ALHAMWY Shalan (1982)


Shalan Alhamwy is a Syrian-Belgian composer, violinist and photographer, born in the city of Homs in Syria. He started violin training in his home country at a young age, after which he decided to focus his further studies on music. From 2002 to 2007 he studied at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, where he received violin lessons from Evgueny Loguenov. Although his Russian teacher emphasized the strict rules and principles of Western classical music, Alhamwy also immersed himself in Arabic music during his studies. Both worlds of music fascinated him enormously, which is reflected in each of his musical projects. After graduating as a violinist, he was active with several leading orchestras and ensembles such as The Syrian National Symphonic Orchestra, The Syrian National Orchestra of Arabic Music and the Damascus Chamber Orchestra. He also worked as a professor of violin at the Solhi Alwadi Music School in Damascus and at the Albaath University of Homs.

For a long time, Alhamwy was very busy with all these musical activities, but the Syrian Civil War, which broke out in 2011, changed that. Homs was one of the first cities to be hit by violence and demonstrations. As a result, Alhamwy decided to leave the city and move to the capital Damascus, but it soon became clear that he would not escape the war there either. From Damascus he traveled to the countryside near Tartous, where he began to compose and arrange music himself. He was forced to give up playing concerts and his job as a violin teacher in Damascus, which freed up time to delve into harmony, orchestration and scoring. Ultimately, the situation in Syria became so untenable that Alhamwy traveled to Europe in 2015, like many other war refugees. He ended up in the asylum center of Sint-Niklaas, where he soon contacted the local orchestra. Here he met many musicians with whom he mainly communicated through the universal language of music. In a conversation with Violet VZW he says: “I am fortunate to have been trained as a classical violinist, which allows me to easily read scores and be part of orchestras. People here often find it fascinating to hear Arabic music on classical violin.”

Determined to continue his musical career in Belgium, Alhamwy founded a number of musical projects, focusing on the union of Arabic and Western classical music. For example, under the name Damast Duo – in collaboration with the Belgian accordionist Jonas Malfliet – he brought together an extensive repertoire of Arabic and European folk music. He is also the artistic director and violinist at Jiraan Ensemble, a musical collective founded in 2016 that consists of musicians from different backgrounds. He also plays the violin with the string orchestra Picea Orientalis, where he also isthe artistic director. Their main goal is to build bridges between different musical worlds. However, the union of Western and Eastern music traditions is not only seen in these projects, but can also be heard in the works that Alhamwy himself composes. Arabic melodies are combined with elements from classical music theory such as harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, resulting in an interesting fusion of two different traditions. In 2021, Alhamwy obtained his master’s degree in Turkish music, elements of which he has since also integrated into his compositions.

Work review

During the various violin courses that Alhamwy followed in Syria, the focus lay strongly on Western classical music. His Russian teachers not only brought him into contact with composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, but also taught him the strict rules of classical harmony and composition techniques such as counterpoint. At the same time, Alhamwy immersed himself in the Arabic music from his youth, which is mainly driven by melody, improvisation and microtonality. His main goal is to unite elements of both types of music in his compositions.

This duality is strongly reflected in Two Images from Aleppo, composed in 2016. The composition consists of two large parts – each with its own character – that correspond to the “two images” that Alhamwy talks about in the title. Since July 2012, the war in Aleppo has been fought by the Syrian army on the one hand and various rebel forces on the other. It was not until December 2016 that the years of fighting came to an end, after the rebels were defeated by the army. The first part of the composition, which runs from bar 1 to bar 131, has a very restless character that corresponds to the chaos of the war. Throughout the entire movement, Alhamwy uses a fixed melodic motif, which returns continuously – with or without variation – and which comes from Arabic music. Underneath lies an agitated accompaniment in the string parts. This accompaniment moves in a slow harmonic rhythm and consists mainly of eighth notes and quarter notes. As the movement progresses, compaction takes place: the melodic cells become increasingly shorter and we build towards a dramatic climax in bar 131. Alhamwy emphasizes its fateful character through the prominent presence of the brass instruments and the percussionists.

After the end of the first movement, the adagio is followed by a short transitional passage of three bars to the second movement andante misterioso. A different picture of Aleppo is painted: peace returns after the war, but the city is left destroyed. The tempo of the music slows down considerably and a new melodic motif appears in the oboe part. This motif is strongly characterized by chromaticism and again its character is very “oriental”. Although from bar 152 onwards another, almost romantic melody briefly appears in the string parts, this second motif appears again a little later in bar 169. This is also accompanied by a return of unrest and seriousness, created by the syncopated accompaniment in the horns, the continuous change in dynamics and the ominous harmonies. Then, from bar 177, Alhamwy again works towards a climax that is finally reached in bar 186 with the help of a fortissimo, tremolos in the string parts and a grand intervention by the percussionists. However, the calm soon returns with the woodwinds and strings bringing the piece to a close. Although Two Images from Aleppo was written for a classical symphony orchestra and is based on Western principles, Alhamwy uses the Arabic-inspired melody to create an image of the Syrian city during and after the war.

