ClassicsOnline Home » EL-KHOURY: New York, Tears and Hope / The Rivers Engulfed
The Franco-Lebanese composer and poet Bechara El-Khoury was born in Beirut in 1957. A master of orchestration, El-Khoury draws on the rich palette of resources available to today’s composers, putting into music, ‘human nature and its passions’ through an underlying Christian spirituality. This disc features New York, Tears and Hope, which pays homage to the victims of 9/11 and The Rivers Engulfed, a work which, according to the composer ‘speaks of the love between people and of peace in our world’. All works receive their world première recording on this disc.
Bechara El-Khoury (b.1957)
New York Tears and Hope • Les Fleuves engloutis • Sextuor • Waves • Fragments oubliés
Bechara El-Khoury was born in Beirut in 1957. He started his musical studies in Lebanon with Hagop Arslanian, then moved to Paris in 1979 to further his training as a composer with Pierre-Petit, the then director of the Ecole Normale de Musique founded by Alfred Cortot. When he decided to settle in Paris, he already had behind him a twin reputation as a composer, with some hundred works written between 1969 and 1978, and as a poet, with several collections published from 1971 onwards, as well as a solid career as pianist, conductor and Kapellmeister, and a contributor to the press. An important concert of his works was given on 9 December 1983 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris by the Colonne Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Dervaux, as part of the centenary commemoration of the Lebanese-American philosopher and poet Khalil Gibran. In 1987 El-Khoury took French nationality. His works have been played by ensembles as distinguished as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, the Colonne Orchestra (Paris), the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and the Orchestre National de Montpellier.
On 25 May 2006 his Violin Concerto, Aux frontières de nulle part (On the Frontiers of Nowhere), Op. 62, was performed for the first time at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, by the violinist Sarah Nemtanu with the Orchestre National de France, conducted by Kurt Masur.
In his youth Bechara El-Khoury lived through the terrible war in the Lebanon and in memory of this dark period composed a musical trilogy of particular emotional intensity, Symphonic Poem No. 1 'The Lebanon in Flames', the Requiem 'To the Lebanese Martyrs of the War' [Naxos 8.557691], and the Symphony 'The Ruins of Beirut' [Naxos 8.557043].
In the opinion of many commentators at the time, 11 September 2001 opened a new era in our history, full of uncertainties, of chaos and anguish. The illusion of "the end of history" engendered in 1989 by the fall of the Berlin Wall was only a short, optimistic interlude in the full progression of the sufferings of humanity.
El-Khoury, the man and the artist, could only feel overwhelmed by the New York tragedy. With New York Tears and Hope (2001-2005) he follows the tracks of his great predecessors Martinů, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Penderecki and Nono, who knew how to bear witness in their music to the emotion excited by the worst violence of modern barbarism, and to re-affirm the place that the composer can and must hold in the city. In this work El-Khoury takes a humanistic perspective that pays homage to civilian, innocent and chance victims of the attack on the Twin Towers.
The general expressive contour of the work extends across a succession of states, describing desolation, revolt, affliction, sorrow and hope. This composition can be seen as a threnody, a meditative lament, made up of extended lyrical phrases, disturbed by outbursts that translate indignation, sorrow and exasperation in face of the inadmissible. In the opening section, Misterioso, neutral and cold fifths, played in the upper register by the violins, at first partly coloured by the mysteriously resonant, intermittent fifth of the piano and the harp, then supported in the lower register by the other strings, symbolize the hardening of feeling after the terrible event, giving the impression of the emptiness of space. Then a first phrase stated twice by the violins recalls in its bareness, the empty landscapes dear to Finnish composers such as Sibelius and Rautavaara. A short first tutti, Drammatico, over a D pedal, with dissonances of a minor second and horn glissandi, a simultaneous evocation of the brutality and savagery of the event and a manifestation of anger, introduces over a throbbing iambic (short-long) rhythm a long phrase, Lirico, sung in octaves by the violins, expressions of the feelings of man and artist in the face of the incomprehensible. These two opposing ideas are repeated, presented in varied form in the course of a long episode, darkly dramatic in character, which is dominated by the obsessive iambic rhythm. After a silence, a Mahlerian gesture in glissandi in the violins, marked Doloroso, a true cry of suffering, introduces the final Espressivo section that returns to the original static mood. This time the violins in G sharp octaves are as if fixed in the upper register, while cellos and double basses respond to them in the lower register with F naturals in violent tremolos. A short coda, Solennel, in A flat major, brings a final light, a ray of hope in this tragic meditation.
The orchestral composition Les Fleuves engloutis (The Rivers Engulfed) (2001) has its origin in a challenge offered by Radio France to a number of composers for a series of radiophonic programmes under the title Alla breve. For this the composers had to write a work of about ten minutes, comprising five sections each of which was to reflect, in miniature form, a particular state of the piece within the work as a whole. The idea was to to broadcast one of the five parts repeatedly each day of the week. The aim was to allow the progressive entry of listeners into the complete work through repeated hearings. The work was repeated complete at the weekend in the course of several broadcasts, this time continuously. The intention was to familiarise the public with the variety of forms and styles of contemporary musical expression, and in doing so achieve a wider audience.
Of this commission from Radio France the composer has said: 'Les Fleuves engloutis is a work that speaks of the love between people and of peace in our world. The rivers represent the human being who passes through life like a star travelling through eternal space. Man, like Jesus, a being of suffering, of strength and of hope, transcends life. This is a work against racism and xenophobia, against dictatorship and death, that sets Man against himself.'
The five parts are strongly connected and unified by the use of shared melodic and rhythmic materials.
