Classical music and modern Syria
Education, politics, war and migration

Text Zaher Alkaei﹒Date 15. June 2021Spanish version


1. Introduction

Within the last ten years (2011-2021), the ‘Syrian conflict’ has moved to the forefront in a range of different – yet connected – discourses. This article traces the origins and spread of classical music in modern Syria with an emphasis on the issues of education, politics, war, and migration. It goes without saying that addressing such complex topics needs much more than just a short article. However, this article aims to provide a first overview of these issues, which should be studied in greater detail in future research.
Starting in 2011, Syria started to experience a tragedy that is still ongoing. Due to the complexity of this situation, phrases such as ‘revolution’, ‘civil war’, ‘international war on terrorism’, ‘the death of hundreds of thousands of civilian Syrians in Syria and in their migration roads’ can only capture part of the situation.
Syria post-2011 differs largely from Syria pre-2011. For this reason, this article will first address classical music in modern Syria until 2011, with an emphasis on education and politics. [1] The following section will address classical music in modern Syria after 2011 with a focus on the political instrumentalization of classical music in times of war and the effects of the migratory situation on classical music and Syrian classical musicians.
Besides this temporal division, another spatial division will be considered in addressing classical music played by Syrians after 2011. This division will cover classical music played by Syrian musicians in Syria and in exile (by taking two Syrian orchestras performing and working in Europe as examples).
This article will draw on multiple resources: besides the author’s personal experience of being a Syrian musician and researcher forced to flee his country, and his experience of participating in and attending to musical projects in Berlin, Germany, this article will rely on the very few publications about Syrian music. In an attempt to cover this paucity of publications, this article will also draw on newspaper articles and reports related to Syrian classical musicians in Syria and in exile before and after 2011.
A quick note on some central terms used in this article. By using the term classical music, I mean European classical music as rooted in the traditions of ‘Western culture’. The term modern Syria is used here to refer to the modern state of Syria after its independence in 1946. The term Syrians means the inhabitants of this state regardless of their ethnic and cultural background which includes but is not limited to Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, and Armenians. The term education in this article will refer to the process of facilitating learning, whether in formal or informal settings. The term politics will refer widely to the activities associated with making decisions in groups, and to the forms of power relations between individuals in addition to the expression of political positions. The term war here is used to refer to the intense armed conflict between the different groups fighting in Syria. The term migration will be used to mean external migration which is the movement of people from one country to another to settle permanently or temporarily.

2. Classical music in Syria until 2011

Shannon (2006) notes that Syrians were struggling to create a modern nation, especially after achieving independence in 1946. Back then, Shannon notes, modernization meant Westernization, even at the expense of tradition. For music, this meant that Arabic music was seen by many – though not by all – as ‘primitive and backward’ in comparison with European classical music.
Classical music in Syria can be said to be a twentieth-century phenomenon. Music critic and novelist Samim Al-Sharif (2011) mentions that Baron Erhast Belling who fled the Russian revolution in 1916 moved between different countries before arriving in Damascus during the 1930s. According to Al-Sharif (2011), Belling was a student of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) and was previously the conductor of the imperial court orchestra of Russia. Belling taught many Syrians classical piano and violin before leaving for Beirut-Lebanon in 1954. 
Another Russian musician who found his way to Aleppo, Syria’s second major city, was Mikhail Boricenco. Boricenco was a student of  Hungarian violinist and composer Leopold von Auer (1845–1930). During his stay in Aleppo, Boricenco taught many students. One of them is the internationally acknowledged Syrian violinist Nejmi Succari (Al-Sharif 2011). 
These two Russian musicians played an important role in launching the educational process of classical music in Syria. The next section will provide a general overview of institutions related to classical music education in Syria until 2011.

