Composing A Nation

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Composing A Nation: Israel’s Musical Patriarchs, performed on May 31, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The creation of the state of Israel and the history of Zionism as a modern nationalist movement are among the most widely debated subjects in recent history. Zionism was a direct response both to the European anti-Semitism of the late nineteenth century, and to new national movements among groups and nationalities within larger dynastic entities—primarily in Eastern Europe where the large majority of European Jews resided. Zionism, especially after the momentous publication of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State (1896) in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, took its cues not only from contemporary French and German nationalism, but also from emerging efforts to forge political and cultural independence in Poland (which had been divided into three parts), the Czech lands, the Balkans, in Romania, and in Hungary. The Jews of Europe, owing to extreme discrimination and legal and social restrictions, were political pariahs. Their exclusion in Europe caused them to see themselves not simply as bearers of a distinct religion but as a dispersed nation, as valid and legitimate as both the oppressed and oppressor nations around them: German, English, French, Polish, Czech, and Russian. The vibrant nationalisms in Europe inflamed a desire for Jewish political autonomy.

The dream of the Jews as equal citizens with a different religious persuasion within several European nations was completely exploded by the events of European history after the Dreyfus trial. But this new Jewish nationalism imitative of its European parallels required a new national language. This is why Hebrew, the modernized transformation of the traditional religious language, became the language of the Zionist movement and Israel, displacing the use of Yiddish, the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jews and one of the great and rich languages of modern history. Just like the Czechs and Hungarians, Jewish nationalists sought to generate communal pride in a distinctive culture through literature and music.

The most striking aspect of the modern Jewish national project was that it could not be realized within Europe itself. Where was this long sought-after Jewish homeland to be, a place where Jews would no longer be pariahs? The solution favored in the end by all proved both logical and convenient for the European colonial powers. At the turn of the century, the vexing issue of what Europe was to do with its Jewish population was elegantly answered by Zionism: relocate them to some other part of the world, outside of Europe. The imperial arrogance of the victors of World War I made this notion seem plausible. Some of the non-European locations proposed for the Jewish state, such as Uganda, seem incredible now. But the most compelling location was of course the place that by tradition and religion was associated with the ancient Jewish nation, Palestine—which, conveniently enough, was under the control of the English and French after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Encouraging Jewish settlement in Palestine was doubly attractive to the European powers. Not only did Zionism promise to get all the Jews out of Europe, but as grateful colonial settlers, the Jews would provide ongoing leverage in the region for perpetual conflict with the Arabs, which was of course greatly in Europe’s imperial interests: divide and conquer. As long as everyone was constantly fighting each other there, there was no chance that any viable Arab government could form that would challenge European interests. During the interwar period the presence of a thriving Jewish settlement in Palestine would help ensure that the lucrative flow of arms and transitory alliances between Europe and corrupt sheiks and princes could continue indefinitely.

Events, however, took a starkly different turn. By the mid-1920s a large segment of European Jewry did emigrate, but primarily to the United States. Comparatively few managed to get to Palestine before World War II. At the Evian Conference in 1939, the non-European nations did not take up Hitler’s offer to expel the Jews of Europe, with the exception of the Dominican Republic which offered to take 100,000. The United States closed its doors behind the façade of the quota system, and the British continued cynical double-game by encouraging Jewish emigration to Palestine (for a fee) knowing it would fuel Arab resentment. After the Holocaust and with the end of the British mandate in view after 1945, however, everything changed. By 1948 there was a community large enough and sufficient international momentum to partition Palestine and create the state of Israel.

The establishment of the state of Israel, however, did not follow the conventional pattern of independence and national emergence. The intensity of the circumstances that brought about partition and the war of independence formed the outlines of the political situation that the world continues to struggle with today. During the Cold War and after, despite the veneer of a post-colonial world, it suited the leading powers to have the Middle East conflict remain unresolved. Unlike many new nations in the twentieth century, the major part of the population of Israel did not represent a people that resided on the same land in a continuous manner for generations. They lived in a land that had to be reconstructed and reinvented. The new Israeli population had to make sense of discontinuity, and to generate quickly a relationship between land, culture, and language that would bind them into a sustainable country. The new Israelis had the Bible and the story of the ancient kingdom of Israel, but when they arrived from their European towns and villages to the Middle Eastern landscape and encountered indigenous populations both Jewish and Arab with whom they were entirely unfamiliar, these newly minted citizens realized they had to construct a new unifying national sensibility.

