­sic un­til his death and was able to dis­cover much un­pub­lished re­search. He also wrote many ar­ti­cles and doc­u­ments about Cop­tic litur­gi­cal mu­sic, most of which was not pub­lished, in ad­di­tion to his cor­re­spon­dence with prom­i­nent mu­sic schol­ars, Cop­tol­o­gists and Egyp­tol­o­gists. All this legacy is pre­served in the In­sti­tute of Cop­tic Stud­ies.

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