Biographies How I Became Interested in Coptic Music

Image: Marian Robertson Wilson
Coptic Scholar-Cellist Marian Robertson, 1955. Photograph by Walter Lillian. Courtesy of Marian Robertson-Wilson.

I write this essay at the request of the staff in the Music Division of the Library of Congress who asked me to tell how I, a little lady from the high mountains of Utah, became interested in the Copts and their musical traditions, all so foreign and unrelated to my own. Although this account is somewhat circuitous and lengthy--I never even heard the terms "Copt" and "Coptic" until my early thirties--I hope it will prove useful.

Ultimately my abiding interest in Coptic music resulted from the natural blending of two passions that have dominated my life since day one: music and languages, each of which concurrently ran parallel but separate courses over the years. Also the reader will easily discern that I love to learn. Other than being with my family, nothing pleases me more.


My father, Leroy Robertson, was professor of music at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah and went on to become a significant American composer of the twentieth century. My mother, Naomi N. Robertson, had a natural ear for languages, could imitate any brogue she heard, and was the only child in her large family to learn and remember Danish, the native tongue of her proud immigrant father.

As a child of the 1930s depression, I recall that our home did not contain much, but what we had was of high quality. Original water colors and oil paintings by well-known Western artists graced the walls; a grand piano stood in the corner of our living room near an impressive wind-up Victrola upon which we played our records--classical for Father and a few "pop" tunes for Mother. My favorite was the Schumann Quintet for Piano and Strings (although I also liked the Mendelssohn Concerto for Violin with soloist Fritz Kreisler and the Rhapsody in Blue with soloist George Gershwin and conductor Paul Whiteman).

Early Childhood

As a toddler I could not be kept from the piano even though I was so small I had to beg someone to lift me up onto the piano bench. However, I was never allowed to "just pound" on the keys. Already from that young age, Father taught me to play simple chords to accompany myself as I sang childhood songs. Thus, from the beginning, I quite naturally was learning the fundamentals of harmonic structure and voice-leading. A few years later, with a few formal piano lessons under my belt, Father analyzed for me the form and harmonies of the Bach Inventions and other pieces in my growing repertoire, and soon he assigned me to make these analyses for myself. Thus, as a performer, I automatically came to analyze musical content and form from a composer's point of view--basic training that would later stand me in good stead when I confronted Coptic music with its many nuances of pitch, rhythm, and structure so different from my Western tradition.

School Years

My days went by as usual until I turned nine years old when two important events marked my life. I performed in my first public piano recital--thereby initiating my career as a local concert pianist--and I also began to learn French. As an experiment in the BYU elementary school, a young lady came to teach French to us children. I loved the sounds and eagerly began speaking that wonderful language. After the short-lived experiment ended, Father kept me exposed to French by taking me with him to "sit in" on classes taught at the university. In no time, I became a Francophile, and eventually I was reading as much French literature as English. I particulalry loved French poetry.

Then, at about age eleven, the 'cello came into my life when Father one day brought home a half-sized 'cello and suggested that I play it. I came to love it, and since 'cellists were badly needed for area chamber music ensembles and the BYU Symphony Orchestra, I played a lot of 'cello as a teen-ager.[1] Such cello-playing would later stand me in good stead for my Coptic music research, for--unlike the piano, which admits only twelve tones within an octave--with my 'cello I could precisely identify the innumerable tones and pitches that dominate a Coptic melodic line.

Slowly and steadily, without realizing it, I was laying a solid foundation for understanding and decoding the mysteries of the Copts and their music.

Alongside these teen-age musical activities, I began to expand my language skills. With the permission of BYU, I attended university classes in German, followed by Greek, then Latin. By the time I graduated from BYU (summa cum laude), I had earned enough credit hours for majors in French, German, and Greek as well as music. Interestingly enough, during those years and for reasons yet unknown to me today, I yearned to study Arabic, a persistent dream to be realized only fifteen years later.

My senior year at BYU (1947-48) became very eventful in another way, for that was when I joined the Utah Symphony, where, under the direction of Maurice Abravanel, I would play for the next twelve years, becoming Assistant Solo 'Cellist from 1953 onwards.

Nineteen forty-eight brought a big change for our entire family in that Father left BYU and moved us to Salt Lake City to become chairman of the music department at the University of Utah (U of U). I soon began work there, mainly in the language department, concentrating on French and German while adding Spanish and Italian to my linguistic storehouse. (Russian, Hebrew, and Farsi would eventually follow in a minor way.)

