Modern Music Pioneer Halim El-Dabh Dies

Sep 5, 2017

Halim El-Dabh is Egypt's most famous composer, although he spent most of his life in the United States. El-Dabh was a beloved musicologist and emeritus professor at Kent State University. He died Sept. 2, 2017 at the age of 96.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

He was Egypt’s most famous composer, a pioneer in modern music, and a creative force at Kent State University for more than four decades.

Composer and music researcher Halim El-Dabh died over the weekend. He was 96 years old.

A career in music came as sort of a surprise for El-Dabh. In 1940’s Cairo, he was training to be an agricultural engineer, but all the while he studied and wrote music

During the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, El-Dabh composed a piece for piano called "It Is Dark and Damp on the Front" that captured his feelings at the time.

“The war was inside every human being, You can't escape it; everybody’s in it.”

El-Dabh studied music and documented traditional styles from many regions of Africa. He brought a love of folk music to his modern compositions and spread it throughout his tenure at Kent State.
Credit BOB GLUCK

The piece caught the attention of the Egyptian elite in Cairo, and El-Dabh was invited to perform it publicly.

The event changed his life.

“That night I was proclaimed an international composer,” says El-Dabh.

He was feted in Europe and was invited to study in the United States. He was granted his first of two Fulbright scholarships.

Later he earned two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Fellowship and degrees from The New England Conservatory of Music and Brandeis University. His inventiveness struck a chord with America’s artistic set.

With the American Avant Garde
Aaron Copland became an early advocate, introducing the young Egyptian to composer Irving Fine, who invited El-Dabh to the Berkshires saying, “'Anyone who writes music like this should be my private student,'" according to El-Dabh in a 2016 interview.

El-Dabh became part of the vibrant artist colony at the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts. He dove into the exploding world of post-war American expression that included the biggest names in art, music and literature.  He recalled a party at the home of playwright Arthur Miller.

“I was sitting and having a martini with this very beautiful woman and talking about space and Neptune and the cosmos and some guy said, 'Are you enjoying talking with Marilyn Monroe?’ I froze. I couldn’t say anything after that.”

It was at that party that El-Dabh met the music arranger for the Martha Graham Dance Company. The meeting led to a commission from Graham of a 15-minute work. That morphed into a 2 ½-hour epic based on the Greek tragic heroine Clytemnestra, the first evening-length modern ballet.

Last year the Martha Graham Dance Company honored El-Dabh with a revival of the work at Kent State University.  El-Dabh went on to compose three other major works for Graham.

Decades at Kent State
El-Dabh eventually settled in a small Ohio town to teach and write music. He came to Kent State shortly before the tragic shootings of students, an event that galvanized his commitment to his art.

El-Dabh built a program at Kent State around the diverse traditions of African music and founded the ethnomusicology curriculum.

In 2002 El-Dabh was invited back to Egypt to perform his works as part of in the opening of the new library in Alexandria. In 2006, he organized the Symphony for 1000 Drums as part of Cleveland’s Ingenuity Fest. At the age of 85, El-Dabh personally conducted the project, with the enthusiasm of someone half his age.

“We’re going to vibrate it out of our heart, just everybody as is, and it’s going to ripple and ripple across ths planet and everyone be awakened with a new sound,” El-Dabh promised in a video promotion of the event.

Arab Spring
In 2011 he spoke about the uprisings in his home country of Egypt that were part of the Arab Spring, and the hope that spurred it. 

“Whether you’re right or wrong, the energy of interaction on the planet Earth needs balancing, this is as a musician looking at the world, or maybe a philosopher, so I think we are faced with the idea of balance right now.”

El-Dabh penned dozens of symphonies, chamber works and solo pieces – many of them on themes of Egyptian mythology.

Halim El-Dabh holding the score to his 1958 ballet Clytemnestra written for the Martha Graham Dance Company.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

“In ancient Egyptian philosophy, everything has life in it, not just life, but feeling. So when you deal with the land and when you deal with sound, everything has a feeling so you have to be very aware that everything has feeling like you and me.”

In a 2016 interview, El-Dabh described how he used music to counteract the dissonance of modern life.

“The world around us – you hear the bus going, the plane going, people doing lawnmower. It’s all part of us, creating something creative from all that surrounding us to make us feel good.”

Halim El-Dabh’s music is still played each night at the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Halim El-Dabh, composer, musician, teacher and philosopher died Saturday at the age of 96.