Composer Hawar Tawfiq: ‘Alexander Hrisanide opened my eyes to the beauty of life’

While for many the corona-lockdown implied a considerable loss of work, violinist/composer Hawar Tawfiq (1982) was busier than ever. Since April 2020, he has been working continuously on four pieces, of which the previously postponed Babylon aan de IJssel will have its world premiere in November Music on 13 November.

On 4 November, the first performance of his Requiem des fleurs et des nuages, composed for the opening of this festival, will be heard in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ; on 2 December, Exigeant for harpsichord is the mandatory work for the annual Prix Annelie de Man competition, and on 23 December, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra will play his brand new orchestral work M.C. Escher’s Imagination.

Hawar Tawfiq (c) Evelien Gudden

Tawfiq came to the Netherlands from Iraq in 1998, obtaining Dutch citizenship fifteen years later. He studied violin with Alexander Kerr, concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and took master classes with Herman Krebbers. His composition teachers were Alexander Hrisanide and Roderik de Man. I interviewed him about his background and development.


Hawar Tawfiq grew up in Sulaymaniyah, a city in the northeast of Iaqi Kurdistan. Although he started playing the violin when he was nine, he was not born into a musical family, he says: ‘My youngest sister liked to sing, but purely as an amateur. It was my (elder) brother Salar who incited my love for classical music.’

This was not Arab or Kurdish, but Western classical music, which is less remarkable to Tawfiq than it may seem to us. ‘My brother is a painter and studied in Baghdad in the mid-1980s, at that time the place to be for young people. They were very Western-oriented:  Russian literature, classical music, everything that came from Europe and America was considered hip. They actively searched for and listened to recordings of Western classical music. My brother brought home cassette tapes from Baghdad, for example with Beethoven’s symphonies.’

‘I was only four or five years old and I would listen to those tapes through my headphones. At least, that’s what my brother told me later, I have no memory of this.’ That he started to play the violin at the age of nine is essentially due to the First Gulf War and the subsequent Kurdish Revolution in 1990-91, he observes: ‘We were forced to spend a lot of time in our basement and, as a nine-year-old, I was bored to death.’

‘Looking for something to play with, I found a box of cassettes somewhere in a corner.’ Again he started listening, this time deliberately. ‘Most of the tapes contained Kurdish songs, which I put aside. Suddenly one cassette caught my attention – not even because I liked it so much, but because it sounded so different! I played it again and again, without knowing what it was – it was a copied tape with no label. My brother called it “classical music” and I started to like it more and more. Only much later I found out it was Bach’s Second Suite for flute and strings.’


Hawar + Salar Tawfiq, Sulaymaniya 1985

Captivated by Bach’s ingenious polyphonic textures, he went in search of cassettes with similar music. ‘I didn’t know what “classical music” actually was. But because my brother told me that people in Europe and America listened to this every day, I thought it was their folk music. I thought: people do their shopping and other daily chores, and then listen to that music. Thus I came to associate classical music with safety.’

Hawar Tawfiq: ‘I thought: people in America and Europe do their shopping and on coming home they listen to classical music. Thus I came to associate this music with safety.’

Not surprising, for his own environment was far from safe. Although weakened by his defeat in the Gulf War, dictator Saddam Hussein remained in power anyway. ‘Because of the repression of the Kurds, we lived in Iran for a year, until a general pardon allowed us to return to Sulaymaniyah. When the situation stabilised, I said that I wanted to study classical music. I chose the piano, but my brother had heard many Russian orchestras in Baghdad and thought that first I should listen to a violin, the “king of instruments”.’

‘He also talked about musical concepts such as vibrato, crescendo and decrescendo, which he said were possible on a violin but not on a piano. Together we went to Alan Arif’s music school, a private institute. When I mentioned I was hesitating between piano and violin, the choice was quickly made: because we did not own a piano I would not be able to study at home, so it was the violin for me.’


