Pierre Azoury, the engineer who put a civil war to music

Friday 20/11/2015

London - Pierre Azoury was a gentle giant of post-war Beirut, a man who represented a finer, more noble world where education and the arts were valued as ends in them­selves. November 19th marked the first anniversary of his death at age 84.
Azoury was best known for his music — as composer, pianist and teacher. His talks on the great com­posers were rarely short of riveting, seamlessly blending his poignant voice, wide scholarship, sensitive humanity and a remarkable collec­tion of slides, compact discs and video recordings.
But while many assumed Azoury was a music professor, he was for most of his life a professor of me­chanical engineering at the Ameri­can University of Beirut (AUB). His book on his specialism, unstable liquid flow, published by Wiley in New York, was described by one re­viewer as “exciting”, which reflect­ed the enthusiasm Azoury showed in communicating his passions.
Born in 1930 to a father from Azour, near Jezzine, Lebanon, and an Egyptian-Syrian mother, Azoury grew up in Port Said. When a teach­er at the English school in Cairo in­troduced him to the music of Fred­eric Chopin, it was a turning point. “It was as if a whole new world opened,” Azoury told me in 1999. “I knew the waltzes of Strauss, Rossini’s overtures, Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies but I’d never heard such po­etry in music.”
The 17-year-old Pierre took up piano but his fascination with science led him to un­dergraduate studies at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow (1949-53) and a PhD at Imperial College, London. After a couple of years working for British govern­ment company Power Jets, he ap­proached the dean at AUB and in 1961 was offered a post as assistant professor.
Azoury spent the war years 1975- 90 in Beirut and subsequently com­posed the Beirut Suite, scored for six instruments, including soprano voice. The work, recorded mainly with electronics for a CD from Phe­nix Records, Beirut, evokes times that were not entirely dark.
“The pieces can be called por­traits of life during those days of war,” he told me. “There were days when one felt relatively happy be­cause there was no bombing. You felt you were living life intensely because you were under threat of death. The Beirut Suite reflects the contrasts that we lived through.”
Azoury began to compose as soon as he acquired a piano and de­voured Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s book on orchestration. But he was also soon improvising and genera­tions of AUB students re­member hearing him playing in the As­sembly Hall, on the university campus just off Rue Bliss.
Also included on Azoury’s CD are three piano re­cordings he made in Berlin in 1991, 1992 and 1993, which were mainly improvi­sations. The 1993 pieces were written in the Romantic style and based on themes from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, with the last, Death, improvised. Inter­spersed with the music was Azoury reading extracts from Gibran’s book.
Azoury’s talks in Beirut on the lives of the great composers were inspirational and unforgettable for everyone privileged to attend. His first effort was the first music event at the Goethe-Institut after the civil war, eight weekly lectures on Mozart marking the bicentennial of his death.
Later talks were often linked to works featured in Al-Bustan Fes­tival, which began in 1994 with Azoury as an adviser and from the start attracted outstanding interna­tional musicians.
Azoury brought the great com­posers alive: it might be a large silhouette of Brahms en route to the Red Hedgehog, his favourite restaurant in Vienna, or it might be insights into Schubert’s care­free summers — when he wrote the Trout Quintet — before his early death from syphilis. And there were always samples from Azoury’s extensive collection of re­cordings.
Azoury was fascinated by the of­ten complex relationship between a composer’s music and life. In 1999 he published Chopin Through His Contemporaries: Friends, Lov­ers and Rivals, which gave the read­er “a sense of personal acquaint­ance” with Chopin, according to Jim Samson, a world authority on the composer. In the years before his death, Azoury was working on a book looking at the loves of the great composers.
Azoury well knew that any ac­count of the relationship between a composer’s life and his work would raise as many questions as an­swers. Music was too abstract to be reduced to the passions of love, or the intensity of war, even if it could sometimes convey them.
Perhaps his insights into the lives of great composers come also from his own experience that creativity required distance, from yourself as well as others.
Azoury’s own calm, almost mel­ancholic exterior belied a restless imagination. “Music for me wells up from the subconscious,” he told me. “The great composer is obsessed by his art and must get it out. He can express himself and in this sense he is free.”