Biographies Ernest Newlandsmith

Image: Ernest Newlandsmith
Ernest Newlandsmith, 1875-after 1957 [photogravure]. Reproduced in Newlandsmith, Ernest. A Minstrel Friar: The Story of My Life and Work. London: The New Life Movement, 1927, frontispiece. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

British violinist, composer, and writer, Ernest Newlandsmith was one of central figures involved in Ragheb Moftah's preservation of Coptic music. With the help of Moftah, he notated a total of 16 folios of Coptic hymns between 1926 and 1936, transcribing the complete Coptic liturgy of St. Basil as well as 25 major seasonal hymns. Yet, for such a monumental figure in Moftah's life and career, very little is known about him outside of his involvement with Coptic music, except for an autobiography he published in 1927, entitled A Minstrel Friar: The Story of My Life, a few pamphlets he published through The New Life Movement society that he founded, and a handful of music reviews in London newspapers in the late 1890s and early 1900s. His correspondence with Ragheb Moftah, starting in 1927 and ending in 1939, also reveals a little about his life, work and travels as a "minstrel friar of God."

Newlandsmith was born on April 10, 1875, and came from a family of clergymen. This included his father, both his maternal and paternal grandfathers, as well as several of his uncles. This accounted for, what Newlandsmith himself called, the "religious urge" that was to shape his future life significantly.[1] His father died when he was only five years old, leaving the family very little money, and even less to continue Newlandsmith's music training as a violinist. However at age 13 years, he won an open scholarship to a local music academy, which sponsored his music education throughout his mid-teens. By 18, he managed to raise enough funds performing "open-air recitals" that he entered the Royal Academy of Music and studied violin with well-known violinist, Emile Sauret.

In 1895, Newlandsmith was a professional musician in London with his own private students and chamber trio, and he occasionally performed some of his own compositions. Yet music critics from newspapers such as The Times were not kind to him. Rather, they disapproved of his musicianship as a conductor,[2] and later as a composer, labeling his work as banal and unremarkable. "He writes with facility but seems to have very little to say," commented one reviewer on February 1, 1899,[3] while two weeks later, another wrote:

"THE NEWLANDSMITH TRIO. -- The chamber concert given by this organization as a termination of their orchestral series was not a very brilliant affair. Its claim to notice is, in fact, based exclusively upon the first performance of a trio of Franchetti (presumably not the opera composer) by Messrs. Newlandsmith, Earnshaw and Mummery. The work is tuneful, but beyond such qualities as would make for its acceptance among the less-accomplished class of amateurs it has few, if any, points that are at all remarkable."[4]

It was also around this time that Newlandsmith began developing ideas that would significantly redirect his career as a musician, and would lead to his encounter with Ragheb Moftah as a minstrel friar traveling through Egypt. He became disillusioned by his profession and was disappointed by the emerging modernism and spirit of the age that dominated music at the turn of the twentieth century. In his autobiography, he writes:

"I soon began to feel that modern Art was doing little to raise mankind to higher ideals of life and being--that it was, in short, 'filled with worldliness and the worship of mammon.' I saw that in place of that Heavenly Food that Art was intended to bring to the souls of men--the popular drama, music, literature, and other branches of Art, were largely disseminating a bad influence, and helping to foster the vanity and folly with which the world was already overflowing."[5]

His first published book in 1904, entitled The Temple of Art: A Plea for the Higher Realisation of the Artistic Vocation, merged his Christian beliefs with his philosophy on art, and called on musicians to embrace their true roles in bringing the masses back to God through music. In his autobiography, he continues:

"Personally, I think that before we begin to introduce young people, indeed any musically-uncultivated people, to the more complicated works of the great masters, we should do well to see that they know something of the simplicity and quality through the finest examples of national songs and Hebrew and Christian worship."[6]

While publicly performing and lecturing about his ideas, he established and became president of The Laresol Society, which promoted this philosophy and published its own magazine known as The Laresol Review. This society was later renamed The Religious Art Society. A year later, he published two more books, Art Ideals and The Temple of Love.

On November 1, 1908, Ernest Newlandsmith took vows to become a pilgrim friar or what he termed, a minstrel of God.[7] He began to dress publicly in the cassock and cords of his new vocation and his concert programs were now tailored to his dedicated cause. In the same year, he established a Retreat House in Sussex, known as Kirdford Priory, for those who wanted a quiet place to work on their spiritual progress.[8] He continued to publish, and in 1910, released the book, The Temple of Life.

That same year, however, Newlandsmith lost Kirdford Priory and had to relocate his movement headquarters to North Devon, England. He began composing one-man passion plays, known as "Pastoral Mystery Plays"[9] that he performed for church audiences on his pilgrimages throughout the southeastern part of England. He maintained an active schedule of freelancing, recitals, lectures, and concerts to raise funds for the "Mission of the Holy Spirit." Unfortunately, his mission fell apart in 1912 and, due to his rigorous schedule, Newlandsmith suffered a brief breakdown and took a hiatus from his work.

While reorganizing his movement between 1913 and 1914 at Seaford Priory, he also put together a small printing office to circulate some of his own materials, pamphlets and magazine, yet his efforts came abruptly to an end at the outbreak of the first World War. Seaford Priory became a large military camp, and Newlandsmith was forced to abandon his movement headquarters once again. Further disenchanted by the popular music, literature, and the arts that emerged during the Great War, he renewed his missionary zeal and published works such as England's Greatest Need in 1916 and Religion and the Arts in 1918. Beginning in the 1920s however, he cancelled many of his lectures and performances due to ill health and took another break from his work until 1925. That year, he reorganized his mission and resumed his work under a new name, The New Life Movement.