This proved to be a golden move: ‘I had no interest in folk music or Kurdish traditional music and Alan Arif had a thorough knowledge of the classical Western canon. He had studied in Baghdad with Russian pedagogues and was the best violin teacher in the city; today he lives in Germany. I studied with him for six years, but when I enrolled at the conservatoire in the Netherlands, I had to start all over again.’

‘This was because the school in Sulaymaniyah did not have a gradual teaching method. Nor did we have any good instruments. I remember that at one point I used the telephone wire for an E-string. On the other hand, theoretical subjects like solfeggio and harmony were excellent in Sulaymaniyah. – The first two years at the Tilburg Conservatoire were a piece of cake for me!’

Tawfiq family 2016: front: Salar + Hawar; back: Payman, Kwestan + mother Mahjamin Xwakaram


How did he end up at the Conservatory? ‘That’s a long story’, he sighs. ‘I arrived in Nijmegen on 20 October 1998 and was taken to a refugee centre in Oisterwijk two days later, together with six other minor asylum seekers. I asked the desk clerk if there was a library, for I wanted to learn Dutch as soon as possible.’

‘In the ten years she had been working at the centre, she had never been asked this question before. She was so pleasantly surprised that the next day she brought a glossary of Dutch words and a cassette tape with their pronunciation. I immediately started to learn them by heart; my target was 10 new words a day; I would not go to bed before I had mastered them.’

‘After a month, I joined the Dutch class of Mieke van der Loop. She was amazed at my knowledge of the language, and enquired after my background in Kurdistan. When I told her about my violin playing, she said she played the piano herself and that her colleague Marieke Willekens was am amateur violinist. The next day Marieke brought along her instrument.’

‘I played a piece for them, they thought I was talented and then regularly invited me to their home for dinner and to play music together. We became friends for life. Marieke eventually made sure that I was not stowed away in an asylum seekers centre, but could rent a room in her house. Thanks to her as well, in August 1999 I applied for the Tilburg Conservatoire, where I was admitted to the preparatory class.’


Tawfiq studied like a man possessed, not only to improve his poor violin technique, but also to pass his state examination and improve his Dutch. His violin teacher Annemieke Corstens coached him with great patience and tact. ‘I had to learn many things all over again, but she always treated me kindly and calmly. Totally different from the teacher-student relationship I was used to in Iraq.’

He also studied for a year with Alexander Kerr, concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. ‘He was great! He could really play anything, was a very good teacher, and played so beautifully that you were automatically motivated.’

Hawar Tawfiq: ‘Merely standing next to Herman Krebbers would make you play better! He could make you perform in a way you didn’t know you were capable of.’

He also cherishes dear memories of Hagai Shaham: ‘In 2003 he gave a masterclass in Tilburg; I was his last student that afternoon. I came on stage, saw him standing there and something changed in me! I played the first movement from Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto. It went very well and afterwards he told the audience, “I have nothing, or very little, to say to this young man!” Of course he still gave me some tips, for example how I could improve the double stops at the end.’

His masterclasses with Herman Krebbers were absolutely magical, he says: ‘Merely standing next to him would make you play better! He could make you perform in a way you didn’t know you were capable of. He taught me that every note, every sound, every musical phrase must be connected with a deep inner expression and musicality. In one 15-minute lesson I played 70 times better, you can see that on YouTube.’


Although as a violin soloist he performed with renowned ensembles and orchestras, we now mainly know him as a composer. Because of his many composition commissions, violin playing has somewhat receded into the background these days, he admits. ‘I do occasionally play string quartets with friends, though. And while composing I always have my violin within reach, to quickly check a passage for strings.’

‘But more importantly, learning the violin has immensely enriched my thinking about composition. I understand how an instrumentalist feels when he/she plays my music for the first time. And when I work on a piece, for example for orchestra, in my imagination I play all the instruments myself, from flute and oboe to percussion. That involvement is much greater and therefore more gratifying.’ 