For Americans, this challenge is perhaps more easily understandable than to Europeans. To North America, as well, Europeans came as settlers to a foreign landscape populated by dramatically different cultures. There is a fundamental difference, however, in the way in which the American European settlers forged their country and the way the Israelis forged theirs. In America, the settlers wiped out the indigenous population through war and disease. The narrative of conquest was substituted by the narrative of discovery of an empty and fertile new world. But the settlers in America came from often fanatical and not entirely homogenous elements from Europe, separated from one another by national origin and religion. In order to create a shared American identity, which still took a century after independence from Britain, the focus had to be not on blood and soil but on the concept of shared citizenship in a democracy where the privilege of citizenship could be acquired even by the foreign born, and where there was strict separation of church and state. In the case of Israel the settlers before independence, as pawns in the game of Ottoman and European imperialism, never enjoyed full civil rights. And the indigenous population of Arabs had no intention of making way for the newcomers. The new Israel fashioned a commonality on the basis of a shared Zionist dream and the experience of past oppression. The founding of Israel, unlike the United States, was therefore characterized by a sense of religious and cultural coherence. Nonetheless a sense of a new nationality, a conscious architecture of identity, needed to be created rapidly. Hence in the first years the socialist Kibbutz movement flourished. It took shape out of an idealism inherent in some sectors of the Zionist movement that a better state should be created than the ones left behind in Europe. Faced with the rare historical opportunity to begin a country from scratch, the early generations of Israelis dreamed of what the perfect democratic nation would be, a nation by design, freed from all the baggage of history and convention.

Amazingly, a tremendous portion of this effort at national self-invention was assigned to the arts. Herzl’s dream of the new state as one of high culture was embraced by the Zionist pioneers. The creation of orchestras, dance and theater companies was considered an essential act of national self-assertion. Three of the composers on today’s program came to Palestine as refugees fleeing the Nazis. Ödön Partos, Paul Ben-Haim and Josef Tal brought with them a deep familiarity and attachment to the modern European vocabulary of musical expression. Faced with the desert landscape, the rich and diverse culture of the Middle East, the explicit and implicit demand on one’s muse made by changing one’s name and language, how as musicians and composers could they express their own personal reinvention, much less that of an entire nation?

Tal’s answer was to sustain the modernist project in music as a universalist template that could be adapted to the experience of modern Israel. But when I interviewed him at the public celebration of his ninetieth birthday in Berlin, I was reminded of how difficult the task must have been for Tal to reconcile his allegiance to the great tradition of German music with his tireless patriotism and efforts on behalf of Israel’s musical culture and identity. He fit all the affectionate albeit cutting stereotypes applied to German Jews as self-styled taste-makers and cultural arbiters.

Paul Ben-Haim was a composer whose music was particularly liked by Leonard Bernstein. He took a more conservative expressive turn than Tal. He was more explicit in following a path charted by composers from Dvořák to Copland who tried to incorporate folk elements. He used the late Romantic idiom in a manner that permitted the appropriation of distinct markers of national identity and place. Of the generation of Israeli composers on today’s programs, Paul Ben-Haim’s music is perhaps the most symbolic of Israel’s independence and the most frequently performed. His Fanfare for Israel (1950) is often used to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. Despite his success, the difficulty of Ben-Haim’s exile and emigration should not be underestimated. His massive oratorio Joram (1933), written as he waited to emigrate, deserves a new first-class contemporary performance. It is a monument to how music can express suffering, isolation and hope.

Ödön Partos came from the rich and vibrant early twentieth-century context of Hungarian art and culture. Bartók and Kodály are the most persuasive examples of how twentieth century composers created a musical vocabulary that permits both personal expression and the articulation of national consciousness. What marks Partos’s work on this program is its connection to the Kibbutz movement and the notion that universal compositional techniques could be reconciled with the need to express something particular and local. Resisting the idea of the artificial invention of a new Mediterranean style, Partos found a way to meld modernism with distinctive elements that would make his music expressive of a landscape and experience that was not European but in a novel way Israeli, representative of the idealism of the Kibbutz movement. There is an intensity and emotional angularity that reflects Partos’s roots in Hungarian modernism.

Mordecai Seter, who was the first in this group of composers to come to Palestine (in 1926), was born in Russia on the Black Sea. Seter was a representative of the single largest Ashkenazi contingent to emigrate to Palestine, that of Russian Jewry (defined by pre-1918 borders), the contingent that also provided most of the political leadership in the Zionist movement and in the first years of Israel’s independence. Seter began his musical education in Palestine and unlike the others he returned to Europe to study, a sojourn that included working with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. Seter chose to base most of his mature musical work on sources from the Sephardic tradition. By so doing he anticipated the enormous influence Sephardic Jewry would have on the character of Israel. After 1948 the emigration from Yemen and Morocco brought to Israel an entirely different Jewish experience. The basis of Seter’s magnificent piece are the liturgical and musical traditions of Mizrahi and Yemenite song.

