by Hannibal Saad

Contemporary classical music in Syria would not exist in its variety and professionalism without its founding fathers: Solhi al-Wadi and Nouri Iskander. Solhi’s ambition to build a professional classic music scene in Syria has been exceptional and cast the foundations for the most important music institutes in Syria, while Nouri Iskander’s ability to study music in Syria deeply and assimilate the Arabic maqām, merging ancient melodies with contemporary settings created extraordinary pieces that are enjoyed worldwide.

| Solhi al-Wadi

Born in Baghdad in 1934, al-Wadi spent his childhood in Damascus and would later leave Syria to study violin and composition at a conservatory in Alexandria, Egypt, followed by higher music studies at the Royal Academy of Music, London. Upon returning to Damascus in the 1960s, Solhi was determined to establish a professional contemporary classic music and arts scene in Syria. Starting with the younger generation, he dedicated his early years to teach children and youth, while establishing important relations with foreign countries, such as the former Soviet Union, from where he brought qualified musicians to teach at the newly founded Arab Institute of Music. Starting from 1967, he was able to build a chamber orchestra out of students and teachers. With ambitious, relentless efforts, he opened the High Institute of Music and Theatre in 1990, where he worked as a professor for music history and music theories. For Solhi, the Institute became his home. His talent for micromanagement pervaded the entire atmosphere of the place, including choosing the right trees that were planted across the Institute, let alone the many cats that roamed around the garden; for Solhi, these were integral parts of ‘his’ Institute and he took care of feeding each one of them while making sure all musicians and teachers were on time for their duties. Solhi’s own compositions were highly influenced by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók and, later, by the Soviet composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich, yet also fuelled by Arabic melodies and themes.

Solhi al-Wadi: Trio for Piano, Violin and Violoncello (recorded in Damascus in 2008)

Also in the 90s Solhi birthed another of his dreams, founding the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, making him a well-known conductor and composer on international stages. Until today, Solhi’s life continues to influence musicians from all over the world. Developing and implementing the idea of the Institute of Higher Music as well as building an orchestra from scratch and then, on top, adding art and modern dance to Syria’s unique artistic scenery are achievements that cannot be emphasised too much. The generations that had the privilege to study under his direction consolidated his movement in the following generations and disseminated to other regions of the world, where the legacy of Solhi al-Wadi can be found and is appreciated until today.

| Nouri Iskander

With Nouri Iskander, the Syrian musical landscape birthed another important musicologist and composer. Specialised in Syriac sacral and folk music, Nouri Iskander is known for his unique mix of old folksongs in contemporary musical settings.

Born in Deir Ezzor to an Assyrian family from Urfa (Turkey), Nouri started his music career at a very young age when joining a Syriac Orthodox band. After graduating from the Higher Institute of Music at the University of Cairo, he began to research and compose Syriac folk music. Iskander can be considered the main force in safeguarding Syriac music for the coming generations by not only establishing several successful choirs but also composing a great selection of Syriac folk songs, such as the operetta Parqāna (meaning ‘salvation’) and O Habibo. In 1973, Nouri organised his first professional festival dedicated to Syriac music at the UNESCO Palace, Beirut. This concert would set the stage for many performances to come not only on Syrian stages but also in front of growing international audiences. What made his compositions outstanding in comparison with other composers of his time was his passion for merging maqām-based music with contemporary classical techniques and ideas.

Nouri Iskander´s composition I

Mn Wahy Alsaba – Nouri Iskandar Trio at Global Week for Syria in 2016
Contemporary Classical Music in Syria
Festival announcement for Nouri Iskander © Hannibal Saad, Oriental Landscape

In 2005, I had the incredible chance to meet Nouri personally. I had always been stunned by the audacity of his compositions mixing the old with the new without feeling the need of an excuse. For me, his contemporary compositions avoid excessive conceptual ideas, while remaining true to the melodies he delved into absolutely intuitively. In a way, Nouri managed to dig deeper into the maqām, picking up ancient melodies and putting them into a contemporary setting. He has never been afraid to use microtones in harmonic settings, while other composers mostly bypassed this approach to avoid dissonance. Boldly enough, Nouri incorporated these microtones within chords, sometimes in clusters, thus inventing new sounds, while crossing musical borders like a Middle-Eastern Alfred Schnittke.

Next to his musical career, Nouri is also known for his in-depth research in musicology that was recognised by UNESCO as a serious approach to understand Syriac music and preserve it. For over four decades, he analysed Syriac melodies, culminating in a scientific book commissioned by UNESCO which covers religious and traditional Syriac music and published in the nineties. Iskander also closely studied the works of the genius Syrian musicologist Mikhael Allah-Weirdi. Allah-Weirdi (Damascus, 1904-1978) wrote a comprehensive, scholarly book he titled Philosophy of Oriental Music in which he discussed the use of natural scales rather than well-tempered scales. Basing his approach on the traditional philosophy of oriental music and mathematics, he attempted to figure out perfect ratios in note intervals to create a harmony that could produce peace in people’s minds – coming up with conceptual methods that are still being picked up by the contemporary composers who are interested in microtonal music.