‘Composing had never really occurred to me’, Tawfiq continues. ‘It came about by chance, in 1999. When Mieke van der Loop had her birthday, I wanted to give her something very personal. I decided to write a piece for her, and made a variation on Happy Birthday. I received many positive responses and it had come so easily to me that I decided to compose another piece, Rhapsody for piano. I dedicated this to my violin teacher Annemieke Corstens, because I was so impressed by her. This is on YouTube, too, with paintings by my brother Salar.’

‘Annemieke gave the sheet music to the piano teacher of the Conservatoire, who referred me to Alexander Hrisanide. When I presented my piece to him, he brutally criticised it: he found it predictable, uniform and boring, because it was tonal. I had no idea what that meant, so he explained the difference between tonality and atonality.’

‘He explained that if people can sing along with your piece at first hearing, you haven’t gone deep enough. I was outraged. But shortly afterwards, when my Rhapsody was performed in public, a man in front of me started singing along after a few bars. I then returned to Alexander to study composition with him.’


Tawfiq may have felt ‘wrung out’ at his first meeting with Alexander Hrisanide, these days his enthusiasm for his teacher knows no bounds. ‘In the field of music, I have learned too much from him to mention. His most important lesson was that, as a classical contemporary composer, you must always present something the audience has never heard before. Therefore you need to develop and constantly improve your personal sound world. Predictability is out of the question, unless you want to write light or commercial music.

Hawar Tawfiq: ‘The most important lesson Alexander Hrisanide taught me was that, as a classical contemporary composer, you must always present something the audience has never heard before. Predictability is out of the question.’

‘Alexander was sweet when you spoke to him, but incredibly strict in his teaching! From the very first lesson, he never took my inexperience and young age into account; he always vented his unmitigated opinion.’ This seems to stem from a strong faith in his pupil’s abilities: ‘Sometimes his lessons lasted for three days, then I was allowed to stay with him. We listened to and analysed countless works throughout history. Especially Bach, but he was also fond of Beethoven’s Variations and Mozart’s Sonatas.’

‘He mastered many languages and could speak with unprecedented concentration about proportions and structure. I like how he always sought connections between what he had taught in class and what we saw outside. He had a special view on architecture. For example, he would point to two adjacent buildings and ask me to describe what was beautiful or ugly in their proportions. Or he would remark that the surrounding streets were so dark because people had forgotten to take the incidence of light into account.’

‘Alexander also impressed me with his enormous general knowledge, he was like a walking encyclopaedia. For instance, he explained to me why the Kurds have no country and what mistakes they had made. As a Kurd, I was completely ignorant of this! He also told me about the huge influence philosophers such as Plato and Socrates have had on the formation of Europe. But also the Bible, the French Revolution, and so on.’

Alexander Hrisanide + Hawar Tawfiq, Grote of St. Bavokerk Haarlem 2004

Gradually, Hrisanide grew into a father figure: Between the lines, he also raised me. In fifteen years in Iraq, I had seen four wars, a lot of cruelty and bitterness. But the blow from the Dutch state was even harder and more painful, because I was not prepared for it. Alexander helped me not to lose myself. Like many others, he gave me a sense of security, welcome, self-confidence, self-worth.’

Hawar Tawfiq refers to the cold-hearted way in which the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) refused to grant him a residence permit in 2003, after five years of litigation. Thanks to considerable lobbying by his friends, teachers and other prominent figures from the music world, he got permission to finish his studies at the conservatoire. But even after he had completed his masters in violin (2008) and composition (2011) they still wanted to turn him away. It wasn’t until 2013 that he finally obtained the coveted Dutch citizenship.


This long and difficult journey is expressed in Babylon aan de IJssel, which Tawfiq composed for the 30th anniversary of the Hexagon Ensemble. Librettist Marcel Roijaards intertwines the ancient Gilgamesh epic with the fate of asylum seekers. An IND employee has to decide whether or not to grant a residence permit to a young Iraqi. She adopts the same callous attitude as the officials who had to decide on Tawfiq’s own fate.