2.1 Education

According to Al-Sharif (2011), the first music institute in Damascus can be dated back to 1943 during the French mandate. After several instances of closing and reopening due to political instabilities, the institute finally reopened in 1961 under the supervision of dean Solhi Al-Wadi (1934–2007). In 2002 the institute was named after Solhi Al-Wadi. This institute taught music theory and gave lessons on Arabic and European classical instruments. 
The nineties were crucial years to the classical music scene in Syria. Solhi Al-Wadi, who studied at The Royal Academy of Music in London, also served as the dean of the High Institute of Music in Damascus which was founded in 1990. In 1992, the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra was established and gave its first concerts on 15 and 16 January 1993 (Al-Sharif 2011).
Zeidieh (2020) notes that Solhi Al-Wadi, who served as the dean of the High Institute of Music in Damascus until 2003, had invited and hired many musicians and pedagogues from Russia and other Soviet satellite republics, such as Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia. Zeidieh notes that this was not only due to the prestige and caliber of these musicians, but also because of the close political ties between Syria and the former Soviet Union.
Syrians benefited from many experts from Russia and the former Republics of the Soviet Union. For example, Houssni (2014) notes in a newspaper article that Victor Vasilievich Babenko (1951-2013), who arrived in Syria in 1992 after spending three years in Cuba, taught harmony, music theory and trained the choir at the High Institute of Music in Damascus. In 1995, Under the supervision of Babenko and Al-Wadi, the opera Dido and Aeneas was performed in Damascus and in the historical cities of Palmyra and Bosra (Al-Sharif 2011).
Like Damascus, the city of Aleppo has a music institute that can be traced back to 1946. Similar to Damascus's, Aleppo's first institute closed and reopened a few times due to political instabilities and finally opened in 1963 and is still open today. Recently it was named after the singer Sabah Fakhri for his role in performing the musical heritage of Arabic music. Another institute under the name of Aleppo Institute for Music was opened in 1977 (Al-Sharif 2011). 
In 2003, the Faculty of Music Education was founded in Al-Baath University in Homs. The teaching staff consisted of a number of graduates of the High Institute of Music in Damascus, Syrians who had studied abroad, and four lecturers from the former Republics of the Soviet Union. When compared with the High Institute of Music in Damascus, the study program of the Faculty of Music Education is less focused on the virtuosity of playing an instrument and there is more focus on preparing students to serve as professional educators.
After 2000, many private music schools started to spring up in cities all over Syria. These private schools provided varying levels of music education. Despite all these efforts, the situation was not perfect. Gaswan Zerikly (2020) blames the chaotic situation of musical life in Syria on the lack of planning in music education. This, according to Zerikly, led to a strange situation: local musical identity was not preserved, but at the same time, no real classical musical culture was established.

2.2 Politics

To have a better understanding of the role of art in Syria in general, and music in particular, one must examine the structure of the Syrian regime and its politics. I will attempt to elaborate on this point by using the Opera House in Damascus as an example. Adwan (2016) notes that The Damascus Opera House which is officially called Dar Al-Assad for Culture and Arts [2] was built after a decision taken by Hafez Al-Assad who ruled Syria between 1970 and 2000 [3].
According to Adwan (2016), the construction process began in 1971 and ended in 2004, when Bashar Al-Assad, who has been ruling Syria since his father’s death in 2000 [4], performed the official opening.
Designed by British architectural firm Renton Howard Wood Levin and built at a cost of about forty million US dollars [5] the Damascus Opera House was inspired by European opera houses of the eighteenth century. It contains three stages, with the largest one seating 1,335 (Adwan, 2016). 
Despite its high-quality equipment and services, the Damascus Opera House serves limited sectors of the Syrian society and it functions mainly as a source of great pride for the regime and Bashar Al-Assad himself. For context, no theatres were built during the reign of Hafez Al-Assad (Adwan, 2016). Having in mind that the majority of resources were invested in the capital of Syria, Damascus, one can imagine the difficult situation of musical life in the other Syrian cities.
Yet despite all these difficulties, many other things have been accomplished.  During the 1980s and 1990s, national Syrian TV produced a program called “World Language”, which was presented by the music critic Fahih Tamazajian (1945-2011). This program presented European classical music like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky. I was among the many Syrians who had first their encounters with classical music through this program on National Syrian TV and other programs on National Syrian Radio. Moreover, in 1993, the Syrian Ministry of Culture started issuing a seasonal magazine called “The Musical Life” which was a good source of knowledge on classical and Arabic music.

A general view of the Opera House building in Damascus. (AFP) -

3. Classical music (in) Syria after 2011

This part will deal with the issues of Education, politics, war, and migration concerning classical music played in Syria.