The Western-Arab duality that forms the basis in Two Images from Aleppo seems slightly less evident in works such as Lullaby (for dead Syrian children) from 2016 and Reminiscenza from 2018. The first work Lullaby, composed for string orchestra, is in E minor and can be divided into four parts: ABA’ coda. The first A section runs from bar 1 to bar 13, where a perfectly authentic cadence ensures a beautifully rounded ending. The melody, which is characteristic for this part, can be found in the violin part. It is a melancholic motif, dominated by small intervals such as the second and the third. Below, the other strings play a syncopated accompaniment, occasionally alternating with longer note values. After the cadence in bar 13, the B section follows. A new melody appears, first in the first violin, then from measure 22 in the viola and in the cello. Here the interval jumps are slightly larger and in the first four bars a fixed harmonic pattern is followed that characterizes the B part: IV7 – VII7 – III4/3 – VI7. In bar 29, the B part ends on a dominant 7 chord, making the transition to the A’ part. This third part, a varied repetition of the first part, starts again with an E minor chord and ends with a striking E major chord in bar 40. Finally, a coda follows, based on the music of the B part. Here the piece comes to an open end on the dominant B, which, as it were, seems to represent the infinity of the afterlife.

Just as with Two Images from Aleppo and Lullaby, Alhamwy also uses a fixed motif in Reminiscenza for solo cello and strings that recurs throughout the piece, with or without variation. It is a short rhythmic-melodic cell of two bars, first heard in bars 3-4, consisting of a semitone tied to four eighth notes, followed by two semitones. Melodically, second steps are mainly used, but also a minor third step between the fourth eighth note and the following semitone. This rhythmic-melodic cell is continuously referred to, including when the soloist is introduced for the first time in bar 24. After two brief references to the motif, it appears almost in its entirety in bars 26-27 and we also see the slightly varied return in the following bars. At bar 50 this motif disappears for a moment and a stream of triplets appears, which will remain dominant until bar 75. Then the basic motif can be heard again. What is striking is the integration of a kind of cadenza in the middle of the composition (bars 95-106). This shows Alhamwy’s preference for improvisation, an element that is central to Arabic music. He thinks it is a shame that there is hardly any improvisation in Western classical music and that there is a strong distinction between composer and performer. Even cadenzas – which were completely improvised in Bach’s time – are written out in advance. For that reason, Alhamwy often asks the musicians who play his music to occasionally break away from the score. In this cadenza he also gives the cellist a certain freedom by using indications such as rubato and ritenuto.

Work list

Berenjacht for violin and accordion (2021), Mary of Magdala for string orchestra (2020), Silhouette for diverse ensemble (2019), April Song for diverse ensemble (2019), Reminiscenza for solo cello & strings (2018), Valse for “H ” for oud, guitar and strings (2018), Charged Night for diverse ensemble (2018), De Grootmoeder for diverse ensemble (2018), Viscidity for diverse ensemble (2018), Via Dolorosa for diverse ensemble (2018), Plan B for diverse ensemble (2018), Pieta for strings and erhu solo (2018), Samai Melancolique for diverse ensemble (2018), Harvest Song for diverse ensemble (2018), Suite for Bassoon and Harp for bassoon and harp (2017), Two Images of Aleppo for symphonic orchestra (2016), Departure for soprano, violin and piano (2017), Hanin for traditional instruments and strings (2016), Poem for string orchestra (2016), Ams (yesterday) for symphonic orchestra (2018), Artistic Dictatorship for soundtrack ( 2016), Jasmin for cello solo (2016), Scene III (In the Aegean) for solo violin and chamber orchestra (2016), Old Homs for various ensemble (2016), Two Syrian Dances for string orchestra (2016), Lullaby (for Dead Syrian Children) for string orchestra (2016).


Sirto (Jiraan),
Birds of Passage (Damask Duo), 2020
MuSiKa (commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent and intercultural music center De Centrale)
Safar (Damask Duo), 2018
Liqa’ (project by Ghent Folk Violin Project) , 2017
Hanin (commissioned by the Flemish youth orchestra Violet), 2017


Twee werelden ontmoeten elkaar


Ypress Digital Music Editions

Texts by Catho Menten
Last changes: 2023