In 1950-51 I became a Fulbright scholar to France (the first "Fulbrighter" to hail from a Utah school). I focused my attention on the works of Jean Cocteau, and in April of that year I began a correspondence with him -- all in French of course -- that would continue until his death in 1963. During that exciting Fulbright stint I also managed to get a few 'cello lessons with Maurice Maréchal at the Conservatory of Paris, lessons I would briefly resume in 1954.

After earning my M.A. (1952), I headed for a Ph.D., but it was slow-going. I was still playing full-time in the Utah Symphony while teaching some classes in the U of U Language Department. However, after eight intense years, I did earn that degree (1960), the same year that I was chosen to be a performing student in the Pablo Casals Master Classes held at Berkeley--an honor to be repeated two years later.

Interestingly enough, it was during my 1960 sojourn at Berkeley that I first heard the words "Copt" and "Coptic" while visiting the family of my former BYU Greek professor, Dr. Hugh Nibley, who was then also at UC Berkeley on sabbatical leave studying that esoteric language. I was too proud to admit that I had absolutely no clue about "Coptic," but it did whet my curiosity.

Then a few months later, in the early 1960s, I did learn something more about Coptic when Dr. Aziz S. Atiya, himself a Copt who had come to direct the newly established U of U Middle East Center, presented Father a recording of Coptic music to which I repeatedly listened, trying rather unsuccessfully to understand. Although Dr. Atiya's lucid program notes did help by explaining that Coptic survives as the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language--first written in hieroglyphics, then hieratic and demotic characters, and lastly in letters of the Greek alphabet--I gave the recording but cursory notice. I simply did not have enough background to comprehend those unusual texts and melodies.

Later Years

In the summer of 1963 my long-held dream of learning Arabic finally came to fruition when, under the direction of Dr. Atiya, the U of U Middle East Center offered an intensive course in Elementary Arabic, which in eight weeks would cover two full semesters of study.

One year previous, after much sincere soul-searching, I had resigned from the Utah Symphony and accepted a position in both the language and music departments at Utah State University (USU) in Logan. However, before beginning my work at USU in the fall, I would have time that summer to attend Arabic classes. In no time at all, I was "hooked." At USU I continued studying Arabic by correspondence. Then, Dr. Atiya again entered the picture. Taking me under his wing, he persuaded me to get a second Ph.D., this one in Arabic. The USU generously granted me a leave of absence, and after one year at the U of U--thanks to an NDEA grant--I received a fellowship from the ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt) to pursue my Arabic studies in the land of the Nile.

The fellowship was scheduled to begin in September 1967, but because of the June Six-Day War with Israel, political tensions ran so high that no Americans were allowed in Egypt. While awaiting permission to go there, I enrolled in a class of ancient Egyptian history taught by Dr. Atiya. One part of the course touched on the culture, contributions, and heritage of the Copts. This information would soon prove invaluable.

Finally, after four months delay, Americans were admitted to Egypt, and I arrived in Cairo January 1968.

During my years in Logan I had become friends with an Egyptian graduate student at USU, who, by the way, was a Copt. He arranged for me to live with his family in Giza, and they welcomed me as their own daughter. What better place for a stranger like me to learn about the Copts? I attended church with them, where, for the first time, I heard their sacred chants in person; I stood by as the local priest came to their apartment for his annual blessing of each room; one February Sunday I tramped across the Sahara with a Sunday School class to visit the aged monasteries of Wādī al-Natrūn. Best of all, I was living amongst Egyptians daily hearing Arabic.

My linguist-musician's ear soon perceived that Egyptian Arabic contained words and phrases that could only be traced to Coptic. Therefore, in order to enhance my knowledge of spoken Arabic, I tutored in Coptic with a professor from the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies. Because I was curious to learn if Arabic chanting of the Koran might also have any influence on Cairene Arabic--itself so influenced by Coptic--I also tutored in Koran chanting with a kind Sheikh and eventually learned to chant that sacred text from memory. (I later concluded that there was little or no connection between this chanting and that of the Copts.)

Unfortunately, a critical case of hepatitis cut short my stay in Egypt. But upon my return to Logan, I found I had accumulated enough materials to complete that second Ph.D. (1970) all while teaching full-time at USU.