In this music theatre piece, Tawfiq places eighteen Kurdish and two Iranian musicians alongside the pianist and five wind players of the Hexagon Ensemble. This seems paradoxical, given his earlier disinterest in the traditional music of his homeland. Tawfiq laughs: ‘When I wanted to study classical music, my mother was very much against it, but I was an adolescent and insisted on it.’

‘My brother had preceded me in a way, because when he wanted to become a painter, my mother had been very much opposed to this as well. He then completed his studies in engineering with honours. Upon his return from Baghdad he gave his diploma to my mother: this is for you, now I am going to do what I want! Salar supported me when I wanted to study music.’

‘In the end, my mother gave in, but she insisted that I would be able to play Kurdish songs for our visitors. – Or must I tell them you are going to play Mozart and Beethoven, that angry gentleman? (I had a picture of Beethoven in my room.) On the rebound, I decided that all Kurdish music was stupid and refused to delve into it.’

‘Once I was in The Netherlands I only spoke to my mother occasionally, over a bad telephone connection. One day she told me she had missed me so much that she had entered my room, taken a cassette tape and listened to it.’

She thought it was incredibly beautiful, she confessed: ‘How sad that it takes us humans so long to recognise beauty, can you forgive me? It was a very emotional conversation, for both of us. Afterwards, I realised that I had reacted just as inveterately to Kurdish music, and started looking for recordings.’

‘I even dedicated my master’s thesis to how I could integrate the deviant scales and intervals of Eastern music into my own work. For my final exam I wrote Dedication, for a combination of Western and Eastern instruments and electronics. That too is on YouTube.’


‘From the very beginning, I have been inspired by Kurdish literature though, especially by poetry. In Kurdistan, you are steeped in poetry, it is a natural part of your education, both at home and at school. In that respect, Kurdish culture is richer than Dutch culture. I do not have the impression that young people here read many poems, or cherish their national culture.’

His love of poetry is also expressed in his ‘Bosch Requiem’ for baritone and orchestra. ‘Most Requiems are melancholic and approach death from a religious angle. But then you emphasise the sadness of the bereaved; moreover religions often claim to have the definitive answer to existential questions. I had a more universally human approach in mind. So I chose four poems from different cultures, by Bachtyar Ali, Hans Andreus and Anton van Wilderode. Apart from the last one, these have been translated into Russian, French and Italian.’

Hawar Tawfiq: ‘Religions often claim to have the definitive answer to existential questions. For my Requiem I had a more universally human approach in mind. So I chose poems from different cultures, by Bachtyar Ali, Hans Andreus and Anton van Wilderode.’

‘My piece is dedicated to Alexander Hrisanide. He could suddenly stop in the middle of the street, and with a smile take pictures of a flower that had made its way out through wire and broken tiles. He opened my eyes to the beauty of life.’

‘During the last phase of his life, I regularly visited him in the care facility where he was forced to stay. He often told me he would like to die, but to his regret woke up every morning. On leaving him one day I expressed my concern for him. He replied that he had had a good life, but that he was worrying about me. That even in his last days he was still concerned about the future of his loved ones was touching. That is why I dedicated my requiem to him.’

‘The title Requiem des fleurs et des nuages is taken from a verse in the fifth movement: “Death gives us the chance to be a flower, to be a cloud, to be water.” – In French, his favourite language.’

This article was written for and first published in Dutch by Dutch Composers Now, and translated at the request of Tawfiq’s publisher Deuss Music.


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to Composer Hawar Tawfiq: ‘Alexander Hrisanide opened my eyes to the beauty of life’

  1. shoreclaregmailcom says:

    Once again, your interview has piqued my curiosity about this young man and I can hardly wait to listen to his music! Thank you.


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