3. 1. Education

The ‘Syrian revolution’ and ‘civil war’ did not affect all regions of Syria immediately. However, sooner or later, institutes, schools, and universities located in ‘hot areas’ were forced to close at different times. Despite this difficult situation, planned projects in music education were partly carried out, either in areas that were not affected directly by armed conflicts like the city of Latakia or after the armed conflicts partly ended in other cities like in the city of Homs.
Zeidieh (2020) notes that, when the ‘Syrian civil war’ began in 2011, the non-Syrian teaching staff hired at the High Institute of Music left the country to restart life elsewhere, returning to their home countries.
Bulos (2018) in an article for the Los Angeles Times about the Syrian National Orchestra, mentions that, by 2012, all the Russian experts had left Syria which left the SNO and the High Institute of Music in Damascus facing great obstacles to maintaining their functions. For example, Houssni (2014) mentions that the important Russian teacher Babenko who taught harmony, music theory and led the choir at the High Institute of Music, left Syria in 2012 to return to Russia.
During the armed conflicts in and around Damascus, the Opera House and the High Institute of Music were suddenly within range of the missiles and mortars. This meant that showing up to lessons or rehearsals became, for many, impossible (Bulos, 2018).
The Faculty of Music Education of Homs in 2012 was hard hit, as seminars and lectures were suspended at least for six months due to the heavy battles in one neighborhood located next to the university branch in the city of Homs. 
Despite the very difficult situation, two music institutes have been opened in two major cities. In 2013, an institute was opened in Latakia and named after Mahmoud Al-Ajjan (1916–2006) a musician, composer, and scholar of Arabic music. Once fighting in Homs had mostly subsided, an institute was opened there and named after Muhammad Abd Al-Karim (1911–1989), a famous player of the buzuq (a long-necked fretted lute). These two institutions teach Arabic instruments and classical instruments and accept students ages 7 to 18.

3. 2. Politics

According to Adwan (2016), the Syrian regime insisted on keeping the Opera House and other venues running despite the protests and, later, the armed conflicts: the goal was to propagate that no demonstrations were taking place and that cultural life was running as usual. Moreover, during the ‘war’, Bashar Al-Assad chose the Opera House twice to give formal speeches in which he propagated his narrative of what was happening in Syria. Adwan (2016) notes that the Opera House was hit multiple times by the armed opposition’s mortars. It is not clear whether the opposition hit the Opera House in error while targeting the nearby Joint Chiefs of Staff, or whether it was hit because artistic activities continued while Al-Assad forces bombed other neighborhoods and towns in Damascus. The regime intensified cultural activities at the Opera House and abbreviated the name of the Opera House to Al-Assad House, to send a clear message to the Syrians that “the Opera House is Al-Assad House, and the country is Al-Assad country” (Adwan, 2016, p.242). Adwan adds “[t]he country has been cloaked by Al-Assad’s name and the armed opposition aims to eliminate everything associated with his dynasty. Sadly, the Opera House is one such target.” (2016, p. 243).
Moraly (2019b) points out two roles of music in the regime’s propaganda after 2011 which have been manifested through two phases. Moraly notes that the first role – during the first phase – was the denial of any political crises in the country by keeping the musical and cultural activities running ‘normally’. The second role came later – during the second phase – as the regime used cultural activities to propagate a ‘secular’ identity in opposition to the ‘Islamic’ identity of many of the opposition groups.
Classical music was not only a propaganda tool for the Syrian regime but also for its allies especially Russia. There have been multiple events where Russian musicians played classical music in Syria during the war years. One of these events took place in the ancient city of Palmyra. The BBC (Rosenberg 5/5/2016) reported that conductor Valery Gergiev – a Putin supporter – conducted the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra at Palmyra’s Roman Theatre on 05.05.2016 after the Syrian forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, retook the historic site from so-called Islamic State (IS) in March 2016. Rosenberg (5/5/2016) notes that this concert was more than just music. The concert aimed to send messages like: “Russia contribution is positive and good in Syria” and “This concert is a protest against the barbarism and violence exhibited by Islamic State militants”.
Moraly (2019b) notes that as the Syrian regime started to be seen as ‘the lesser of two evils’ in the international scene especially after the rise of terrorism and refugees ‘crises’. This led Russian and Italian organizations, especially during populist right-wing Matteo Salvini’s time as a prime minister of Italy, to organize musical events in Damascus in an attempt to break the political isolation and re-normalize the relations with the Syrian regime.

3. 3. War

It was not only that the armed conflicts affected education and performing music as demonstrated in the two previous sections. Sadly, the armed conflict also caused the death of music students, while many others were injured. While many Syrian music students and musicians left the country, those who decided to stay in Syria were forced to do compulsory military service. Many of them died during the armed conflict. I personally have known three fellow students: a cellist, a guitarist, and a pianist who died while doing their military service. I have also heard about another young Syrian musician who fled the country to Lebanon to avoid being forced to do his military service died due to the poor health services available to Syrians in Lebanon. 

3. 4. Migration

The increasing numbers of Syrians leaving the country after 2011 affected many aspects of social, economic and cultural life in Syria. 
Bulos (2018) mentions that more than 74 musicians left the Syrian National Orchestra. Performing with far fewer musicians than usual imposed a great challenge for the Orchestra.  Zeidieh (2020) notes that due to the war, many musicians emigrated to Europe or to the United States, to pursue higher education or perform in international professional orchestras.

