The Heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Interview with Dr. Ragheb Moftah

Bishoy K. R. Dawood
July 11, 2005

A historical interview with Dr. Ragheb Moftah, the Preserver of the hymns and rites of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the past Dean of the Department of Music and Hymns at the Institute of Coptic Studies, by Fr. Mettias Nasr and HCOC Servant, Albair Mikhail. The interview was conducted in 11 October, 1999.

Duration: 10:33· Filesize: 15.15 MB · Download: mp4

English-language Transcript/Translation

Fr. Mettias Nasr: In the name Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. We record, by the grace of God, an interview with Dr. Ragheb Moftah, the dean of the Department of Music and Hymns in the Institute of Coptic Studies, on the blessed day of Monday, 30 Tuth, 1716 – 11 October, 1999. Present with us is the blessed Fr. Mercurius Samuel, Mr. Albair Gamal, our brother Yakoub, and my abject self.

Ragheb Moftah: What would you like to say?

Albair: There are a few questions here, the first of which is the traditional question, which is how did the idea of recording the hymns and musical notations (of the Church) begin?

Ragheb Moftah: Yes. This is quite a big topic, so I’ll say it in short. There used to be group of people who called themselves “The Renaissance Group,” which had members who were well-educated. Among them was a Wazir – I can’t recall his name now. Also among them was Fr. Ibrahim Luka, who was the first priest to pray in the Church in Cleopatra, Masr-el-Gidida. Their theory was that the renaissance of the Church should include a change in every rite and hymn of every occasion. They used to call it (the rites) “the old, the extinct.” So, of course, I did not agree with this theory at all. I told them that this Church of ours is the Church of the Fathers, and its rites are from the early centuries. They, for sure, were insistent on applying their ideas. So, I saw that if Western scholars – scholars of music, I mean – spoke on the music of the hymns and our Liturgies, their words will be a strong wave against the words and ideas of those who are strangling it. So I traveled to England in the year 1928, and I called the Royal Academy of Music in London, and asked for someone who is a specialist in making records of vocal musical notations, and specifically in Church music. They told me of Prof. Ernest – write his name down now – Newlandsmith. We had an agreement together, such that he comes to Egypt to record the ecclesiastical Coptic music. He began in the year 1930… He sat with Mo’allim Mikhail Girgis el-Batanouni, who was the greatest source of hymns. (Newlandsmith) worked for around 20 years; he would come in the Winter, in October, and worked with – of course, I got him many cantors and so on, and he chose Mo’allim Mikhail, saying that he could understand what he chants. He worked on 16 bound notes. He used to come in October and leave in June, taking with him the work he did to bind it there. We recorded all the hymns of the Church, and the vocal musical notations, since our hymns are meant to be only vocal.

Albair: The amounts of people who know it are few? The amounts of people who know how to write and read vocal notations are few?

Ragheb Moftah: I’m not concerned about that. All I want is to preserve the Church’s hymns. I’m not concerned about the amount of people. The amount is for the Church to prepare, you see.

Albair: Alright. I was talking with Fr. Mettias on the hymn “Apetjeek Evol.” Many people think that Mo’allim Mikhail composed the music for it.

Ragheb Moftah: No.

Albair: So he told me that Dr. Ragheb knows a story about the hymn “Apetjeek Evol.”

Fr. Mettias Nasr: You once mentioned that Mo’allim Mikhail went to a village in el-Minya, and learnt the hymn “Apetjeek Evol” from a lame woman.

Ragheb Moftah: Yes, she was lame. She was a cantor in the Church there, this lame woman.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Was it permitted for lame woman to lead the hymns in the Church?

Ragheb Moftah: This is something, like…

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Exceptional?

Ragheb Moftah: Yes, an exception.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes.

Ragheb Moftah: A lady who is old in age, and is…

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Gifted.

Ragheb Moftah: Gifted and knows the hymns, so you know…

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Just like the Institute for the Disabled Women, now. It teaches hymns and they know them very well.

Albair: In your opinion, which is more significance: the handing-down, or the music? For example, if there is a hymn that is chanted in more than one way, is the source more important, or the musical scale that is suitable to our hearing more important?

Ragheb Moftah: See, I’ll tell you something. There are a very few hymns that Mo’allim Mikhail knew in two ways. A very few, like 2 or 3 hymns, something like that. Of course, both him and I chose the hymns that sounded musically correct.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: That means that it is musically accurate, so that it can be acceptable.

Albair: Alright, if in a situation where there is a hymn that was not handed down by Mo’allim Mikhail, and we found that there are more than one way to chant this hymn, the way that is closest to Cairo would be the Alexandrian, Tanta, or something like el-Maharak (monastery) or from Upper Egypt?