The rest of the story can be quickly summarized. After a few years I left USU to work at the Coptic Encyclopedia, headed by its founder and Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Aziz S. Atiya--my honored mentor. I boldly offered to write a brief article about Coptic music, intending to study a few more recordings along with the Coptic liturgical texts I had been acquiring. Dr. Atiya accepted my offer and then appointed me music editor. At that point my work really began in earnest.

Availing myself of all the recordings available--both in the private collection of Dr. and Mrs. Atiya and in a collection of mysterious provenance in the Music Division of the U of U Marriott Library--I listened and listened and listened. Also, I journeyed back to Cairo (1984) to meet with Ragheb Moftah, that devout Copt who devoted his life to preserving his venerable musical tradition.

Using the many supplemental recordings he gave me, I kept on listening, now able to identify and analyze different pieces, ever more satisfied (and relieved) as I gradually came to make sense of those complex melodies, so unlike those of my tradition.

It was a long labor of stubborn patience kindled by deep admiration and love.

In 1992, as the Coptic Encyclopedia came off the press, Dr. James Pruett, then chief of the Music Division at the Library of Congress, invited me to work on a project involving a collection of Coptic music recordings that had recently been donated to the Library of Congress by the aforementioned Ragheb Moftah. I accepted the challenge, and so the story continues.

However, I cannot conclude these remarks without paying tribute to my beloved late husband, W. Keith Wilson, whose unwavering support throughout those remarkable Coptic years continually kept me going.

July 2008

With the permission of Dr. Marian Robertson-Wilson, I have updated her autobiography to include activities with the Library of Congress since 1992. [Carolyn M. Ramzy, July 2008]

Dr. Marian Robertson-Wilson's story continued with the Library of Congress well into 2005, when she completed the Revised Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant Recordings, Volumes I and II. When James Pruett, then the Chief of the Music Division at the Library of Congress, contacted her about Coptic recordings they had just received, all the Library had managed was to convert 31 of Moftah's disintegrating paper reels to 25 cassette tapes. Though they knew they had a unique gem on their hands, they could neither identify the Coptic chants nor put them in any coherent order. Dr. Robertson-Wilson's task loomed rather large, but after listening to the tapes, she successfully identified all of the pieces and recognized them as parts of the Coptic Liturgy of St. Basil. Other songs proved to be significant seasonal hymns sung by the Copts throughout the year. She then proceeded to transcribe, transliterate, and translate the Coptic texts and produced the Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant in 1997. Though this was no easy feat in itself, she insisted that the chants had to be organized into their proper order, truly the most challenging aspect of her work. With the help of sound engineer, Kenny Hodges, the 25 cassettes were dubbed into 21 CDs that reflected the correct order of the liturgy. To make the recordings more accessible for future scholars, she produced a Revised Guide, now an indispensable part of the Ragheb Moftah Collection. Currently, Dr. Robertson-Wilson lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she continues to write about Coptic music.

Brief Chronology

Born: 1926 in Morgan, Utah (the eldest of four children)
Married: 1978 to W. Keith Wilson who died in 1994

B.A.: Brigham Young University, 1948.-- Major: French; Minor: Music
M.A.: University of Utah, 1952 -- Major: French; Minor: Music
Ph.D.: University of Utah, 1960 -- Major: French; Minor: Music
Ph.D.: University of Utah, 1970 -- Major: Arabic; Supporting Language: Coptic

Scholarship and Fellowships:
KSL Radio Scholarship, 1944-45
KSL Radio Scholarship, 1945-46
Fulbright Scholarship to France, 1950-51
NDEA Fellowship, 1966-67
ARCE Fellowship to Egypt, 1967-68

Brigham Young University: Assistant in French, 1946-48
University of Utah: Assistant in Language Department, 1949-60
Utah State University: Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, 1963-74
Utah Symphony: 1948-61
Coptic Encyclopedia: 1978-91
Music Division, Library of Congress: Consultant, 1992 and currently

Professional Organizations:
Former member:
MLA (Modern Language Association)
RMMLA (Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association)
AAUP (American Association of University Professors)
AATF (American Association of Teachers of French)
AMS (American Musicological Society)
AFL Music Union, Local 104
ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt)
Current member:
IACS (International Association of Coptic Studies)

Articles on Coptic music in encyclopedias and scholarly journals of nine countries. For details see the bibliography attached at the end of this essay.

  • Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant Recordings (Salt Lake City, 1997)
  • Revised Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant Recordings (Salt Lake City, 2005)

Selected List of Publications as of 2007

(published under the name of Marian Robertson)

"The Reliability of the Oral Tradition in Preserving Coptic Music, I: A Comparison of Three Musical Transcriptions from the Liturgy of Saint Basil," Bulletin de la Société d'Archéologie Copte, 26 (1984), 83-93.

"The Reliability of the Oral Tradition in Preserving Coptic Music, II: A Comparison of Two Recordings of the Hymn Tenouōsht," Bulletin de la Société d'Archéologie Copte, 27 (1985), 73-85.

"The Reliability of the Oral Tradition in Preserving Coptic Music, III: A Comparison of Four Recordings of the Confession of Faith," Bulletin de la Société d'Archéologie Copte, 28 (1989), 93-105.

"The Modern Coptic Tarnīmah, 'Farahānīn, Farahānīn' ('We are Joyful, We are Joyful')," Coptologia, 5 (1984), 77-84.

"Vocal Music in the Early Coptic Church," Coptologia, 6 (1985), 23-27.

"Ernest Newlandsmith's Transcription of Coptic Music," DIAKONIA, Vol. 21, No. 3 (1987), 190-198.

"A Coptic Melody Sung Interchangeably in Different Languages: Comparisons thereof and Proposed Dating therefor," Coptic Studies, Acts of the Third International Congress of Coptic Studies (Warsaw, Poland: PWN--Editions Scientifiques de Pologne, 1990), 365-370.

"Which Came First, the Music or the Words? (A Greek Text and Coptic Melody: Musical Transcription and Analysis of the Setting)," By Study and Also By Faith, Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1990), Vol. 1, 417-427.

"The Good Friday Trisagion of the Coptic Church (A Musical Transcription and Analysis)," Miscellany in Memoriam of Academician Ivan Dujčev (Sofia, Bulgaria: Research Centre for Slavo-Byzantine Studies, University of Sofia). The editor, Axinia Djourova, has informed me that this is now in print, but since I have not yet seen a copy, I cannot cite the exact date or page numbers.

"Ernest Newlandsmith et sa Notaton de la Musique Copte," Actes du IVe Congrès Copte, Louvain-la-Neuve, 5-10 septembre 1988, (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Institut Orientaliste, Université Catholique de Louvain, 1992), Vol. 2, 463-469.

"Coptic Music," in collaboration with Ragheb Moftah, Martha Roy, and Margit Tóth, The Coptic Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), Vol. 6, 1715-1747.

"The Gulezyan Manuscripts: Possible Remnants of Ancient Coptic Musical Notation?," Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress of Coptic Studies, Washington, D.C., 12-15 August 1992 (Rome: CIM, 1993), Vol. 2, Part 2, 355-367.

"Coptic, rites of," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, et al. (London: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2001), Vol. 7.

"Kopten §Musik," Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (Freiburg, Germany: Verlag Herder, 2001), Vol. 6 [Written in German].

"Preserving the Coptic Musical Tradition," Coptologia, 10 (1989), 103-109.

Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant Recordings (Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress, 1997). [Kept in the Library of Congress]

Revised Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant Recordings (Salt Lake City, Utah, 2005). Limited publication, with copies of the twenty-one (21) CD recordings and the companion Revised Guide available at the Library of Congress, the American University in Cairo, the McKay Library at the University of Utah, and the H.B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Recording of the Saint Basil Liturgy as Sung by al-Mu'allim Sādiq 'Attallah (Salt Lake City, Utah, 2006). Limited publication, to be used as a companion to four (4) CD recordings, available as follows: Cairo, Egypt: Rare Books and Special Collections Library, at the American University in Cairo; Salt Lake City, Utah: The Marriott Library, University of Utah; Provo, Utah: The H.B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University; Münster, Germany: Library at the Institut für Ägyptologie und Koptologie. [Al-Mu'allim Sādiq 'Attallah, a pupil of al-Mu'allim Mīkhā'īl, represents what is known as the "second generation" of twentieth-century Coptic master chanters.]


  1. Under the direction of Leroy Robertson, the BYU Symphony Orchestra, which usually numbered about eighty players, toured the Intermountain West and became nationally known thanks to two Eastern Morning broadcasts carried nationwide by the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS) in 1939 and 1940. It was truly a premier organization. [back to biography]