With The New Life Movement wholly dependant on donations and free-will offerings by others, Newlandsmith had to travel in wider circles in order to raise funds and to disseminate his message. It was during one of these music pilgrimages to the Holy Land that he encountered Ragheb Moftah en route through Cairo in 1926. Moftah's dedication to preserving Coptic Christian hymnology and his devout faith deeply resonated with Newlandsmith's philosophy about religion and music. In exchange for his services in transcribing Coptic hymns into western music notation, Moftah agreed to provide accommodations for Newlandsmith as his guest, pay for his travels to Egypt, and included a fee for his work and arranged to have the completed folios bound in England.

For the next ten years, the friar traveled between England and Egypt accomplishing this task. From 1926 to 1931, he spent his time on Moftah's houseboat docked in the Nile, relentlessly transcribing the chants that the great master cantor Mu'allim Mīkhā'īl Jirjis al-Batanūnī sang. In 1931, he organized a series of lectures at Oxford and Cambridge University, presenting his research on Coptic music as the last remaining remnant of Ancient Egyptian music, saying that it was closely linked to the origins of Western music. This certainly caused quite a stir and a series of newspaper articles were published in response to his lectures. Ragheb Moftah accompanied him on these tours and provided opening remarks and contributed to the discussion and questions from the audience. It was also during these talks that Newlandsmith performed some of his new compositions that were inspired by his reverence for Coptic music, such as his Oriental Suite for violin and piano, and Carmelite Rhapsody for solo violin.

By 1936, Newlandsmith had transcribed 16 folios of Coptic hymns, all of which were bound in England and returned to Moftah. He had notated the entire Coptic liturgy of St. Basil as well as major seasonal hymns for Christmas, Easter, and other occasions throughout the Coptic year. Yet, it was at the end of this period that his health began to deteriorate, and Newlandsmith suffered another breakdown, this one lasting until 1939. Moftah does not hear from him again until that year, when he received a letter from Newlandsmith [dated January 15, 1939] telling him about his health and inquiring about his possible return to Egypt for further work on Coptic music.

Newlandsmith does not make it back to Egypt. Rather, as he revealed in his last correspondence with Mrs. Farida Fahmy, Moftah's sister [dated December 2, 1940], he had relinquished his vows as a friar as early 1928, and resumed his work with The New Life Movement. He continued to publish, compose miracle plays and music scenas, perform recitals and give lectures. In 1940, he married Maria Romero, the daughter of Cayetano Romero, and niece of Matias Romero, two well-known Mexican diplomats and distinguished statesmen. Maria Romero was prominent in London social circles during her father's diplomatic service in London, and later she had an office in Harley Street, where she offered innovative therapies using light, and something called "theo-rhythmic health exercises." After his marriage in 1940, however, information about Newlandsmith's life is quite sparse, though he was elected President of the United Humanitarian League in 1951 and recognized for his work with humanity and animals. His activities since then, and the date of his death are unknown. His last known whereabouts were given in British telephone directories for the years 1956 and 1957, which list the name of a "Professor Ernest Newlandsmith" who resided at 172 Goldhurst Terrace, NW [Camden Town, London].

A bibliography of his early music compositions can be found in the Universal Handbuch der Musikliteratur aller Zeiten und Völker (Vienna, n.d.), vol. 1, pt. 1, p. 124.


  1. Ernest Newlandsmith, A Minstrel Friar: The Story of My Life. London: New Life Movement, 1927, p. 14. [back to article]
  2. "The Newlandsmith Concerts." The Times, London, 9 December 1898, p. 4. [back to article]
  3. "Newlandsmith Concerts." The Times, London, 1 February 1899, p. 10. [back to article]
  4. "The Newlandsmith Trio." The Times, London, 15 February 1899, p. 12. [back to article]
  5. Newlandsmith, A Minstrel Friar, p. 32. [back to article]
  6. Newlandsmith, A Minstrel Friar, pp. 28-29. [back to article]
  7. Newlandsmith, A Minstrel Friar, p. 13. [back to article]
  8. Newlandsmith, A Minstrel Friar, p. 39. [back to article]
  9. For a full account of one of his mystery plays, The Vision of the Holy Grail, please see Newlandsmith's autobiography A Minstrel Friar, pp. 45-47. [back to article]


Correspondence between Ernest Newlandsmith and Ragheb Moftah, dated 1927 to 1939, Ragheb Moftah Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Letter from Ernest Newlandsmith to Mrs. Farida Fahmy, 2 December 1939, Ragheb Moftah Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Newlandsmith, Ernest. A Minstrel Friar: The Story of My Life. London: New Life Movement, 1927.

"Professor Newlandsmith and Maria Romero to Marry." [Newspaper clipping of unknown source, probably dated 1940]. Provenance file. Ragheb Moftah Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Robertson-Wilson, Marian. "Ernest Newlandsmith." The Coptic Encyclopedia. Ed. Aziz S. Atiya. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991, vol. 6, p. 1742.

"The Newlandsmith Trio." The Times, London, Friday, 20 May 1898, p. 2.

"The Newlandsmith Concerts." The Times, London, Friday, 9 December 1898, p. 4.

"Newlandsmith Concerts." The Times, London , Wednesday, 1 February 1899, p. 10.

"The Newlandsmith Trio." The Times, London , Wednesday, 15 February 1899, p. 12.

"Newlandsmith Concert Club." The Times, London, 5 December 1901, p. 6.