After a flight from Rome, I arrived in Cairo on Thursday 27 August 1987. It was my second trip to Egypt, and I was fortunate to be invited to meet Maestro Aziz, at his home in Heliopolis, eleven days later, on Monday evening, 7 September 1987. We were introduced by the United States Embassy, which also provided entrée to one of the Egyptian producers helping to organise the Teatro di Bari presentation of Verdi's Aïda, soon to go into rehearsal at The Sphinx of Giza, a production for which I became an assistant to the Stage Manager (helping to translate Italian to English for the Egyptian extras) and for which I also acted in the production, playing a Minister to Pharaoh.
My stay in Egypt was for nine complete months. During that period, I was received at the Maestro's home five more times. For purposes of documentation, the dates were:
I left the Nile Valley, via Egypt Air, and returned to New York on Friday morning, 3 June 1988. During those months, my six encounters with Aziz remain in my memory most fondly. They provided me with some of the most cherished times that I spent with anybody in Cairo. Our friendship was extraordinary, due to the fact that I was from the United States and he was from Egypt, due to the difference in our ages (Aziz could have been my grandfather: I was then 37, and he 71), and due to the fact that I had only just begun composing music on the 22nd of January of 1987, that very same year. In other words, I had only been a composer for a little over seven mere months, when I was fortunate to meet the man who many in Egypt considered, at that time, the country's premier classical composer.
Evolution into a composer can never be ascertained by rote. How and why one develops a proclivity to compose for symphony orchestras and opera is really a mystery, likely a dispensation by God. My call to compose came late in life, after having had no formal music training whatsoever since quitting piano lessons at age 11. Aziz was quite astonished, when we met, to hear that I was completing the last aria to my very first opera, Court Masque, for which I was the verse-librettist and which was my very first musical composition, my Opus 1. As a novice, I was thrilled that a man who had not only written for symphony orchestra, but who had had his music performed by symphonies, would take time to sit with me and would treat me as a peer. He was always gracious, always affable, always pleased to receive me, to entertain, to be the perfect host, to sit and discuss Art, Politics, and the World. When I was with him, I always felt "at home", and his gentle smile and quick wit made me feel more in the company of a loving senior relative than with someone who might pass judgement on every musical note I wrote or who might criticise every single phrase I spoke. We truly enjoyed each other's presence, and quickly became friends. From him I was able to get an overview of changes that had taken place in twentieth-century Egypt, from one who had been a part of the cultural capital of his country for the majority of the century's decades. In this regard, Aziz helped me not only as a composer but also in the research for my writing project then in progress.
This tribute to Aziz, therefore, is not meant to be a critical exegesis of the Maestro's longevity nor an infallible account of his many years of composition of music. I do not know, nor likely ever shall, his corpus of works which issued forth from his font of creativity. The man whom I knew, in Cairo in 1987 and 1988, was to me a personal friend, not a cipher in a bibliography of modern-day composers. I have never read an official biography of him, nor seen one published. Much of Aziz's accomplishment still remains to be brought to light to the world, by Egyptians themselves, who can best appraise the substance of his works with regard to their impact upon twentieth-century Coptic and Egyptian culture at large. I say Coptic, because, by birth, Aziz was a Copt (= Christian Egyptian, Ed.), very proud of his heritage; but he was also proud to be an Egyptian, and proud to have made a mark further afield, in other countries of the Middle East. Aziz is almost wholly unappreciated on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the Western Hemisphere, and I only hope that these words may spark others, outside Egypt, to begin investigating, and cultivating, compositions of this interesting and little known twentieth-century Maestro.
I was in Egypt for two reasons during those nine months -- to complete my first opera and to orchestrate it -- and then to draft Extremism, Novel Four of my East-West Sextet, six interrelated books of fiction which I have been working on since 1975. On Tuesday 13 October 1987, I completed the opera's draft by finishing its last aria, "The Wonder Of Love". On Friday of that same week, 16 October 1987, I began orchestrating the opera, then completed the Court Masque orchestration on Friday 22 January 1988, which was exactly one year to the very day after beginning my new life as a composer. To be in Egypt, and to be able to call upon Aziz, at his home, at this time of intense personal development, when my life was undergoing changes as it had never changed before, was a truly great experience, one both profoundly influential and inspirational, and for which I am eternally grateful.
