Rahbani Instructor Gelalian: A Belated Salute to a Silent Maestro

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Boghos Gelalian was a composer, a producer, and a pianist of Armenian origin. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Bashir Sfeir

Published Friday, December 23, 2011

On Friday November 16, Boghos Gelalian, master composer and instructor of Lebanese iconic musician Ziad Rahbani, died peacefully after a long battle with illness, having spent the last six weeks of his life in a coma.

Though news of the death of a famous artist usually spreads like fire, even if the artist in question was not necessarily genuine, this writer did not know about Gelalian's death except by coincidence.

Had it not been for local attempts to reproduce his work — such as pianist Tatiana Primac-Khoury's recent performance as part of a project to revitalise the work of neglected Lebanese classical composers — his music would have been completely forgotten.

Gelalian was a composer, a producer, and a pianist of Armenian origin. He was born in 1927 and came to Lebanon in 1939 where he continued his musical education.

Leaning towards Western classical music, he composed several different pieces, including some notable piano solos. However, he also composed and distributed Lebanese songs born from his love for Eastern folkloric music, a key aspect of his environment.

Like many Armenian musicians who hail from strict academies with Soviet rules, Gelalian was an excellent teacher. He taught many young musicians, including the contemporary icon, Ziad Rahbani, whose promising talent Gelalian noted from an early age.

Gelalian commented on his student's immense talent with an inscription on the cover of a Vladimir Horowitz record, a rare classic, which he presented as a gift to the young Rahbani.

Today, the Lebanese public knows firsthand Gelalian’s ability to spot talent early on in their careers.

Months ago, I contacted his wife to try to get an interview with him.

She told me that he did not like to talk, that he was suffering from problems with his memory and wanted only to listen to the works of great classical musicians such as Bach.

Boghos remained silent for years and, after spending weeks in a coma, he died in silence as well.

Perhaps it was a musical silence, one of the most important and beautiful elements of the music Gelalian loved so much.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


I met him when I was 11 years old, one of his older students introduced us. After he heard me play he wanted me to be his student and asked his older student to prepare me to take the entrance exam at the National Conservatory. Two years later I was his student and it would be raining cats and dogs outside, accompanying gunshots and bombardments, no electricity (he had small, half-used candles in his pockets which were placed carefully on both sides of the books we would be using) and continue to practice… His impact on my life has been tremendous - a meager term in this case. No words are enough. He was the epitome of honesty in a difficult and disheveled place. I never graduated the conservatory, we had to travel… But his memory can never leave me. I am deeply saddened to hear that he had been ill and that we have lost him. Rest in Peace Ousta.

"Ousta!!!" That's what he used repeatedly say.

FYI, the jazz pianist Mickey Tucker, who lives in Australia, covers Gelalian's Tres Cicli on his CD called Getting There.

I first met Boghos in front of a church right across our apartment complex in Beirut. I had heard he would be playing an organ concert at the location the following Sunday so I knew he would be practicing sometime during the week. I was only 13. I waited in front of the church until I saw him coming inside. I introduced myself and told him I wanted him to teach me. He took me inside and asked me to play something. I played a Mozart sonata and told him I had learned it on my own and asked him to give me a few weeks to work on a couple pieces. We decided to meet at the church in about a month. He kept his promise and came amid all the bullets of the snipers and shrapnels. Boghos was my teacher for the next 7 years until I graduated from the Lebanese National Conservatory. He was also a mentor, a counsellor, someone who geniuinely took interest in me and my well being. He was my rock, catalyst and the voice of reason, making my very difficult life much more bearable. There's no doubt in my mind he had a strong impact on many other lives, young and not so young. He will be utterly missed. Rest in Peace Ousta!

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