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Syrian National Symphony Orchestra Celebrating the 'Victory' of  Bashar al-Assad in 2021 Presidential Elections, Citadel of Damascus, Damascus, Sunday 6/6/2021

4. Classical music played by Syrians in exile after 2011

Of the 6.6 million Syrians who were forced to leave their country, hundreds of thousands fled to Europe. Among these Syrians in Europe are many classical musicians who participated in many musical projects, orchestras, bands, workshops, and other cultural activities. The following sections will focus on examples of projects created by Syrian classical musicians.

4.1 Education

Despite the harsh fate many Syrians faced, finally arriving in Europe offered many of them the chance to benefit from developed education systems. Syrian classical musicians are no exception, with many of them pursuing higher education in conservatories, music schools, and masterclasses. Others chose to pursue higher education by studying musicology or related disciplines. 

4.2 Politics

This part will not deal with the migration policy of European countries towards Syrians or the political climate concerning migration in Europe in recent years. However, it is important to note that a lot of cultural and musical events have been financially supported out of political interest in order to show ‘openness’ and ‘solidarity’ toward non-European citizens. This means that many projects and events have been supported due to the nature of the ‘backstory’ of these ‘refugees’ and not because of the cultural projects themselves (Moraly 2019a).

Instead, this part will look at the political messages sent by two Syrian classical orchestras playing in exile. I will elaborate on the two projects in the following section on “migration”. Here only the core political messages of these two projects will be briefly discussed. 

According to the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra website (SEPO website), their aim is to try to bring together Syrian musicians, whatever their ideological differences, in order to save the ‘Syrian music’, which is facing destruction due to the situation in Syria now. It seems that SEPO tries to find a middle position between different political divisions among Syrian classical musicians. Thus, the focus on being Syrian has primary importance to their orchestra; whether this is embodied in their music or not, will be discussed in the next part of this article.
The other project is Ornina Syrian Orchestra. According to Piscarel’s (2018) article, the OSO concert “Hymn to Spring” in July 2018 at the Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg was a tribute to the revolutions that began in 2011 in the Arab world. These revolutions are also known as ‘The Arab Spring’. According to Piscarel, the conductor of OSO Shafi Badreddin told Delano magazine that “[t]he majority of Syrians do not accept the division of Syria, so I wanted to show Syria unified musically. I took a song from each city, from every region of Syria and I compiled them, including songs in the Turkish and Syriac language. I made a sequel that brings together all the accents, all the languages and the musical colours.”
Although OSO focuses on the unity of Syria and its diversity like SEPO, OSO takes a clear position towards the ‘Arab Spring’ which includes the ‘Syrian Revolution’ and considers them legitimate actions against dictatorship and authoritarian regimes. 

4.3 War

As direct or indirect war survivors many Syrians – the classical musicians being among them – face great difficulties. Stress, depression, and post-traumatic disorder are much higher among war survivors in comparison to other groups of the population. In addition, many Syrian musicians lost contact with their music during the war years and had to focus on survival. All these factors in addition to the stigma and the negative connotation of being a ‘refugee’ make it very difficult for survivors to start their careers again, and potentially especially their musical careers. However, despite these difficulties, many Syrian classical musicians managed to find their way to the stage again. The next part will present the two orchestras SEPO and OSO. 

4.4 Migration

According to Bulos (2018), many Syrian classical musicians who left the country still play in orchestras in the U.S., Europe or neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. However, others put music aside due to the difficult situation of being refugees in exile. 
One of the famous examples of Syrian music projects in exile is the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra (SEPO) which introduces itself as “the first Symphony Orchestra for the Syrian professional and academic musicians who live in European Union countries and diaspora” (SEPO website). This orchestra was founded in September 2015 in Germany by the Syrian musician Raed Jazbeh who is its artistic director (SEPO website). SEPO performs symphonic music written by Syrian composers beside European classical music. Despite its interest in performing ‘Syrian’, ‘Arabic’, and ‘Oriental’ music in symphonic forms, SEPO does not include ‘Arabic’ instruments in all its concerts which can be a challenge to perform as much of  ‘traditional Syrian music’ which is not orchestral. Instead, SEPO relies on new symphonic compositions by Syrian composers. This orchestra focuses on being a classical philharmonic orchestra.

