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Yousef Khasho, composer

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 05.03.2007:

A Man of Symphonies … a Man of the World

In memoriam of the tenth anniversary of his passing-8 March 1997

When Mozart was asked to teach a young boy piano, he listened to his playing, kept silent for a moment, and then turned to his friends and said: ‘Pay attention to this child. He will be a great musician in the future’. That young child was Ludwig van Beethoven.

In 1936, when Palestinian composer and music teacher, Augustine Lama, listened to nine-year-old Yousef Khasho, he pronounced the same words. That young Yousef became the leading symphonic composer not only in Palestine, but also in the entire Arab world.

Born in Jerusalem on 24 May 1927, Yousef witnessed very difficult years as Palestine was then being systematically colonized by Zionist organizations. Life was insecure, the economy was unstable, and living in old Jerusalem was a struggle in itself. When Yousef was five years old, his father passed away, and he was raised in the orphanage of a Franciscan monastery. At age 13, he once played the organ at church and conducted the choir since Maestro Lama was not able to attend that day. In 1948, he was appointed music teacher at Terra Sancta High School.

During the 1950s, a few years after the Palestinian tragedy of 1948, he went to Jordan and then to Syria. His music skills and abilities started to grow-from oriental to western, from light music to drama, and even to jazz and blues. As many other thinkers, artists, musicians, and writers, he settled for a time in Beirut, where he continue to develop his musical skills and knowledge.

In the sixties, when Yousef was in Aleppo, he decided to specialize in orchestral music composition and conducting. Classical music was novel to Aleppo, yet its rich oriental music was a popular form of culture. Khasho quickly integrated into the music scene and left a great legacy: he helped organize an oriental ensemble and worked to reform the music school. It was not long before he went to Rome to enrol in advanced studies in classical music. It was during this period that the ‘Jerusalem Symphony’ came to life.

As a true Arab citizen who realized the plight of his nation after the loss of Palestine, he was very much a nationalist at heart. His love for his country and Jerusalem, the city of his birth, was an omnipotent beacon throughout his life. Perhaps his most famous symphony, although not the richest in composition, was ‘Jerusalem’.

The symphony is composed of four movements. The first, allegro moderato, is a portrayal of the nature of this unique city as it was at the turn of the twentieth century. He used a Gregorian theme (Kyrie) together with the Muslim call to prayer (Allahu Akbar) and combined them in a unique and remarkable way. The second movement is much slower and grandiose. The Ubi Caritas style of sacred music can be easily heard for a short while before it changes into polyphonic structure with the Allahu Akbar theme. That was Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967. The third movement is faster and uses his own themes to represent the fall of Jerusalem and the story of war. The finale is a sad movement in which fast sections often break in to portray the revolt and anger of captured Jerusalem.

In 1966, King Hussein of Jordan invited Khasho to return to Jordan to lead the ‘music renaissance’ movement. He did this with great success and helped found the National Music Conservatory. His next stop was Libya, where he was invited by the ministry of culture to lead its music education programme. However, in 1972, he moved back to Italy and remained there until 1986. During this period, he founded a music research centre to study the relationship between Middle Eastern and European music, all the while continuing to conduct, compose, and perform. During the final years of his career, he had become a true musician-refined and cultured. He mastered harmony and orchestration and developed a greater affinity for the larger world, not just his small region of the Middle East. He was determined to introduce Europe and the rest of the world to the richness of Arab culture in modern music philosophy.

Diligently and conscientiously, Yousef developed a professional career that is difficult to classify. It was neither oriental nor occidental, and he certainly did not belong to modern music schools. Some of his symphony movements reveal his efforts to create structures and harmony that are new, yet which refuse to give in to modern harmony and structure. At the same time, he never stopped using genuine Arab melodies to produce splendid light classical structures and compositions that even experienced composers would find difficult to create.

In 1989, Khasho returned to Jordan to settle for good. He worked for one year to establish the Jordan Academy of Music and then began to teach at Al-Albait University. He remained on its academic faculty and continued to compose and perform until he passed away on 8 March 1997.

His legacy of compositions includes twelve symphonies (and one that was never completed), many short pieces for piano, voice, and other instruments, and an operetta-style children’s drama.

The greatness of Khasho is perhaps his mastery of integrating and incorporating various styles, cultures, harmonies, and structures in a way that brings rich Arab culture and tradition into modern form in terms of classical music. Very few Arab musicians did that.

On March 8, as I walk into the Nativity Church in Bethlehem to light a candle in his memory, I will pray that many other creative Arab thinkers walk along the same path as Yousef, not only in music but in other fields of human culture and civilization as well. Perhaps the way of intelligentsia will lead us to find our place under the sun, given that ‘politicia’ seems to have failed us till now!

Dr. Saleem Zougbi

Bethlehem Academy of Music


This Week in Palestine

March 2007

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