Many years have passed since the music on this program was written. The most important factor (apart from the 1967 and 1973 wars) affecting Israel’s culture has been the Russian immigration that began with the Refusniks in the 1970s and blossomed after the fall of Communism. Israel today hosts an almost unbelievable array of composers, each of whom struggles with the problem of how to transform the particular experience of Israel into musical creations that can resonate as more than mere emblems of identity. The works on today’s program achieve these goals. They are not reductive markers of some version of what it means to be an Israeli.

The Israel of today has developed in both popular and concert music a distinctive and complex Israeli identity, quite different from Diaspora Jewish sensibilities. This varied and complex synthesis includes elements from the German European tradition, the Eastern European tradition, the Russian tradition, the varieties of Sephardic culture, and the powerful Palestinian Arab influence. Each is encountered on a daily basis in the context of everyday life. In today’s concert we hear the first stirrings of how music functioned as an important vehicle not only of individual expression but of a need to craft a new natural sensibility out of the embers of the destruction of European Jewry. The pride and optimism inherent in the works of these composers is matched by the talent they had and the courage they showed in restarting careers cut short by the events of the 1930s and 1940s. These composers represent poignantly the extent to which Herzl’s dream of the new Jewish state as a state defined the highest pinnacles of human achievement—art, scholarship and learning—was deeply cherished at the moment of the founding of the state of Israel. This idealism was sustained through the 1950s and 1960s when there was still an optimism that a new kind of society could be fashioned. But the grim realities of international politics and war and strife have made life more difficult than any of these composers might have anticipated.

Josef Tal, Symphony No. 2

By Assaf Shelleg, Hebrew University

Written for the concert Composing A Nation: Israel’s Musical Patriarchs, performed on May 31, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Israeli Art music never truly consolidated, since the years around the statehood consisted of a variety of responses to the search for a national style. The different reactions by immigrant European-Jewish composers affirmed that they were, in fact, a ‘group of individuals’. Each composer imported his own western heritage into the emerging colony of Eretz Israel that produced many faces of Jewishness and was rich in contradictions. Among these individuals, Yosef Tal was perhaps the most extreme. He resisted the label ‘Israeli composer’ since he recognized his surrounding society’s need of national and liturgical symbols and rejected the notion that a consistent use of old tunes and modes is obligatory for an Israeli composer. Instead, Tal has argued that his music is Israeli by virtue of his daily life in Israel which he saw as a modern heterogeneous society, open to the world. Nevertheless, Tal did quote Israeli and Jewish music in some of his works. His Piano Sonata (1950), for example, uses a modal folksong as the basis for a set of atonal variations while his First Symphony (1952) quotes a traditional Jewish-Persian lamentation tune, sung originally to the text of psalm 137.

It was in Hindemith’s composition class at the Staatliche Akademische Hochschule in Berlin when the 17-year-old Tal had discovered that the tonal age was over. Nine years later this finding bore fruit in Jerusalem, in his Chaconne for piano (1936) which displayed atonal syntax maneuvered through various tonal allusions. The set of variations enabled by the Chaconne allowed Tal to engage a dialogue between past and present while extending the connections between the individual notes into relationships between different groups of notes. Thus, new forms and designs emerged within micro as well as macro prisms. The same principles were applied in Tal’s Second Symphony (1960). Tal had constructed his symphony on a twelve-tone row, yet concentrated each section of the symphony on different segments of his row. This is exemplified in the symphony through the many recurring note patterns (ostinati) and the concentrated expressive gestures – all mined from the constitutive row of the symphony. “Eventually”, Tal writes in his autobiography, “the complete row takes a bow at the end of the symphony”.

In 1951 Tal was appointed by the Hebrew University, where he established the first electronic music studio in Israel. He began writing live electronic music as early as 1964 (Harpsichord Concerto; Fifth Piano Concerto) which indirectly contributed dramatically to the generational shift in the cohort of native Israeli composers who experienced a certain national fade in favor of more universal appeal. Thus, while young Israeli composers born in the mid-1920s or early-1930s travelled to the United-States to study Electronic music at the Columbia-Princeton Center, Tal was already experimenting for a decade in his lab at the Hebrew University. In 1965 Tal was among the founders of the department of musicology at the Hebrew University, where he was appointed professor and chair. His awards include the Israel Prize (1971), three Engel Prizes, the Arts Prize of the City of Berlin (1975), the Wolff Prize (1983) and the J.W. Stamitz Prize (1995). Tal has also been elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Tal’s Second Symphony premiered in 1963 by the Israeli broadcast Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Roni Shalom-Riklis.