Nouri Iskander´s composition II

Nouri Iskandar Oud concerto with string Quartet.
Oriental Miniature by Nouri Iskandar performed by New European Ensemble in 2018

His work and the discussions with Nouri and many others have deeply inspired me. And therefore I created the Oriental Landscapes festival to establish a platform for musicians to study and discuss several oriental music genres and implement performances. Nouri inspired me to dig deep into the history of music in Syria, encountering the spiritual aspect of Arabic music, its connection to the philosophy and metaphysics of music, showing me a completely new side of music in Syria that I would not have suspected without him. It is thanks to his effort that I invited archaeomusicologists to our festival.


| Other composers of Solhi al-Wadi’s generation

Solhi laid the foundation for a sound classic music education, but he wasn´t alone. There had been several musicians and composers already in the scene, which deserve to be mentioned. In 1957, Solhi himself conducted a symphony orchestra of musicians from the Friends of the Art Institute and the Syrian Police band. They attempted to play Beethoven’ Egmont overture and works by Schubert and Strauss. Some of the unknown composers and musicians playing in these arrangements never got the chance to be recognised, like the late Ali al-Kafri (b. 1953), just to name one, who studied filmmaking in Cairo and composed many works of music.

But there were also known Syrian musicians and composers in Solhi´s generation, who contributed to the classical music scene in Syria and beyond its borders.

Explore musicians and composers from this generation:

Another composer of Solhi’s generation is the Aleppian Diaa al-Sukkari (1938 – 2010) who studied in Paris and taught at the Arabic Institute with Solhi from 1960 till 1967, after which he moved permanently to France to teach. He was a very good violinist, but focused more on compositions. Influenced by contemporary composers like Messiaen, he composed over 60 pieces of music, trying to incorporate Arabic themes.

Born in Damascus in 1932, Walid al-Hajjar is a multitalented aristocrat. He studied at a very early age under Russian Baron Belling, former conductor at the Tsar Nicolas Court. Later in the fifties, he studied counterpoint with Madame Honegger in Paris, and composed with Edmond Marc at the Conservatoire de Paris. In the meantime, he studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts under sculptor Zadkin. He then moved to the US to finish his academic studies and graduated in political science. Today, he has four novels to his name, and continues writing articles and essays on a variety of relevant cultural topics, five hundred of which are published on his Facebook page.

Nuri Ruheibani (born in Hassakeh in 1939) moved to Leipzig in 1959 and studied with German composer Siegfried Thiele. Right from the beginning, he started using Arabic music and themes, composing pieces based on Arabic songs, traditional themes, as well as Christian and Islamic religious music. While working and teaching in several German universities, he composed for film and theatre in Damascus and made a social curriculum for Percussions, using Carl Orff’s percussion techniques at the Arabic Institute of Music in 1978.

Another wonderful composer and double-bass player is François Rabbat. Born in Aleppo in 1931, Rabbat moved to Paris in 1955. Since then, he played all over the world and composed many pieces of contemporary music. He wrote his three-volume opus Nouvelle technique de la contrebasse.


| The post-Solhi al-Wadi generation

Laying the basis for classical music education in Syria, the following generations of musicians were able to benefit from the pioneering work of Solhi al-Wadi, Nouri Iskander and many others that had joined their endeavours. It is no surprise that the new music institutions birthed a whole generation of fantastic musicians who add their very own pieces of contemporary music to the landscape of music in Syria and beyond. Although it is not possible to mention all Syrian musicians, this article tries to shed some light on the scope of musical talents that Syria has.

Following Solhi al-Wadi, conductor Missak Baghbodarian has since been in charge of the Orchestra and Cello player Athil Hamdan took over the directorship of the Higher Institute of Music.

Explore composers from this generation:

Born in Damascus where he studied, Zaid Jabri then moved to Poland where he earned his PhD degree with Krzysztof Penderecki. Zaid has been living in Krakow, Poland, for three decades now, and composed dozens of pieces and lectured in many renown universities in Europe and the United States.

For a serious study of the works of Zaid Jabri, Hassan Taha and Shafi Baddreddine, please read Shayna Silverstein, Transforming Space: The Production of Contemporary Syrian Art Music

Born in 1968 in Homs, Syria, Hassan is currently living in Bern, Switzerland. After teaching himself traditional Arabic music, he completed his musical studies in 1998 in both horn and oud at the Higher Institute of Music, Damascus. In 2003, he studied contemporary composition at the Conservatory of Maastricht, Netherlands. In 2012, he obtained a Master’s degree in composition at the Hochschule der Künste in Bern. His works have been performed in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Germany and Switzerland. In 2010, he was invited as ‘artist in residence’ by the Council of Pro Helvetia Arts, Switzerland. He has conducted workshops with both composers Vinko Globokar and Helmut Oehring.

