For thousands of years, music has been passed down orally for worship services of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, also known as the Coptic church. The music passed from master cantor to master cantor because it was too sacred to write down.
In addition, the many rhythmic and melodic nuances have put the music out of reach of existing notation systems, rendering the task impossible. But in this century, a desire to preserve the sacred tradition has brought together people who are passionate about maintaining the integrity of something so holy to so many.
Marian Robertson Wilson, a linguist, musician and Coptic scholar, is one of them.
"The Egyptians from the beginning have had their own orthodox church, which is unique," Wilson said. "And this project concerns the music of that church.
"Historically, my research has shown that a lot of it likely could have been sung even during Pharaonic Egypt times. It is very ancient."
Even with the oral transmission, Wilson said that the basic melodies have stayed the same throughout the centuries. "I have traced some even back to the year 300."
But in this century, Wilson feels although she can't yet back it with research that Western influence is, bit by bit, affecting the purity of the tradition.
"There was a Copt, Ragheb Moftah, who came from a wealthy family," she said, "and he wanted to keep this tradition and preserve it in some way." At first, he tried hiring an English musician to notate the music. But recognizing the drawbacks of that method, coupled with new technology in the late 1930s and '40s, he decided to try tape-recording them.
"There was one great, great master chanter of the 1900s who really was the greatest one of all, and Moftah got him to record a lot of the music," Wilson said. Those recordings, made in the 1940s, were eventually donated to the Library of Congress.
That's when Wilson became involved. It was 1992, after she had been working for the Coptic Encyclopedia, that Wilson received a call from the Library of Congress, asking her to listen to the tapes and identify the music so the library would know what it had in its collection. "I said I would give it a try. So they sent me 25 cassette tapes with 25 hours of music. That's a whale of a lot of music!"
It was a difficult project. And the recording quality was quite low. "The collection they received was on big, big reels of paper, and the paper had deteriorated enough that the technicians said it was falling to pieces. They literally had to put it down on the ground and piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle."
On top of that, it was all out of order. "There would be a snitch of this hymn, a snitch of this prayer it was just all out of sequence," Wilson said. "I transcribed it, sent the texts back about 400 pages to the Library of Congress, and they said, 'Well, this just doesn't have any order to it.' "
Wilson said she had transcribed the texts into Coptic, then transliterated that into Latin script, and then translated that into English. In response to their concern, she tried to put the texts back in a little bit of order, but in the end, "The Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant Recordings" had an unsatisfying conclusion. "Anyone who looked at the guide and listened to the cassettes would have a difficult time correlating and finding what they were listening to."
It wasn't until now that she has been able to complete the project that she began so many years ago. Thanks to a grant from the Atiya Foundation of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah, and along with the help of recording engineer Kenny Hodges, Wilson has been able to put the music and the guide in a usable and understandable format.
The finished product consists of 21 CDs and "The Revised Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant Recordings," 388 pages long. "We're now giving them to the Library of Congress and to the American University in Cairo," Wilson said, along with the libraries at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University.
In addition to putting all the music in order, Wilson said that a five-second break had been inserted between pieces to tell one from another, and much of the extraneous noise on the original recordings had been removed. "This revised guide is correlated directly with the CDs so that anybody who starts right here can just listen to the CD and follow this text and either read it in Coptic or in our alphabet and get the translation."
Wilson called the recordings "a great monument, and it really saves the way the music was sung by one of their best master chanters in the 1940s. . . . What we have here is the authentic, pure music."
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