Ödön Pártos, Ein Gev, Symphonic Fantasy

By Yuval Sheked, Hebrew University

Written for the concert Composing A Nation: Israel’s Musical Patriarchs, performed on May 31, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Kibbutz Ein Gev was established in 1937 in the framework of the Wall and Tower settlements on the east shores of the Sea of Galilee, just down the slopes of the Golan Heights. During Israel’s War of Independence (1948) it had been heavily attacked by Syrian troops.

Born in 1907 in Budapest, a child prodigy as a violinist, Ödön Partos studied, among others, with Kodály. Until his arrival at Palestine in 1938, he has been extensively active in Europe as a soloist, chamber music player and teacher. Partos’ occupation with non-European and archaic materials on any level of his works was marked by tense and bold characteristics. He didn’t follow the then dominating ideology promoted by author Max Brod and composer Alexander U. Boskovitch who called for the creation of Mediterranean music as an expression of local and national style.

Since 1943 Partos visited Ein Gev from time to time and played concerts in the framework of Israel’s first music festival held at the Kibbutz’ dining hall. Some years later a big concert hall, modeled after Tanglewood, was erected in the kibbutz with the financial support of the American ESCO Foundation. In 1950 violinist Yehudi Menuhin performed together with his sister, pianist Hephzibah Menuhin in Ein Gev’s still incomplete concert hall with orange crates for chairs. Yehudi Menuhin donated his fees to help build the concert hall’s ceiling. The hall’s inaugural concert was scheduled for Sukkoth in the fall of 1952.

Feeling connected to the Kibbutz, Partos decided to compose a piece bearing its name. He wished to pay tribute to the perseverance and heroism of the embattled settlers. Written in 1951-52, Partos’ Symphonic Fantasy Ein Gev remained his only program music piece. It depicts laying the fundaments for the Kibbutz as an outpost on the edge of the Syrian border, its growth, life, and fight for existence.

The works open with an oboe solo based on a motif derived from the Kibbutz’ name: E-G-B flat. The opening section is characterized “Andante, molto tranquillo”. As a rule, relatively short Tranquillo sections, mostly predominated by woodwind instruments, separate the work’s main sections from each other.

The work received its first performance on October 11, 1953 at Binyanei Ha’umah (that is the Nation’s Buildings, nowadays called ICC – International Convention Center Jerusalem) in the framework of a successful governmental propaganda exhibition entitled “Conquest of the Desert.” The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the work under the baton of Maestro Leonard Bernstein. Specifically for this work Partos was awarded in 1954 the prestigious Israel State Prize and thus became the first musician among its laureates.

According to Partos’ biographer, musicologist Avner Bahat, Ein Gev belongs to the composer’s first period of creativity in Israel (1938-1957), which he called the Jewish-Israeli period. In 1969/70 Partos composed yet another work, a Symphonic Elegy entitled Paths (Netivim), which uses the Ein Gev motif as a starting point.

Mordecai Seter, Midnight Vigil

By Yuval Sheked, Hebrew University

Written for the concert Composing A Nation: Israel’s Musical Patriarchs, performed on May 31, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Midnight Vigil (in Hebrew tikun hatzot) refers to an ancient custom. While living in the land of Israel, leaders of the people used to gather in the middle of the night to study the Bible and engage in good deeds. Later on in the Diaspora, following the destruction of the second Temple, the tikun had been practiced by persons of all social strata. It had become a service held at midnight (according to the Zohar Book of Kabbalah – a moment of good will, when God enters Paradise to play with the Righteous), including prayers and piyyutim (liturgical poems) reflecting the exile and expressing the yearning for redemption. It had been believed that the tikun might help to bring about the “acceleration of Messiah’s steps”.

The first version of Seter’s Midnight Vigil was completed in 1957, written for oboe, trumpet, harp, percussion and unison singing of Jewish Yemenite traditional songs. It had been commissioned by director and choreographer Sarah Levi-Tanai for her Inbal Dance Theater. In 1959 Seter set the music for symphony orchestra and entitled the piece Yemenite Rhapsody. The work’s third version incorporated an orchestra and a monophonic choir. It had further been developed to a radio oratorio with libretto by Mordecai Tabib (including traditional Jewish Yemenite song texts and piyyutim by Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, 1534-1573, called ha-Ari, Rabbi Haim Vital, 1543-1620, and Rabbi Haim David Yosef Azulai, 1724-1806, called Chida). This fourth version won Seter the Prix Italia in 1962. The final version, a full-fledged oratorio for baritone, narrator, three choirs and symphony orchestra completed in 1961, is in fact the work’s fifth incarnation. It had been premiered in the framework of the 3rd Israel Festival in July of that year. For this version Seter was awarded the Israel State Prize in 1965. The composer revised the score for the last time in 1978.

