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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Transmission of Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Music: Historical and Contemporary Forms of Theorization, Translation, and Identity Construction

  • Author(s): Ragheb, Nicholas
  • Advisor(s): Marcus, Scott L
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the historical and contemporary forms of musical conceptualization, theorization, and transmission associated with the sacred music of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. Through analyses of historical and contemporary forms of musico-theoretical discourse, I explore the ways in which the imagination and transmission of Coptic musical structures are implicated in the formation and transmission of narratives of Coptic history, and ultimately contribute to the construction and maintenance of Coptic identity. While this study includes an extensive review of previous scholarship on Coptic music, this historical component of the dissertation is focused on how theorizations about Coptic musical structures reflect the cultural contexts and ideologies of their authors. In a similar manner, this study incorporates ethnographic observation and interviews both in Egypt and in the North American diaspora, in order to map out contemporary acts of musical conceptualization and theorization.

While ethnomusicologists have long been interested in the role of religious and secular institutions in shaping indigenous musical practices, as well as the dynamics of musical conceptualization and theorization in localized acts of musical transmission, this study merge these two areas of interest, exploring both institutional and individual aspects of Coptic music culture as intertwined phenomena. This occurs through the analysis of individual acts of musical theorization (i.e. the “vernacular musical theorizations”) of theorists and church cantors, as well as the analysis of processes of musical translation among groups within the institution of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and an exploration of the epistemological shifts associated with the use of new technologies for the preservation and transmission of Coptic hymns.

In doing so, this study utilizes theories and ideas from the scholarly subdiscipline of ethnotheory and the epistemology of music in order to draw connections between a growing body of work on Coptic identity and a separate but equally promising body of work on the forms and structures of Coptic music. The results of this study demonstrate both the implicit and explicit claims inherent in particular acts of Coptic music theorization, and more generally, the interconnected nature of musical theorization and identity construction.

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