Abdel-Rahim, Gamal

(b Cairo, 25 Nov 1924; d Königstein, 23 Nov 1988). Egyptian composer. His father performed classical Arab music with his own ensemble. After learning the piano and developing an interest in Western music, Gamal studied history at Cairo University (BA 1945), at the same time continuing his musical studies with Hans Hickmann and others. A government bursary enabled him to study musicology in Heidelberg with Georgiadis (1950–52) and composition at the Freiburg Hochschule with Harald Genzmer (1952–7). After graduation he returned to Egypt, where he taught at the newly founded Cairo Conservatory. In 1971 he was appointed professor of composition there, and he proceeded to establish the first composition department in the Arab world, teaching several Egyptian and Arab composers (including Daoud, Ghoneim, Salama and Al-Saedi) until his retirement in 1986. In 1987 he left for the University of South Florida, in Tampa, Florida, where he lived and taught until his death during a visit to Germany.

Abdel-Rahim's music fuses Arab melodic and rhythmic features with Western techniques. He resisted the major-minor system, which was then becoming widespread in Egypt, preferring melodies based on traditional modes, especially those of the higaz (augmented 2nd) and sabā (diminished 4th) genres. (However, folk melodies do not feature in his works, except in variations or choral settings.) In the 1980s he developed a polyphonic system of composing in the microtonal Arab modes, using the ¾ tone. He also developed a way of working freely with tetrachords rather than with the ancient modal scales, sometimes building synthetic modes, as in the second movement of the Flute Concerto (also known as The Lotus Pond). Both his harmonies and his linear contrapuntal writing are affected by these intervals, leading to a certain degree of dissonance, particularly in his early works. Rhythmically, he uses traditional irregular patterns (e.g. groups of five and seven, as in the Violin Sonata) or variable metres (as in the cantata Al-Sahwa). In his sonata-form movements he introduced Eastern improvisation as a means of contrast in the second subject. In his settings of classical Arabic poetry he preserved the correct pronunciation by means of variable metres, thereby avoiding the much criticized failing of certain settings by previous composers. He used Arab folk instruments alongside modern Western percussion instruments, for example in the ballets Osiris and Hassan and Na'iīma. His music reflects Egypt in all its aspects: the Pharaonic era (Osiris), urban life (Sahba, Introduction and Rondo ‘Baladi’) and peasant life (Hassan and Na'iīma). He received many awards and honours, including the state prize for composition (1973).


(selective list)

Stage: Osiris (ballet, 3 scenes, choreog, G. Eplinius), 1974, expanded to 5 scenes (choreog. A. and E. Kamel), 1984; Hassan and Na'iīma (ballet, 3 scenes), 1980; El Tayyeb wal Sherreer [The Good and the Evil] (musical, K. Ayoub), S, T, Bar/B, nar, children's chorus, dancers, 1981

Incid music: Al Hayal'al yawmiyya li qudamāa’al Misriyyeen [The Daily Life of Ancient Egyptians] (documentary film), 1960; Mawwāl min Masr [Mawwal from Egypt], 1973; Wogouh min Al-Quds [Figures from Jerusalem] (radio), 1974; Osiris (TV film), 1974, revised as ballet, 1974; La ilāha illa’ Allah [There is no God but Allah] (Akhenaten) (TV serial), 1986; Choephoroe [The Libation Bearers] (Aeschylus)

Orch: Introduction and Rondo ‘Baladi’, 1969 [orch version of 2nd and 3rd movts of Vn Sonata]; Fl Conc., 1977 [1st movt: Asdaā [Echoes], 1972; 2nd movt: Buhayrat al-Lotus [The Lotus Pond], fl, ob/vn, orch, 1973]; Little Suite, str, 1979 [orch version of the 5 Little Pieces, pf]; Sahba (Jubilant Dance), orch/chbr orch, 1983

Choral, unacc.: 11 Children's Songs, 2–3vv; 6 Egyptian Folksongs, mixed choir; 5 Folksongs, 2–4 children's vv

Choral with orch: Al-Sahwah [Awakening] (cant., S. 'Abdel-Sabour), Bar, mixed chorus, orch, 1966; Ibtihāl [Invocation] (Islamic chant, Z. El-Abideen), T, male chorus, nāy/fl, 1968; Malhamat Seenā [The Sinai Epic] (cant., S. 'Abdel-Sabour), children's chorus, mixed chorus, orch, 1974–5; Kān ya ma kān [Once upon a Time] (The Ringdove) (S. Jaheen), nar, children's chorus, orch, 1980–81; Kadni'l Hawa [Love has tormented me] (cant., M. Usman), chorus, orch, 1978 [version of cant. by M. Usman]

Chbr: Vn Sonata, 1959, 2nd and 3rd movts orch 1969 as Introduction and Rondo ‘Baladi’; Rhapsody, vc, pf, 1975; Duo, vn, vc, 1982; Monāgāh (Soliloquy), cl, 1984; Pf Trio, 1986; Improvisations on a Pedlar’s Tune, vc; Nonet, wind insts, hp; 2 Songs (A.W. El-Bayyātī), 1v, chbr orch/pf

Pf: 5 Little Pieces, 1956; Ila'l Shuhadaā’al ‘Arab [To the Arab Martyrs], 1974, based on incid music for Figures from Jerusalem, 1974; Variations on an Egyptian Folktune

Principal publisher: Doblinger, International Opus and Verlag Neue Musik


P. Gradenwitz: Musik im Östlischen Mittelmeerraum’, Musica, xv (1961), 653–62

P. Griffiths: The Thames Encyclopaedia of 20th-Century Music (London, 1986)

S. El Kholy: Al qawmiyyah fi musīqa al-qarn al-'ishreen' [Nationalism in 20th-century music] (Kuwait, 1992), 318–28

S. El Kholy and J.Robison, eds.: Festschrift for Gamal Abdel-Rahim (Cairo, 1993) [incl. scores and cassette tape]

S. El Kholy: Gamal Abdel-Rahim's Approach to Intercultural Music’, Intercultural Music, i, ed. C.T. Kimberlin and A. Eúbà (Bayreuth, 1995), 27–37

J. Robison: The Chamber Music of G. Abdel-Rahim and the Fusion of Traditional Egyptian and Western Elements in Modern Egyptian Music’, ibid., 39–67

A. Rādy: The Characteristics of Egyptian Non-Traditional Vocal Works (diss., Cairo Conservatory, 1996)