The Russian ‘baron’ who introduced piano to Syria

Erast Belling, an émigré from the Bolshevik revolution, soon found himself in tune with Damascus society and helped found a rich musical tradition, both there and in Lebanon

Baron Belling
Sami Moubayed Archives
Baron Belling

The Russian ‘baron’ who introduced piano to Syria

Many rumours surrounded the 49-year-old Russian composer and musician Erast Belling, who came to Damascus in 1927, fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union.

Some claimed that his wife was a Russian aristocrat whose lands and jewellery had been seized by the Bolsheviks in 1917. It is known that he worked in Russia well into the Bolshevik Revolution, giving his last concert on 25 May 1919.

Then, he travelled to Damascus via Tehran—penniless and homeless—with nothing to his name except an amazing talent for music.

There is not much about Belling in Syria’s archives, but the available detail comes from a first-hand account written by one of his students. It is also a matter of record—thanks to the Russian Cultural Centre in Syria—that he was born in 1878, and that he joined the St Petersburg Imperial Orchestra as a violin player in 1907, before rising to become its second conductor.

He served in the Imperial Army during World War I and was wounded in battle, which led to his discharge. Then came his flight from socialism and to Syria.

Belling settled in an apartment in the modern neighbourhood of al-Shaalan, which had been freshly established by the French, who had occupied Syria since 1920.

Residents felt sorry for him and would send him food to show their compassion. Pretty soon, Belling began giving private music lessons at home, in both violin playing and piano, while his daughter Tamara taught ballet to foreign girls residing in Damascus or Damascene teens with a desire to learn this “imported” dance.

Aristocratic titles

His wife Sandra, a reputed singer and dancer in pre-1917 Russia, turned to doll-making for a living. Contrary to the rumours, she was not a rich woman and had no connection to the Romanov Imperial Family that had been gunned down in 1918.

Some of her dolls, inspired by peasant women from the Russian countryside, are presently on display at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago (now called The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures, West Asia & North Africa).

To market them in Syria, she adopted the title “Baroness Belling”, and pretty soon, locals began referring to her husband as “Baron Belling” despite the fact that he had never held such a royal title in his life. He did not seem to mind it, however, and it would stick to him for the rest of his life.

Sami Moubayed Archives
The Baron's wife, Sandra Belling.

The people of Damascus welcomed the Russian Baron with open arms. Academic musicians were non-existent in the 1920s, and the first Syrian to study music was Mahmud Ahmad al-Hefni, a graduate of the University of Berlin in the 1930s.

Others could no go that far and had to settle either for Istanbul or for the King Fouad I Academy for Oriental Music in Cairo, which opened in 1929. Belling feared that conservative Damascene society would reject his music but was surprised to find that the homes of the city’s upper crust were opened to him—rather enthusiastically—and he was invited to teach their children, both boys and girls.

Two of his famous pupils were Salma al-Haffar, the daughter of ex-prime minister Lutfi al-Haffar, who would soon establish herself as a pioneer novelist, and Najla Issa, who worked at the Meshaka Lab in Damascus.

He taught them how to play the piano. While Haffar’s concerts were always strictly private before family and friends, Najla Issa eventually began appearing next to the baron at his public concerts in Damascus, staged at the Glass Chamber of the Orient Palace Hotel, facing the Hejaz Railway Station.

Piano playing was seen as decent, arousing no objection from traditionalists and religious zealots or conservatives.

Adnan al-Rikabi, one of Belling’s students, established a Syrian society for the encouragement of music. Belling also taught Mohammad Kamel al-Qudsi, who had learned to play the violin from a Damascus-based Turkish musician named Shawqi Bey. The Russian émigré taught him how to adapt the instrument to Oriental music.

Fantazia Dimashq

In 1942, Belling composed an opera called Fantazia Dimashq to show his appreciation for Damascus.

His dream was to stage it in a large opera house with a full orchestra, but since none of that was available in Syria, he had to settle for a humble performance at the Orient Palace with just two instruments. He played the violin while Najla Issa played the piano and his daughter, Tamara, danced to their music.

