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ClassicsOnline Home » EL-KHOURY: The Ruins of Beirut / Hill of Strangeness
Bechara El-Khoury (b.1957)
Lebanese composers drawing their inspiration from the West have often chosen France as the country in which to continue their technical training and increase their artistic awareness. Bechara El-Khoury, born in Beirut in 1957, is one such composer. He began his musical education in Lebanon with Hagop Arslanian (piano, harmony, counterpoint, fugue and analysis) before arriving in Paris in 1979 to complete his studies (composition and orchestration) with Pierre-Petit, the then director of the École Normale de Musique founded by Alfred Cortot. El-Khoury already had an established reputation by this time, both as a composer, with a hundred or so works written between 1969 and 1978, and as a poet, with several collections published, from 1971 onwards, as well as having been extremely active as a pianist, conductor, Kappelmeister and music journalist. A major concert of his works was given in Paris on 9th December 1983 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées by the Orchestre Colonne and Pierre Dervaux as part of the Khalil Gibran centenary celebrations, with the pianist Abdel Rahman El-Bacha as soloist.
El-Khoury became a French national in 1987. Many institutions, including Radio France, the Orchestre Symphonique Français, Musique Nouvelle en Liberté, and Shlomo Mintz Masterclasses, have commissioned works from him and he has received numerous official awards, including the Prix des Arts et de la Culture in 1994 from LBCI, the main Lebanese television channel, the Institut de Frances Prix Rossini in 2000, and the Chevalier de lOrdre National du Cèdre du Liban in 2001. His works have been performed by such prestigious orchestras as the Orchestre National de France, the Moscow Philharmonic, the Orchestre Colonne, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and the Orchestre Symphonique Français among others, as well as by first-class musicians such as Gérard Poulet and David Lively.
El-Khourys official catalogue only lists works composed since 1979, around 65 in all, predominantly symphonic and concertante music. He has indeed proved himself to be a master of orchestration, displaying a particular taste for virtuoso brass writing, as well as achieving transparency and agility in his woodwind parts, and creating rich sonorities in his string writing.
The Ruines de Beyrouth Symphony, Op. 37, (Ruins of Beirut) composed in memory of the 1975 outbreak of civil war in Lebanon, is without doubt his most ambitious work to date. It belongs to a trilogy of compositions inspired by this tragic event, the others being the Symphonic Poem No.1, Op. 14 Le Liban en flammes (Lebanon in flames) and the Requiem, Op. 18 À la mémoire des martyrs libanais de la guerre (In memory of the Lebanese war martyrs), both written in 1980. The symphony was composed in 1985 and although it reflects the genres typical four-part scheme, the individual movements make no use of traditional structures or means of development. Instead, each has the air of a lyric poem, a mosaic of feelings which constantly contrasts a consideration of the tragic rift, a work of collective folly, with the artists intimate thoughts, mans expression when confronted with the event in his existential solitude. Curiously enough, a certain stridency and the dramatic rôle allotted to silence are reminiscent of the twelve-tone Schoenberg of the 1930s, of Moses und Aron, but here the chromatic language is completely free. The first movement (206 bars), with its frequent tempo changes, is the most fully developed of the four, and is unified by an endlessly varied leitmotif on the clarinets. It goes far beyond anything else El-Khoury has written in its variety of soundscapes, its rapidly changing emotions, and the opposition created between internal revolt and expression of horrified meditation. The tormented atmosphere created by sombre chromaticisms and sudden tutti bursts from the brass ultimately fades into a desolate clarinet solo, scarcely coloured by discreet bassoon and horn interventions, a contemplation of disaster. The second movement, Misterioso in 5/4 time, acts as a scherzo (96 bars) and its choreographic nature can be glimpsed from time to time, although it is not free from dramatic gesture, as for example in the brief central section. The Poetico (68 bars) is the lyrical heart of the score, the poets voice, and the composers, far removed from the heavy atmosphere of the first part of the work. This is a translucent interlude rather than an ample slow movement. The Tragique finale (144 bars) comes back to earth and its music is both vehement and unpretentious: it could take a place alongside Shostakovichs and MartinÛs memorials to places devastated by war. The concluding Lirico section, for strings alone, finishes in calm, like a ray of hope, on a D major chord.
