In Memoriam: Ragheb Moftah
Revd Dr John H Watson
A wide range of amateurs and professionals in a definite social and cultural setting practises music, but all great music becomes accessible to peoples outside the cultural or ethnic circle. The present writer was educated in Western Classical music traditions from childhood and was a professional musician before becoming a theologian and priest. It is a personal conviction that it is in playing Coptic Orthodox music that we come close to the inner reality of Coptic liturgical life. It is essential to be aware of the public setting of Coptic Music whilst affirming the value of individual experience. All religious music, and especially Coptic music in this context, can be experienced at once as inward and intimate, communal and educational. There is nothing so evocative of the Coptic experience as the enigmatic malisma (a melodic extension of a vowel); the long unison phrases (the music is monophonic); and the measured metrical scanning of the verses of Coptic liturgical music, pointed by the metallic ring of the lonely naqus (a pair of small hand cymbals) or the trianto (triangle).
Speech, the unique sound of each distinct tongue, is intimately related to musical notation. Coptic Music, like Spanish Catholic, Armenian, Slavonic and traditional Anglican cathedral music is absolutely sui generis. It is impossible to ignore ethnic issues in the production and interpretation of Music. Each of the world’s musical voices needs its own standard, the ability to distinguish the authentic and the counterfeit.
Just as there is a measure by which all Coptic Iconography may be evaluated, thanks to the tremendous accomplishment of Isaac Fanous, so there is a standard by which all Coptic music may be judged and it is that sanctioned by Ragheb Moftah, a musicologist and scholar of eminence who devoted his life and personal fortune to the modern notation and definition of Coptic music. It is a phenomenal achievement. Dr. Moftah lived in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, dying at the age of 102 only the other day.
Ragheb Moftah was born on 21 December 1898 at al-Faggala in Cairo. Fluent in English, French and German, he was sent to Germany to study at the Faculty of Agriculture in the University of Bonn in the Rhineland. It was a rather obvious field of study for a wealthy Copt living in the Nile Delta. But Ragheb’s great passion was music, European classical music and the traditional music of Egypt, and he eventually obtained degrees in Music at Bonn and in Catholic Southern Germany at the University of Munich. At home in Egypt, both before his departure to Germany and on his return to Egypt, Ragheb found inspiration and collaboration with the traditionalist Coptic musician Mikhail Girgis al-Batanouny. The rest of the twentieth century was devoted to the recording and notation of Coptic liturgical texts. It was a turbulent century for Egypt, even when compared with the long centuries of turmoil in the Nile Valley. While Egypt struggled with experiments in constitutional government, the failure of liberalism, war and occupation, revolution and republic and the growing Coptic revival, this remarkable man stuck to his task of cultural conservation. He disliked anything that interfered with his researches and was not an enthusiast for the 1950s Revolution. In popular English parlance, he kept his nose to the grindstone. It was a firm, indispensable dedication. In the later years of the century Moftah found valued collaborators in the cantors Sadek Attallah and Farag Abdel Messih.
UNESCO championed his work and Moftah was conscious of the international context of his project. He knew the British scholar Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) who travelled the United Kingdom for half a century, with basic recording equipment, collecting folk songs that would otherwise be lost. Moftah also understood that it was essential to be hard-hearted in pursuit of his ideal. He knew that the Hungarians Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok had started their recordings and transcriptions of folk music in 1913 and that the results were only finally published in 1951. Much later in 1998 the Bela Bartok system of notation was used in Moftah’s published transcriptions. Ragheb Moftah worked with the authoritative singers of the time, and produced an enormous number of recordings for critical analysis. The process was slow and careful, involving travels from the furthest reaches of Upper Egypt to the Mediterranean coastline. Coptic singers were everywhere in Egypt. In 1927, Moftah employed an Oxford trained musicologist called Ernest Newland Smith to work in a Nile houseboat investigating the structure and notation of Coptic music. Together, they produced sixteen volumes of musical notation, which could be read by trained musicians anywhere. It was a defining moment in the Coptic cultural and ethnic renaissance. Moftah and Newland Smith believed that the origins of European Music lay in the music of Egypt.
The magnum opus of Dr. Ragheb Moftah is The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription, an indispensable tool for Coptic Studies. (American University in Cairo Press 1998). The Hungarian ethnomusicologist Dr. Margit Toth undertook the exquisite musical transcriptions, under Moftah’s direction. This project alone took thirty years. Moftah has devoted most of his long life to the preservation of the significant Coptic musical heritage. Without this authentic sound of the Christian Nile there is no Coptic worship. The Western Coptologist or the Copt of the lands of emigration who does not understand Coptic Music mediated by Moftah does not understand the Copts at all. The Music is related solely to Coptic and Arabic. It cannot be successfully sung in English or any European language and the attempt ought not to be made. It is an act of cultural barbarism.
Dr. Moftah’s death after so long a life left all those concerned with Coptic language and culture bereft, though it was clear that even those who live longest will be called home. To give thanksgiving for Ragheb Moftah’s ascendancy in the field of cultural and theological studies, the writer has been spending time with the musical text of the Liturgy, in Arabic, Coptic and English. It is an indispensable work of gift and disclosure. The gift is that of the beauty of holiness in music, and the disclosure is of a trustworthy and genuine expression of history, culture and spirituality among the Copts.