In the first piece, Brouillard (Fog) El-Khoury establishes a correspondence with the symbolic order between the physical nature of fog and the loss of moral and spiritual points of reference, which he sees as the origin of the confusion and menace that weigh down on humanity. A theme in the lower register from the bassoons and horns marks off the central section that evolves through impressionistic touches of chords or the minimalist motif of a second (ascending or descending) over an iambic rhythm. This section allows the appearance, conscious or not, of Debussy's influence (fourths and fragments of the whole-tone scale) and that of Koechlin (refined and static orchestral sonorities, divided chords, harmonics).
The Chant du silence (Song of Silence) is a moment of meditation, of solitude and of silence, space for reflection. Over sustained string chords a clarinet tune gradually develops from the fundamental materials of the work. The melody continues later with the oboe and then with the cor anglais, over a harmonic accompaniment of clarinets and of a simple string quartet, then a string trio. On the return of all the strings a progression begins on a minimal motif of a rising major second, marking a dynamic intensification.
The central part, Alerte (Alert), writes the composer, is: 'the moment of all the dangers that lie in wait for Man. He is vulnerable and threatened by dictatorship and hatred. Freedom is on the brink of the abyss, projected into the darkness.' This is a work in 'inferno' style, expressing horror, in a way analogous to the hell one may meet in Liszt's Dante Symphony or in Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini. Towards the end a motif of oriental cast, with the characteristic interval of an augmented second, is heard from the violins, a distant memory of a world that is past and swallowed up in oblivion.
On Lutte (Struggle) El-Khoury has said: 'The destiny of Man and the hope that gives strength force him, in his thirst for freedom, to struggle to save the essential values of human civilisation.' Rich polyrhythmic textures superimposed by the woodwind, brass and percussion are violently interrupted antiphonically by the strings.
The general structure of Chant des fleuves (Song of the Rivers) is bipartite. The first section, Sereno, starts in the strings in a very Mahlerian lyrical style, punctuated by wind chords, as in the opening Adagio of Mahler's Symphony No. 10. The motif of a second, short-long, which is present throughout the five movements, reappears and largely dominates the Lirico second section. Here its ascending virtuoso passages and the power of orchestration are suggestive of the hope of victory over the forces of evil.
The work is dedicated to René Bosc. The first public broadcast was on 11 September 2002 on Radio France with the Orchestre National de France conducted by Laurent Petitgirard, and the first performance in a public concert was given by the London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding at the Barbican on 30 October 2003 in the context of the Masterprize.
Commissioned for the master-classes of Shlomo Mintz, the Sextuor (1996) was conceived for a minimum ensemble of six solo violins in which each desk could be augmented by an equal number of players. The present version is played by a section of 24 violins from the London Symphony Orchestra.
This short piece is in two sections. The opening Poetico offers a lyrical phrase in which the seconds and iambic rhythms are a foretaste of the materials used in Les Fleuves engloutis, while the second part, Energico, full of rhythmic vitality, has the character of a dance.
The piano holds a predominant position in the work of Bechara El-Khoury, including concertante works with orchestra [Naxos 8.557692]. On Waves (1998), for piano, the composer has written: 'Symbolic figures of the oceans, the waves roll free and grow calm, breaking on the rocks, then recoil, as if to take account of the state of the water and the sky. Waves can be the origin of several tragedies, wiping out cities and peoples, with the violence of a flash of lightning. Waves is music of nature in all its splendour, sometimes tragic.'
Nature is often a source of inspiration for composers today not so much in romantic contemplation as through the observation of the physical phenomena that it engenders, with the necessary artistic transposition that must be effected through sound (Xenakis, Mâche, Fineberg). Before Waves, nature was barely present in El-Khoury's music, but now it seems to make its appearance in resonance with the tragic destiny of modern man. In Waves the composer returns to a bipartite form, already used by Scriabin in his Second and Fourth Sonatas for piano, which links two successive movements, slow-fast.
Two ideas dominate the first part: one meditative, with a steady rocking feel set in motion by the alternation of a descending crotchet figure between the two hands; the second, marked Brumeux, is made up of static polychords, occasionally embellished with appoggiaturas and characterized by polytonal colourings and a range of sonorities from mute darkness to brilliant light.
The second part displays a radical contrast through the unleashing of natural forces in their irregularity (polyrhythms in metres of 5 and 7) and their sonorous power (clashes of harmonies, polytonal chords, diatonic tone-clusters). The music then takes on an agitated leaping character, almost dancing, in spite of the continuing metrical changes. The undertow is rendered here by the incessant movements of figures in alternate hands or of falling or rising elements often exploding over blocks of chords or clusters.
El-Khoury has explained the significance of his piano work Fragments oubliés (Forgotten Fragments): 'Fragments oubliés, luminous objects, hidden, partly by forgetfulness, by time and by memory … It is from a vague theme and a thematic cell that images return, incomplete, strange, questioning … it is fragmentary music in which images and colours try to provide a continuity in spite of the unfinished work of memory, of forgetting … Orchestral sounds, sonorous colours and other parameters that evoke misty landscapes, distant countries, countries of dreams, shadows, illusions …'
In this piece, which follows immediately after Les Fleuves engloutis, El-Khoury returns to the bipartite form already used in his Second Piano Sonata (1998) and in Waves. The opening Lirico, slow in tempo, starts with melismata in the style of Scriabin, presented in a fragmentary manner and which, little by little, give way to figures in iambic rhythms where again seconds dominate, materials already amply used in Les Fleuves engloutis. Unlike in Waves, the concluding part, which starts Misterioso, offers more homorhythmic writing. The fragments are distinguished by their concision and the clarity of their design. The general principle of contrast governs the organization of registers, dynamics, the density of sound and the different ways of playing (virtuoso passages, alternating hands, chords, clusters).
English version by Keith Anderson