The Symphonic Meditation, Op. 53 Colline de létrange (Hill of Strangeness) was written in 1993 in response to a commission from the Orchestre Symphonique Français which gave the première on 29th November that year under the baton of Laurent Petitgirard in Pariss Salle Pleyel. El-Khoury introduced his work thus on that occasion:
"This symphonic meditation is a journey through a fog pierced by glimpses of light which herald the song of solitude and silence hovering over life and over time, a lyrical song in which music identifies itself with nature, its evolutions and its conclusions, its uncertainties and its violence. It is a struggle of light to come through the dark clouds stalking the horizon. Grey dominates all other colours, like a sun rising in eternal night. A meditation on a hill forgotten in the fog, a hill where all is strange, where beginning has no end."
A dark phrase on low strings which ends with the works main motif being heard from the horn is contrasted with a second idea declaimed by the brass. A faster and denser central section develops in successive waves before the return of the solo brass declamation. After the last crescendo of the final Lirico episode, an epilogue for strings returns to the original menacing, almost sinister ambience, before brightening into a final B flat major chord."
Harmonies crépusculaires, Op. 55, (Twilight Harmonies) was written in 1995 in memory of the conductor Pierre Dervaux (1917-1992) who had for many years presided over the fortunes of the Orchestre Colonne, one of Pariss longest-established ensembles. The work was commissioned by Musique Nouvelle en Liberté, and was first performed at the Salle Pleyel on 26th February 1996 by the same orchestra, conducted by Antonello Allemandi. The composer wrote at the time, "As we pay tribute this evening to a great musician, I know that from on high, up above the stars, our friend Pierre Dervaux is listening to the silence and to time, and will be beating suspended time with us..." This solemn music opens to a desolate, glacial landscape, shattered by sudden bursts from timpani, brass and percussion. Twice, a passing-bell tolls before an ascending motif which is soon transformed into rapid figures on the woodwind, as if making a break for the light. An astonishing polyrhythm on woodwind and trumpets precedes a long B flat pedal punctuated by the timpani. A solo string quintet introduces a section leading to a broad lyrical phrase played by the clarinet then by solo violin. The music then takes flight again, away from the resonance, to end in a second B flat pedal. The opening of the conclusive Lirico episode is entrusted to the woodwind; the strings final allusion to a past which has gone for ever, soon overwhelmed by brass and percussion, marks a return after the conflict to the lunar calm of the beginning, centred on a G which is accented three times by the bells.
The 1997 Fourth Symphonic Poem, Op. 59 "Le Vin des nuages" (Wine of the Clouds) was also first given at the Salle Pleyel, this time by the Orchestre Colonne under David Coleman on 18th May 1998. El-Khoury introduced his score as follows:
"Paradoxically, this is pure, non-programmatic music. It is a kind of confrontation between silence and the violence of nature, like a sun traversing the night and our souls. A night both peaceful and troubled, in which hope and despair hover above an infinite world. The action unfolds in a single movement, but several episodes, as if in a dream, beyond reality. In the beginning, silence is in control, meditative and serene, but in the end it will be beaten by violence and intoxication. So, let us close our eyes in order to open them on another world, and, as after a good wine, let us watch the clouds in the immense sky."
The work opens with an impressionistic Andante misterioso introduction, the characteristic colour of which comes from the superimposed chords in different keys. Then comes a Larghetto con espressione episode, introduced by the strings and dominated by a plaintive descending minor second: this is a primordial melodic unit and the composer has developed this minimalistic trend in his more recent work, the 2001 Fleuves engloutis, Op. 64 (Rivers Engulfed). The central Drammatico episode is devoted to an audacious exploration of polyrhythmic combinations on brass and percussion. The work ends in a profusion of sound, including horn glissandi, rapid trumpet figures, and percussion bursts, all conferring an orgiastic quality on its conclusion.
English version by Susannah Howe
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