Classical Music Trying to Gain Foothold in Saudi Cultural Scene

Majalla Speaks to Two Saudi Musicians on Changing Values
This picture taken on January 4, 2019 shows a view of a musical performance by French solo violinist Renaud Capucon during the first "Winter at Tantora" music carnival, at the purpose-built Maraya (Arabic for "Mirror") concert hall in the ruins of Al-Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern Saudi Arabia. - Bathed in light, musicians belt out melodies among pre-Islamic desert ruins in northwestern Saudi Arabia, a heritage trove at the centre of efforts to put the kingdom on the tourism map. Hosted by the Al-Ula governorate -- where Nabatean tombs and rock art are chiseled into caramel-hued cliffs -- "Winter at Tantora" is the latest music carnival in the Islamic kingdom, where such events were unheard of just two years ago. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

The Kingdom is witnessing a major shakeup in the cultural scene, where talents are embraced and nurtured to grow, flourish and express themselves. Music is at the heart of the local Saudi culture and every culture in the world. With growing interest in boosting the music industry in Saudi Arabia, the classical music genre is no exception. However, the interest comes with barriers related to music taste and trends.

Al-Halimoon (meaning dreamers in Arabic), a culture-based entrepreneurship incubator, recently hosted in its premises, a couple of Saudi musicians, Noori Al-Khalaf, a pianist, and Ghassan Raffa, a violinist, in a 19th-century classical music soiree in Jeddah, West of Saudi Arabia.

Let us explore how people perceive classical music, the difficulties and horizons for this “elitist” art as described by the classical music concert attendees.


Noori Al Khalaf’s passion for music started when he got a piano as a birthday present. He had an interest in IT, which he employed to improve his music career path. He later became a music trainer at the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Art in Riyadh.

During an open discussion preceding the music show, Majalla English asked Al Khalaf the reasons behind the difficulties facing the spread of the classical music and he replied,

“Unfortunately, there is a global deterioration of musical taste; it is evaporating. People focus more on the melody of songs, not music alone. Pop music is leading the scene”.

Another attendee, a middle-aged woman, intervened to participate in the discussion by saying, “Western classical music is regarded as an extremely difficult music genre. New generations believe that classical musicians make their pieces difficult to understand, and that it is dedicated to the few. It is elitist; the art of the elite”.

Pianist Noori Al Khalaf (right) and Violinist Ghassan Raffa (left) (Supplied)

Majalla English asked some of the classical music concert attendees to define the problems related to classical music.

Mohammed, a Saudi private sector employee living and working in Jeddah, said, “It is a Western art in the first place. Classical music was born in Europe and flourished during the Renaissance period. Unlike the 5-minute-long songs of today, you need at least a couple of hours or a little more to attend or listen to a full symphony”.

Rawan came to event to explore pure classical music. She told me she wanted to try a new genre of music just to get exposed and learn more about this elitist music. She believes it could be hard for her to be a fan.   


Despite all the obstacles, Al Khalaf believes that classical music lovers will always have the passion to go ahead and introduce this art to others.

When asked about the experience of Oman, Syria and Egypt that have national symphony orchestras, he said:” The Saudi Ministry of Culture is working on establishing something similar. My colleague, Ghassan Raffa, the violinist, will be a part of this new entity, which is supposed to play classical music for the public”.

The answer highlights the fact that for classical music to flourish and gain more ground, it should be backed by government-sponsored and other private or non-profit sector initiatives to advance.

There were a group of ladies recording the concert. The break was a perfect opportunity to speak to them. Some of the positive feedback on classical music is listed below:

  1. It is deep with endless interpretations. It can be immersing and indulging.
  2. It is transcendental and clears the mind.
  3. The experience is good.


With more music schools being licensed by the Ministry of Culture these days, and with the advancement of the plan to introduce music to the Saudi curriculum, the Kingdom is paving the way for music talents to create an independent music industry in the long run.

If a national symphony orchestra is launched any time soon, it will give a boost to classical music and enrich the Saudi music scene, and make Saudi Arabia a regional, and maybe an international, hub for the music industry.


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