Marking the centenary of composer Aziz al-Shawan (1916 – 1993) at the Cairo Opera House
Cairo audiences were treated to a delightful evening of music on 17 October 2016 as the Cairo Opera House celebrated 100 years on the birth of the great Egyptian composer Aziz al-Shawan (1916 – 1993). What made the evening so special was that the music included a melange of classic western and ethnic Egyptian melodies, both of which form the major components of compositions by Shawan. Conducted by Nayer Nagui, Shawan’s music was performed by the Cairo Opera Orchestra and Cairo Opera Choir.
The concert began with Abu Simbel: Symphonic Pictures for Choir and Orchestra, a work that calls to mind images from the temple of Abu Simbel. Scenes from the temple were projected on two large screens at the sides of the stage. Nagui conducted the orchestra and choir bringing forth the various moods depicted in the musical work. The melodies drew from Nubian and ancient Egyptian themes, especially the dances of the queen maids and the accompanying harp compositions.
The brilliant pianist Merritt Hanna then joined the orchestra to play the concerto for piano and orchestra in a lovely rendition. Egyptian influences of tunes and instruments were interspersed in the concerto. The sound of the qanoon, a Middle Eastern string instrument, was evident as the folk melody of Allah Allah ya Badawi Gab El-Yusra, a chant praising the holy Sufi al-Sayed al-Badawi, resonated through the concert hall to delight the audience.
The concert concluded with selections from Shawan’s opera Anas al-Wugud, a work inspired by a tale from The One Thousand and One Nights that celebrates the love between the Egyptian soldier, Anas El Wugud, and the minister’s daughter Ward al-Akmam. Baritone Mustafa Muhammad and the choir performed the festive It is Feast Morning, and Bass Baritone Abdel-Wahab al-Sayed followed with The Hangman. Soprano Iman Moustafa delighted the audience with Where are you, Anas al-Wugud?. All too soon, the duet and final chorus of Act I My love… My Dame performed by Baritone Moustafa Muhammad, Soprano Iman Mustafa, and Mezzo Soprano Gihan Fayed brought this centennial tribute to Aziz al-Shawan to an end.
As the concert came to an end, Conductor Nagui informed the audience that Mr Shawan’s daughter, Ms Salwa al-Shawan Castelo-Branco, was attending the concert and had generously donated personal effects and musical works to the Cairo Opera House in memory of her father. This brought on a wave of applause for the great composer’s daughter, a professor of ethnomusicology who teaches at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal.
Alongside the concert, an exhibition was held in the Main Hall displaying portraits of Mr Shawan as well as the awards, medals and certificates of merit which he received in recognition of his lifetime contribution to music. In 1956, he was awarded the Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s first prize in composition; in 1967 the Egyptian Government’s Art and Sciences Award of the First Order, and in 1984 the Oman Order of the Arts.
According to the brochure handed to the audience, Mr Shawan graduated from the prestigious French school of St Joseph-La Salle College in Cairo where he earned a Higher Diploma in Commerce. Privately, he trained with various prominent European music teachers living in Cairo at the time, to play and study the violin and piano along with music theory, harmony, composition and orchestration.
Symphonic poems and scenes
Some of Mr Shawan’s early works were performed by the Radio Moscow Orchestra conducted by Aram Khachaturian around 1956. Such works included Fantasia Andalusia for Orchestra; the symphonic poem Atshan Ya Sabaya, a popular Egyptian folk song that literally translates into ‘I’m thirsty, girlies’; and the overture for his opera Antara, the name of an epic pre-Islamic Arab knight and poet.
Aram Khachaturian visited Cairo in 1960 and upon hearing Aziz al-Shawan’s compositions invited him to study with him at the Moscow Conservatory, an invitation which Mr Shawan accepted. He studied with Mr Khachaturian in Moscow from 1967 to 1969, then returned to Cairo and dedicated his time to music composition and acting as consultant to various organisations of the Ministry of Culture (1969 – 1976). He also taught music composition and orchestration at the Arabic Music Institute (1970 – 1993). In 1984, the London Symphony Orchestra performed and recorded his Oman Symphony in Muscat.
Other works of Aziz al-Shawan include music to the ballet Isis and Osiris which depicts a legend of the ancient Egyptian gods, music to films, chamber music compositions, the Piano Concerto, and symphonies. His Anas al-Wugud, which premiered at the Cairo Opera House in 1996, was the first opera in the Arabic language.
Aziz al-Shawan created an Egyptian musical expression within the framework of western tonal music, which he saw as an international musical language. In addition to his work as composer and teacher, Mr Shawan published four books of music appreciation for the general public.
26 October 2016