Another project is Ornina Syrian Orchestra which was founded in 2016 by the Syrian composer Shafi Badreddin who is based in Luxembourg (Piscarel 2018). In addition to the standard orchestra instruments, OSO has the main instruments of the so-called Takht Ensemble which are: the oud, the qanun, and the ney. This orchestra focuses more on introducing ‘traditional Syrian music’ within an orchestral framework. The fact that Badreddin is a professional composer with great experience in dealing with Arabic music is a great advantage for this orchestra and the majority of the arrangements played by OSO are done by him. 

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Ornina Syrian Orchestra - Concert Voice of Syria Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg 2018.  Fassel "donne boire aux assoiffés". arranged and conducted by Shafi Badreddin. Solo Rasha Rizk.

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The Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra live at Konzertsaal Universität der Künste Berlin October 3rd, 2017 conducted by Ghassan Alaboud, accordion Manfred Leuchter, cello Salah Namek. The Borrowed Dress, composed and orchestrated by Suad Bushnaq.

5. Conclusion

Classical music fulfilled an identity role for many – though not all – musicians in Syria during the attempt of creating a modern nation. Later, the Syrian regime used classical music to stylize itself as modern, secular and as having the upper hand in the war. The classical music scene in Syria became deeply politicized as a propaganda tool serving the narrative of the Syrian regime and its allies. The tragic still-ongoing conflict deeply affects the musical and cultural life in Syria. While Syrian classical musicians in exile are struggling to re-establish their careers and are reconsidering their musical identities, Syrian classical musicians in Syria – like other Syrians – are facing existential challenges. The suffering of Syrian classical musicians in Syria is connected to the suffering of all other Syrians which cannot be eased without political and cultural reforms and peace before anything else. 

  • Footnotes

[1] This article will not deal with the reception of classical music in Syria. However, I hope to address this issue in future research.
[2]  ‘Dar’ literally means ‘house’.
[3] A wide range of institutions in Syria (from state libraries to Quran schools) was named after Al-Assad. Even the whole country has been frequently called ‘Al-Assad Syria’ by the regime supporters.
[4] An interesting use of classical music in Syria was playing Beethoven's second movement of the third symphony 'Eroica' – among other classical pieces – on the Syrian national TV during airing Hafez Al-Assad funeral in 2000.
[5] For comparison, this was about 2.1% of the Syrian general state budget – around 1900 million US dollars – in 2004.

  • Publication bibliography

Adwan, Ziad (2016): The Opera House in Damascus and the ‘State of Exception’in Syria. In New Theatre Quarterly 32 (3), pp. 231–243.

Al-Sharif, Samim (2011): Al Musiqa fi Suria: a‘lam wa trikh (Music in Syria: Names and History). Damascus - Syria: The Syrian General Book Association Press.

Bulos, Nabih (2018): Dozens of musicians have fled or been killed. Yet, in war-torn Syria, the orchestra plays on. In Los Angeles Times, 3/23/2018. Available online at, checked on 4/9/2021.

Houssni, Omar (2014): lw'eh alghyab... fyktwr fasylyfytsh babynkw «1951-2013» (Absence sorrow ... Victor Vasilievich Babenko «1951-2013»). In Kassioun 641, 2/15/2014. Available online at, checked on 4/9/2021.

Moraly, Ali (2019a): fnan alazmh alswry... tlwyhh akhyrh mn shbak altdakr (The artist of the Syrian crisis ... a final wave from the box office), 1/10/2019. Available online at, checked on 4/12/2021.

Moraly, Ali (2019b): mwsyqy zmn alhrb: 'ela eyqa'e althwrh weyqa'e alnzam (Wartime Music: On the Rhythm of the Revolution and the Rhythm of the Regime). In Al Araby, 3/19/2019. Available online at, checked on 4/12/2021.

Piscarel, Magaly (2018): SYRIANS FIGHT PREJUDICE WITH MUSIC. In Delano, 6/30/2018. Available online at, checked on 4/9/2021.

Rosenberg, Steve (5/5/2016): Russia's Valery Gergiev conducts concert in Palmyra ruins. BBC. Available online at, checked on 4/9/2021.

SEPO website. Available online at, checked on 4/9/2021.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt (2006): Among the jasmine trees. Music and modernity in contemporary Syria. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press; [London : Eurospan (Music/culture).

Zeidieh, Ghyas (2020): A Performance Guide to the Syrian Composer Nouri Iskandar's" Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra" with Emphasis on Its Syrian and Assyrian Roots: University of Iowa.

Zerikly, Gaswan (2020): Mbad'e alnghm waleyqa'e byn alhwayh walahtraf (The principles of melody and rhythm between hobby and professionalism). Damascus - Syria: The Syrian General Book Association Press.

¡Muchas gracias por leernos! 

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