When we first met, on 7 September 1987, my Journal records the following: "Had to rush way across Cairo to the far side of the Nile -- to meet Aziz El-Shawan, who lived in splendour compared to [a friend who shall remain nameless and who accompanied me on this visit]. We sat on his balcony, overlooking a well-tended garden of a Prince of the former Royal Family. He talked of the Sultan of Oman's flying him and the whole London Philharmonic to Oman for a performance of one of his symphonic works. Aziz admitted being a Copt. Aziz liked me and invited me back. I played [on Aziz's baby-grand piano] my "Gratitude" aria and some of "Rhapsody Of Love" [both from Court Masque] -- this being the very first time in my life I'd ever performed for a real-live symphonic composer and I was very nervous. His phone rang just as I was finishing "Gratitude" -- I was almost grateful. Aziz gave me a tape of his ballet, Isis And Osiris, as a parting gift. He admitted having studied in Moscow -- with Khachaturian. That hit me hard, when I realised that, thus, by association, Aziz was heir to the Western tradition of music instruction going back to Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and further back to the Germans. Aziz espoused a theory that the Coptic Priesthood is truly the heirs to the Priests of Amun Ra, saying they simply transferred their allegiance (and rites and music) in entirety from Ra to Jesus, so that they wouldn't lose grip on the people they'd controlled for thousands of years. I asked both [the Copt who accompanied me] and Aziz if they felt to be Ancient Egyptians inside their veins, and both said: Yes! El-Shawan was emphatic in affirming this."
It was not my privilege to hear any of Aziz's compositions performed while I resided in Cairo. As an older, established composer, however, he certainly did grace me with interest in my work, and did not trouble me with attempts to make me comprehend his. To this day, I have only had the pleasure of hearing excerpts from one of his orchestral compositions, the above-mentioned Isis And Osiris ballet, which he gave me as a taped cassette and which had been recorded by the Leipzig Opera Orchestra conducted by Feder. It was only after I returned to the United States, in 1988, that I was able to listen to this ballet and, by studying it, have grown to appreciate the Maestro's compositional abilities very much. Indeed, he did study with Aram Khachaturian, and when one listens to the orchestration of Isis And Osiris there are many phrasings which remind one of the colourful phrasings of orchestra by Khachaturian. How much of Aziz's corpus of work can be said to be inspired by, or influenced by, Khachaturian is not for me to say. What year or years that the two great composers were together I do not know. Evidently, Aziz was already schooled in orchestration before the two men met. More on the subject of their time together should be published by those privy to archival records.
I shall include one final excerpt from my Journal from 1987, and allow the reader to experience what it was like to be a budding composer in the presence of an established one. On 18 November 1987, at Aziz's house: "To-day did have my long-awaited appointment -- but got there early -- at 5.30 PM and he was still taking his siesta. Earlier in the morning I carried on till 1.30 PM on what I've been doing with [the orchestration of] "Pythía!" [from Court Masque]. So I was feeling in great form when I got to the Maestro's and we had a fabulous 4-hour session. We talked Politics and Music, with respect to Opera, and we went through just about page-by-page all my orchestration to date, Acts I and II up to "Pythía!" which I'm still working on. I showed it all to him -- why not? He kept saying: "Astounding...astounding." He said I was "courageous" to write the full-fledged flamboyant orchestration as I am doing without regard to production costs. As we went through my orchestration, I often went to his piano and played either a measure or two or a musical phrase, sometimes badly (as I was nervous -- feeling like this was an exam) but other times well. He listened to it all with sensitivity and often expressed amazement. He said: "You've got a way of dealing with sound all your own," meaning not just the mechanics of orchestration but how I envisage the orchestra and instruments and voices blending and telling the story. He was convinced of the music's merit enough to urge me to contact Maestro Youssef Es-Sisi, Conductor of the Cairo Symphony and also for the Cairo Opera, who (Aziz says) also is an Under Secretary for Culture. We had a long talk, as well, about realities for staging opera in Egypt -- he saying stick to a more modest-sized symphony and smaller choruses (due to budgets here, and lack of musicians). He said the Ministry of Culture is pleading poverty..."
The last time I saw Aziz was Monday evening, 30 May 1988, and I gave him a signed first edition of my novel God's Fool and an autographed production book of my musical Riches To Rags. I had always hoped to see him alive, again, but such a meeting was not fated to be. Let me conclude this by saying that being in the presence of Egypt's foremost classical composer, while I myself was embarked upon completion of my very own first major orchestral composition, ranks as high in my mind as the experience of being involved with the production of Aïda, for which The Pyramids of Giza were the nocturnal backdrop and The Great Sphinx its set-piece. I learned a great deal about opera by being on that stage simultaneously with diva Grace Bumbry, who sang Amneris, and I learned a lot about opera by my six meetings with Maestro Aziz. May his soul sing in peace, wherever his spirit is travelling beyond the veil.
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