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The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil: With Complete Musical Transcription.

The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil: With Complete Musical Transcription. Compiled by Ragheb Moftah; music transcription by Margit Toth; text edited by Martha Roy. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998. [Acknowledgments, p. vii; introd., p. ix-xi; the Coptic alphabet, p. xiii; order of the liturgy, p. xv-xix; alphabetical index of the liturgy, p. xx-xxiv; the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil, 697 p.; front matter in Arabic, 23 p. Cloth. ISBN 977-424-437-0; Dar el Kutub no. 3717/97. E[pound]100.]

The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil provides a rich and unique resource for the study of a major living tradition of Christian worship. It will interest students and researchers of chant traditions, Egyptian music, Middle Eastern musics both devotional and more secular, and liturgics. Additionally, it will serve the Coptic religious community, a historic population in the Middle East and an ever-growing and important one in North America, as a musico-historical document. As a liturgical resource, it broadens our understanding of Christian practice, bringing us closer to the contemporary living tradition of one of the four historic Patriarchates, that of Alexandria (alongside those of Antioch, Byzantium, and Rome).

The volume presents the entire Liturgy of St. Basil, one of three major liturgies of the Coptic Church, the others being the liturgies of St. Gregory, used for the four great feasts of the church, and of St. Cyril, the melodies of which have been lost. The Liturgy of St. Basil is celebrated throughout the year with special additions particular to the day of the ecclesiastical calendar. The present volume gives a transcription for the day commemorating St. Antony, the first Christian monk, which is Tubah 22 in the Coptic calendar (p. ix). The book opens with brief introductory material in English and Arabic (at opposite ends of the book, as befits the two languages) on the Coptic liturgy and alphabet plus an alphabetical index of the Coptic liturgical texts, followed by the complete transcription of the liturgy that fills almost seven hundred pages.

This edition is primarily a scholarly work. Compiled by life-long student of Coptic music and religious practice, Ragheb Moftah, it is based on recordings he collected from authoritative religious practitioners in Cairo--a collection that spans most of the twentieth century. The notation was prepared by Margit Toth, a well-known ethnomusicologist schooled in the techniques of melodic transcription taught by Bela Bartok and his students. Her transcription is meticulously notated, allowing the reader to see countless nuances of tuning, intonation, and ornamentation in the rendering of the liturgy. It is detailed and descriptive, not necessarily intended for would-be practitioners. Martha Roy, a linguist, self-proclaimed "educationalist," and lifelong resident of Egypt, prepared the text, which is given in Coptic, Arabic, and English. The collaboration of these well-educated, knowledgeable, and dedicated individuals produces a remarkably useful result. The book documents twentieth-century practice and possibly o lder historic practices as well, presenting a "reading" of contemporary Coptic worship, unique in its detail and completeness.

The study of Coptic music has been nearly impossible outside the community of its practitioners, since the practice of the music depends primarily on oral transmission. The documents that have accrued to other great chant traditions simply do not exist for this one, thus severely limiting scholarly research. Roy does offer excellent introductions to Coptic liturgical music elsewhere, including the Sachteil of the second edition of Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (vol. 5, pp. 718-26 under "Koptische Kirchenmusik" [Kassel: Barenreiter, 1996]); in the forthcoming second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 2000); and in the also forthcoming The Middle East (ed. Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds; vol. 6 of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music [New York: Garland Publishing, 2000]). In addition, Salwa El Shawan Castelo-Branco's master's thesis, "An Annotated Bibliography on Coptic Music" (Columbia University, 1975), offers a comprehensive and reliable introduction to the pre-1975 literature. The bulk of the available resources on Coptic music are in Arabic and French, with relatively short studies by scholars Ilona Borsai (such as "Characteristiques generales du chant de la messe copte," Studia Orientalia Christiana Cotlectanea 14 [1970-71]: 412-42); Hans Hickman (such as "Quelques observations sur la musique liturgique des Coptes en Egypt," in Atti del Congresso internazionale di musica sacra ... Roma, 25-30 Maggio 1950, ed. Igino Angles [Tournai: Desclee, 1952], 100-6); and Rene Menard ("Une etape de l'art musical egyptien: La musique copte: Recherches actuelles," Revue de Musicologie 36 [1954]: 21-38); and graduate theses by a younger generation of Egyptians, with Nabil Kamal Butrus and Nabila Erian leading the field. Much of this work is not readily access ible outside of major research libraries.

One of the first transcriptions of the Coptic liturgical melodies (if not the only earlier one) was commissioned by the present collector, Moftah, and carried out by Ernest Newlandsmith between 1926 and 1936 in Cairo. This unpublished manuscript currently resides in the Institute of Coptic Studies in the Coptic Theological Seminary in Cairo. The style of notation is, predictably enough for its era, abstract and prescriptive. Toth's notation for the new transcriptions, on the other hand, includes many descriptive details that reflect performance practice and the nuance of the moment, bringing the reader closer to the experience of listening to the chant.

Possibly motivated by the renewed interest in world music and spirituality, a few recordings of Coptic music have been released internationally in recent years. Of particular note are Liturgies coptes (Ensemble David, Georges Krollos, conductor [Institut du Monde Arabe 321022, 1999]) and the field recordings included on Egypt, Echoes of the Nile: Aspects of Egyptian Music (Multicultural Media MCM 3005, 1997), augmenting Laura Boulton's older Coptic Music (Folkways FR 8960, 1960), which also includes field recordings. Yet equally in the arena of audio, Moftah goes one better: this veteran collector, whose recordings span generations of twentieth-century practice, has deposited a significant portion of his collection in the Library of Congress (where they are entitled "Coptic Chant Tapes" at shelf number RWD 5128-5139), as well as in Egypt at the Coptic Institute.

Despite the good quality of many of the earlier disparate efforts, the dearth of resources for the student of Coptic liturgy is clearly apparent. With The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil, Moftah, Roy, and Toth present us with a complete and meticulous rendering of a principal liturgy, and thus a major primary resource. This alone is enough reason to buy the volume. Sadly, the book lacks sufficient front matter to contextualize the liturgy for the non-Copt. A substantial essay on the Coptic Church, community, liturgy, and musical practice would have been in order and would have augmented the value of this enterprise immensely. As it stands, the reader must still refer to the materials cited above for this essential information.
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Title Annotation:Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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