Darwish was joined on the project by well-known composers John Debney and David Shire. Each composer represents one of the Abrahamic religions: Darwish for Islam, Debney for Christianity and Shire for Judaism.
Similarly, the symphony is divided into four movements, arranged chronologically. The first, “Earth”, begins with the creation of man and the search for God. “Peace” represents Judaism, “Love” represents Christianity and “Tolerance” represents Islam.
“Religion is one of the most complicated and controversial subjects, and it’s extremely difficult to present it on a music platform,” Darwish said. “It must justify the purity and depth of the religion.”
Creating the symphony was a painstaking and precise process that Darwish says the composers and creative directors were more than prepared to undertake.
To bring their music to life, the composers have called upon the talents of international orchestras, choirs, singers and soloists.
The resulting symphony is a musical experience of epic proportions with a decidedly cinematic flair.
It’s easy to note the bloat of several great moments throughout the play that seem straight out of a movie. With these composers, it’s no surprise.
Shire is a renowned pianist and composer of stage and screen. A piano player in the pit for Broadway’s original “Funny Girl” series, he became a regular accompanist for legend Barbra Streisand. He has composed film scores for “The Conversation”, “All the President’s Men” and more. Additionally, he composed the Broadway adaptation of “Big” and composed and contributed to several other musicals.
Debney is above all a composer for the cinema. He is a regular collaborator on Disney projects and has composed the music for “Elf” and others. More specifically, he composed the score for “The Passion of the Christ” by Mel Gibson.
“We selected film composers specifically,” Darwish said. “They’re the best because they’re experts at creating stories to melodies that you can visualize easily.”
Darwish himself is a frequent contributor to the Abu Dhabi Festival. His debut album, “Waves of My Life,” was commissioned by the festival in 2018 – as was his “Hekayat” symphony, which was recorded amid the COVID-19 lockdown by 128 artists around the world.
He draws inspiration from the diversity of his home country, as well as Islam and other cinematic influences.
“Being born into a Muslim household in an Arab country, I have that Arabic audio in my ears and of course classical training and film influences,” Darwish said. “I created a fusion between the two.”
Just as the cinematic sound prevails throughout the piece, the music contains several Arabic influences. The percussion line was created with a mix of classical and Arabic instruments and percussion techniques. The symphony includes instruments like the duduk – an Armenian wind instrument – and the ney – a flute that plays an important role in Arabic music and is played by blowing air over a top hole in the instrument.
The symphony is enhanced by the narration of poems, lyrics and various scriptures throughout, telling the story of the Abrahamic religions that culminates in a celebration of harmony.
Lebo M., a South African composer, narrates the first movement “Earth”, joined by his South African choir. His voice is deep and resounding, the kind that demands attention. It’s probably familiar, too: Lebo is the author and voice of the iconic Zulu chant that kicks off Disney’s “Lion King.”
“We brought in Lebo and the South African choirs to create the tribal feeling of primitive humanity,” Darwish said. “Lebo has this powerful male voice, and we brought in Sumi Jo, a Korean singer. Together they look like Adam and Eve.
The singers are the main feature of “Earth”, which begins with the creation of the world and ends with the birth of Abraham. It reveals humanity’s plight in the darkness into which it was born and the search for guidance, which God – and Abraham, by extension – can provide.
“Almighty Lord, have mercy on us / Show us the light / Show us the way,” the lyrics plead.
For “Peace”, Shire uses nine different lyrical sections that represent the birth of Judaism and man’s continual search for divine wisdom. Its composition reflects on peace as a light to guide humanity and considers God as the eternal light. The lyrics include original compositions, verses by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, and adaptations of traditional Jewish prayers and hymns.
It begins with Isaiah 2:4, which reads: “They will turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into billhooks. Nation will no longer raise sword against nation, and no one will learn war anymore.
“Love” tells the story of Jesus in Christianity from his birth to his death and resurrection. A choir sings throughout the story, featuring verses by English poet John Donne.
Sir Derek Jacobi, the English star of stage and screen known for his powerful Shakespearean performances, narrates choice biblical passages including Genesis 1:1 and John 3:16-17. His voice carries a certain nobility that inevitably inspires admiration.
“Tolerance” concludes the symphony by first exploring Islam, from the birth of Muhammad to the first migration to Medina until Muhammad’s death. This section also includes original lyrics and poems performed in Arabic.
“You are my companion in sickness / You are my partner in companionship and loneliness / You are the beacon of those who walk to their lord / And you are the guide of all my roads / You illuminate my heart after dark at night,” a traditional Sufi passage proclaims.
Finally, as the title of the movement suggests, comes the “Call for Tolerance” which advocates unity and love among all:
“Jesus is your brother Muhammad
Moses is your brother Mohammed
You two strong and serious
Because the Muslims are in the mosques
And the Christians are in the churches
And the Jews are in the temples”
“This is the moment when I feel the audience fully understands the message of unity,” Darwish said.
It’s a powerful message, which comes across best when the accompanying music is also powerful.
“I tried to use lyrics and musical form that will give people goosebumps,” Darwish said.
The Abrahamic Symphony is broadcast on various platforms, accessible via the website.
Jillian Cheney is culture editor for Religion Unplugged. She also writes on American Protestantism and Evangelical Christianity and was a 2020-21 Religion Unplugged Poynter-Koch Fellow. You can find her on Twitter @_jilliancheney.