Cello Concerto “Desert Sorrows” (2015)

Commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for Maya Beiser

Commission made possible through the generous support of Peter D. Cummings


I.    Yowm Ad-Dīn (The day of Reckoning)
II.  Al- Maccaber (The Graves)
III. Jannat: Saud Al-Faisal In Memoriam (Heavens)


I believe in angels and not just as figments of Arab and Middle Eastern mythology. For the people of the desert, the angels are more than characters in stories: they are essential to our understanding of the natural world around us. They are our way of expressing the elements of the universe. In Islam, the angels appear physically as being formed of light although some, like Gabriel, can appear to us in any form. I feel the presence of angels wherever there is light and I can’t say with certainty, given the shapeshifting capabilities of the archangels, that I haven’t conversed with an angel or two!

For the people of the desert, the angels also express the eternal constants of life: Azrael is the angel of death, Michael is the arch-angel of rain and thunder but also of mercy. The cello soloist in this concerto represents, at different moments, the four main angels shared in all three major Middle Eastern monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

We begin with the first movement titled Yowm Ad-Dīn (Arabic for “The Day of Reckoning”), a representation of apocalypse and the final judgement. The very first sound we hear at the opening of the movement is the din of tumult lead by the trumpets representing Israfel’s sounding of the trumpets of the apocalypse. The explosive music is inspired by the following lines from the Quran’s 82nd chapter, The Cleaving: “When the sky cracks; and the planets scatter; and the seas explode; and the graves are overturned…”. The opening is followed by a swirling motion in the flutes and the cello rising out of the depths. The music quickly transforms into the convulsive dance of Michael’s thunder which then gives way to a second theme in which the cello, in the voice of Michael, offers his mercy to the world. Michael’s hymn is rejected by the earthly crowds (represented by a clamorous orchestral cacophony) and he assembles his supernatural armies to bring and end to all earthly life.

Yowm Ad-Dīn ends with a great explosion followed by a downward-moving transition that takes us without pause to the second movement, Al Maccaber (Arabic for “The Graves”). In this slow movement the cello speaks with the voice of Azrael leading us from one funereal procession to another. The movement is inspired by these lines from the 102nd chapter of the Quran, The Rivalry: “Competition for worldly increase diverts you; until you visit your graves”. The key to understanding this invocation is that the grave is not a final resting place but rather a place that, after death, we temporarily visit while we wait for our souls to be resurrected.

The final movement begins with the joyous resurrection of the soul into an ecstatic paradise. Jannat is the Arabic word for the heavens and the movement is written to the memory of Prince Saud Al-Faisal. Prince Saud lived his life in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation to the best of his abilities. While I was composing this movement I rediscovered one of his statements that I’ve long cherished, words that embody his life’s mission of striving for harmony in the world. “I believe” says Prince Saud, “there can never be a clash of civilizations between us. It is a contradiction in terms. Civilizations are not competing products in the marketplace but rather the collective effort of human genius built on cumulative contributions from many cultures.” It was a pleasant thought for me to think, despite the fact that we may never achieve complete harmony here on earth, that there could be a place where the world’s peacemakers could find eternal harmony and peace after death.

Throughout this finale, the cello takes the form of Gabriel, the messenger of ultimate truth. And the flowing optimistic lines of the music are inspired by the Quran’s description of those who live their lives in the cause of peaceful and righteous deeds as they are finally admitted “to gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they abide forever.”

Mohammed Fairouz (2015)