Belling then composed a second masterpiece, Fantazia Stalingrad, dedicated to the Russian city that had been mercilessly bombed by the Germans between August 1942 and February 1943. Neither of them was recorded, and the local French radio station was dedicated strictly to broadcasting news from the European war.

When Syria finally gained independence from the French Mandate in April 1946, Belling was offered a job teaching at the state-run Musical Academy for a monthly salary of 100 Syrian Pounds, worth $45.

Academic musicians were non-existent in 1920s Syria. The people of Damascus welcomed the Russian Baron with open arms.

His reputation spread far and wide and soon reached the Lebanese Fine Arts Academy, which offered him 500 Lebanese Pounds to move to Beirut. Belling hesitated, not wanting to part ways with Damascus—a city that he now considered home.

He asked Damascus MP and art patron Fakhri al-Barudi to lobby the Ministry of Education on his behalf to raise his salary to a mere 125 Syrian pounds a month. They declined, and Belling had no choice; in 1954, he packed his belongings and, after 27 years in Syria, left for Beirut.

He would spend the remainder of his years teaching piano to Lebanese students while his daughter Tamara became director of the newly established choreography department at the Lebanese Fine Arts Academy.

Belling's legacy

Those who appreciated the baron's work in Damascus were young open-minded students from Damascus University and their parents, who had travelled abroad and interacted with Western music.

Among those who were directly influenced by him were the Damascus-based Iraqi conductor Sulhi al-Wadi, founder of the Syrian National Orchestra; music historian Samim al-Sharif; and Sabah Qabbani, brother of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, then a student at the Faculty of Law who would soon become the founding director of Syrian Television and subsequently Syrian ambassador to the United States.

Belling is credited with introducing Western instruments to Syrian society and triggering a healthy music culture that lasted long after his departure to Lebanon.

In the mid-1950s, three German experts came to Damascus as advisers to the Syrian government. They happened to be amateur musicians as well, and teaming up with Syrian violinist Yehya al-Nahhas, founded their own troupe.

Iraqi conductor Sulhi al-Wadi, music historian Samim al-Sharif, and Sabah Qabbani were among those influenced by Belling.

Originally a quartet, it expanded to include other Syrians, all students of Baron Belling: Ghaleb Mameli playing the trombone, Abdul Fattah Mohammad playing the trumpet, and Aref Malas playing the violin.

They staged their first concert at Belling's favourite venue, the Orient Palace Hotel, playing Beethoven classics, Le calife de Baghdad by French composer Francois-Adrien Boieldieu, and the Kaiser-Walzer (Emperor Waltz) by Strauss.

Without doubt, the person who made the best of Baron Belling's legacy was Sulhi al-Wadi, who established Syria's first chamber music orchestra and its national opera house. He was the son of Iraqi nobility, whose father had been a cabinet minister under the Iraqi monarchy.

Other Syrian students were also well-off, from cosmopolitan families like Nejmi al-Sukkari, the son of a prominent employee at the Syrian Ministry of Finance, and Nuri al-Ruhaybani, whose father was a reputed judge from the city of al-Hassakeh in the Syrian northeast.

Al-Sukkari staged his first concert at the School of Oriental Music in July 1951, followed by another at the Officers Club. Army chief-of-staff Adib al-Shishakli, who went on to become president of Syria in 1953, attended both performances. Belling was in the front row for both performances.

In the mid-1950s, then-president Shukri al-Quwatli attended one of Sukkari's concerts and sent him on a state scholarship to Paris to complete his studies. He returned in 1957, staging a spectacular show at the Firdos Cinema before heading to Moscow for another round of studies in 1959.

Thanks to Belling, the Bulgarian National Orchestra was invited to play at the Damascus International Fair, followed by the Austrian Orchestra, which staged a performance at the historic Azm Palace in the Bzurieh Market in 1957.

As for Nuri al-Ruhaybani, he came to Damascus in 1953 to study the violin and piano in addition to law at Damascus University. In 1959, he went to Germany to complete his education, eventually joining the Frieberg Orchestra and rising to become its main conductor.

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