For a serious study of the works of Zaid Jabri, Hassan Taha and Shafi Baddreddine, please read Shayna Silverstein, Transforming Space: The Production of Contemporary Syrian Art Music.

Syrian-American Kareem Rustom is from Squeilbieh, Syria, and now lives in Boston, US. Steeped in the musical traditions of the Near East and trained in western concert music and jazz, Kareem is a musically bilingual composer who has collaborated with a wide spectrum of musicians, ranging from the Kronos Quartet to Shakira.

Born in Sweida, Syria, Shafi Badreddine graduated from the Higher Institute of Music in 1998 as a clarinet, oud player, and specialist in Composition Theory. Shafi studied composition in Lyon and conducting in Dijon. He then went back to Damascus to create and conduct an orchestra. He made many serious contemporary works and was featured in many of our Oriental Landscapes festivals. Since 2010 Shafi lives in Luxemburg, where he established the Ornina Syrian Orchestra. His works concentrate on oriental music with a contemporary classical approach and he has toured in most European cities playing and conducting. 

For a serious study of the works of Zaid Jabri, Hassan Taha and Shafi Baddreddine, please read Shayna Silverstein, Transforming Space: The Production of Contemporary Syrian Art Music.

Iraqi Syrian violinist, composer and conductor Raad Khalaf graduated from Moscow in 1990 and moved permanently to Damascus, where he joined the teaching staff of the Higher Institute of Music, becoming first violinist of the Syrian Symphony Orchestra since its inception in 1992. He created the Damascus String Quartet, Zeryab Orchestra, as well as the female Mari Orchestra. He composed for cinema, theatre, and TV series, but also many operas, like Avicenna, billed as the first Arab-produced opera premiered in Doha, Qatar. His compositions were infueled by  Arabic themes and ideas, incorporating ancient themes and using instruments, like ancient Mesopotamian musical instruments, that he had built specially for his compositions.

Born in Damascus, Syria, and living in New York, Kinan Azmeh is by far the most active Syrian musician in my view. He brings his music to all corners of the world as a soloist, composer and improviser. Notable international appearances include the Opera Bastille, Paris; Tchaikovsky Grand Hall, Moscow; Carnegie Hall and the UN General Assembly, New York; Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, and many others.

Kinan’s compositions include several works for solo, chamber, and orchestral music, as well as music for film, live illustration, and electronics. His recent works were commissioned by many reknown orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Apple Hill String Quartet, , Cello Octet Amsterdam, Aizuri Quartet and Bob Wilson, and many others.

Rami Chahin obtained his B.A. at the Damascus Higher Institute of Music (1999). He earned his PhD in Music Composition and Theory and Musicology at Oldenburg University, Germany, supervised by Prof. Violeta Dinescu and Prof. Dr. Joachim Dorfmüller for his thesis Towards a Spectral Microtonal Composing: A Bridge between Arabic and Western Music as well as his microtonal and spectral composition opera Qadmus. He obtained a master in composition at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

Basilius Alawad is a Syrian Cellist and composer living in Berlin, he studied at the High Institute of Music in Damascus between 2011 and 2013, where he performed with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra as a guest cellist and soloist. Basilius has shared his own compositions at venues as the Berlin Philharmonie, Pierre Boulez Saal, Rudolstadt Fest, Muziekgebouw, and recently won the ‘‘Ettijahat for Independent Culture‘‘ sponsorship to produce his own composed album ‘‘Black Cotton‘‘. Basilius has composed a soundtrack for Arab Youtube Series and short movies, and has lately released his first electronic music single titled ‘‘Tal Elleil‘‘.

In the meantime, Basilius is studying cello in a class of Sennu Laine at the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin where he joins workshops, lectures, chamber music guidance by Daniel Barenboim, Michael Barenboim and Michael Wendeberg. Visit his website here


| The Emerging Younger Generation

Syria now has now several young composers. Amongst them many talented people like Suhaib al-Samman (born in Damascus), Wassim Ibrahim (born in Sweida and living now in Krakow Poland), and Mehdi al-Mahdi, born and living in Damascus till now. All three composers are treating Arabic and Oriental themes in their compositions.

Behind the Death, String Quartet and Orchestra with Wassim Ibrahim
Suhaib Al-Samman with National Arabic Orchestra at ‎the National Center for Visual Arts, led by Adnan Fathallah

Suhaib and Mehdi are yet to be recognized, but I believe they are working hard on their career while living in Syria. Another two young composers are Nadim Husni who is living and composing in Poland and Shalan Al Hamwi living and composing in Belgium.

All these musicians and composers took part in shaping the landscape of Classical Music on Syrian and international stages. They have both helped to carry forward traditions and created new innovations at once. And we can be certain, that there are many more to come…

Feature Image: © Zaid Jabri

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