Ragheb Moftah: See now. When we ask the people of Alexandria to take from them a hymn of some sort, we see who is the good cantor. They have someone named Mo’allim Naguib, and so on. There some who were good. Some of them learnt their hymns from the Greek Church. We in Cairo used to rely on Mo’allim Mikhail. I’ll tell you why. The Father and Patriarch of the Renaissance (Pope Cyril IV), had an idea of uniting the Coptic Church and the Greek Church. For this reason, he took some hymns from the Greek Church and put them into use in the Coptic Church…

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes, some of these Greek hymns are used in our Church, such as E-Parthenos, Tolithos, and such. We made a copy of these hymns by the voices of the Greeks, and we have a copy of these hymns by the Egyptians. But the whole hymns are not used, just parts of the hymns.

Ragheb Moftah: Yes.

Albair: Alright. We heard that Mo’allim Mikhail liked to drink. Did this affect the way he chanted a hymn, especially before recording it?

Ragheb Moftah: No, not at all. Note that this Mo’allim Mikhail worked throughout the day, up to the last day of his life. In one of the societies, he was handing-down hymns until 10 p.m. He passed away the same night at 12 a.m. So, he wasn’t able to sleep unless he took something to sleep – he would drink some whiskey, and stuff like that, not in the sense that…

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Not for drunkenness.

Ragheb Moftah: Something like a medicine so that he could sleep.

Albair: Alright. When did the choir of the Institute here begin to pray with the Pope. They were first in St. Mark’s Church (el-Morqosya). So, when did the choir of the Institute here begin to pray with the Pope?

Ragheb Moftah: From the beginning of the era of our Pope – even before the era of the Pope (Shenouda III). We established the Institute in the year 1954, and we prepared this studio and the other rooms; and in 1955 we organized the academic calendar for it, and all the necessary plans for Coptology, that is, the study of the Coptic Church. When the Institute was in… the year that Anba Gregorios graduated from the Clerical College in the year 1939 – something like that – I began to organize a choir. I used to take them in the summer to Alexandria, since to them it was nice place to spend the summer.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: Yes, something that is encouraging.

Ragheb Moftah: And, of course, when we established the Institute, I had 5 choirs. Anba Gregorios told me that I had to take the whole College! We had a department for higher studies, and each department had around 150 students, so that means there were 300 students (in total). So, Anba Gregorios told me that I had to take the whole College! I used to choose those who were musically gifted to some extent. So, I had 5 choirs. In all the rooms of the Institute of Coptic Studies, at 7:15 a.m., there used to be lessons for the choirs. I used to come from the Pyramids (Giza) very early to attend with them.

Albair: Alright. About the hymn…

Fr. Mettias Nasr: There was among them – sorry to cut off Albair – a choir of women.

Ragheb Moftah: Yes. They learnt some big hymns. Yes.

Albair: Alright. Now, concerning the hymn “Apinav Shopi”; it is known that Mo’allim Mikhail received it from el-Minya. So you recall who was the cantor who passed it on to him?

Ragheb Moftah: Yes, we already said a woman who was a cantor in the Church in el-Minya.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: No, he’s talking about another hymn, Doctor. He’s not talking about “Apetjeek Evol.”

Ragheb Moftah: Which one is he talking about?

Fr. Mettias Nasr: He’s talking about “Apinav Shopi.”

Ragheb Moftah: No, he didn’t get it from el-Minya. No, he didn’t get two hymns from there.

Albair: Alright. Who among the Popes of this century was the most encouraging on the subject of hymns, the Institute, the Clerical College, and so on… the choir of the Clerical College, and hymns in general?

Ragheb Moftah: Well, believe me, all of them were encouraging. None of them were not encouraging. All of them were encouraging.

Albair: Who is the most important cantor in this time whom we should consider as a reference, who learnt from Mo’allim Mikhail correctly?

Ragheb Moftah: Mo’allim Farag Abdel-Messih. Mo’allim Sadek, but he lost his voice. They sat many years with Mo’allim Mikhail. There used to be an Institute for the cantors (“Mo’allimeen”) in el-Mahmesha, which was then moved to Shobra.

Albair: Alright. Which hymn is the closest to your heart? The hymn you like the most?

Ragheb Moftah: Believe me, this is a very hard question!


Fr. Mettias Nasr: Tell him, “I like the Coptic hymn.”


Ragheb Moftah: Believe me, when the hymns are chanted in…

Albair: In a group in unison.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: No, like with a gifted voice.

Ragheb Moftah: … a gifted voice. They are all beautiful. Every hymn has its own goal and its place in the rites of the Church.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: We thank you, Doctor, for your love, and we are trying to feed this brother (pointing to Albair) because he is leaving to Canada and feed them there – the hymns, the rites – and take the aroma of Ragheb with him there.

Ragheb Moftah: Your aroma, blessed father.

Fr. Mettias Nasr: May our Lord keep you, Doctor.