The dramatic work consists of a Prologue and three scenes and concentrates on the spiritual experience of an individual worshipper who sets a Midnight Vigil alone at a synagogue. While praying he sees visions which reflect his innermost yearning for redemption. In the first scene he approaches God with legends, supplications and lamentations, and sees – and hears – the Exile. The second scene evokes visions of the High Priest serving at the Temple and voices of the dead. Finally the worshipper sees the Dream of Jacob (Genesis 28) in which the Land of Israel is being promised again to Jacob and his descendants and erupts in a ritual thankful hymn of praise. The gathering of the congregation for morning prayer at the synagogue puts an end to the visions of the praying individual. This Epilogue of the oratorio confronts the dreaming individual with reality and is cast as an uprising, then gradually vanishing wave of murmuring structured as a nine-part perpetual canon.

The participating three choirs are located at three places on the stage, as far away as possible from each other in order to support the antiphonal structure characteristic of the music. They represent symbolic figures: the Divine Voice (lyric, polyphonic, in the form of a motet), the Legend (recitative, with typical melismatic ending formulas), and the People (Yemenite Jewish traditional songs).

To a certain extent, Midnight Vigil is a summary of Seter’s compositional achievements up till the 1960s. Portraying a kabbalistic vision of redemption in Zion, it is among the first explicit manifestations of a mystic aspect characterizing Seter’s oeuvre which later gained an ever increasing significance. The work is imbued with renaissance aesthetic ideals and musical forms, which Seter considered optimal to ensure the East-West synthesis he aimed at.

Paul Ben-Haim, Symphony No. 2

By Jehoash Hirshberg, Hebrew University. Author of Paul Ben-Haim, his Life and Works (Second edition, IMI, 2009) and Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880 – 1948 – A Social History (Oxford University Press, 1995)

Written for the concert Composing A Nation: Israel’s Musical Patriarchs, performed on May 31, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Paul Ben-Haim (Frankenburger) was born in Munich, Germany. In 1924 he became Kapellmeister of the Augsburg Opera and his many compositions were favorably received. However, in June 1931 the newly appointed Nazi Director of the Augsburg opera fired all Jewish musicians. Frankenburger immigrated to Palestine in October 1933 and Hebraized his name to Ben-Haim [son of Haim, Hebrew form of Heinrich]. He soon resumed composition, stylistically moving along the axis the heritage of the West and the ideologically predominant vision of the East. Ben-Haim was not an avant-garde composer. His adored model was J.S. Bach, and he was much influenced by Richard Strauss and Mahler as well as by Debussy and Ravel. He was among the “Founding Fathers” of art music in the Jewish community of Palestine (then under British administration) and in Israel.

In 1940 Ben-Haim composed his Symphony No. 1, the first symphony composed in Palestine. His model was the Mahler symphony, which expresses both the external world of sounds and sights around the composer and his internal emotional reactions to it. Symphony No. 1 starts with a painful expression of the despair in view of Hitler’s monumental victories and moves to an optimistic hope for a better world. By contrast, Symphony No. 2 was completed in October 1945 when World War II was over. On the title page of the autograph Ben-Haim wrote a motto from a poem by Israeli poet Sh. Shalom, “Wake up with the dawn, O my soul, on the peak of the Carmel above the sea. The poetic motto sets the post-war idyllic world which dominates most of the symphony, save for the third movement. Symphony No. 2 belongs to the long tradition of the large scale Romantic symphony since Beethoven, which persisted into the twentieth century with the English, Russian, and American symphony.

The first movement starts with an extended pastoral melodic line in diatonic F major which changes later into the Lyrian mode. Two secondary yet related themes alternate with the predominating first theme. An elaborate development section reaches an apotheosis with the three themes superposed, and then the idyllic calm returns and concludes the long movement.

The second movement is a Scherzo. The dance theme takes the listener to the Vision of the East. From 1939 Ben-Haim worked with Yemeinte singer Bracha Zephira (ca. 1910-1990). Orphaned at three, she was raised by foster families of diverse ethnic groups in Jerusalem, absorbing their traditional songs. Her unique voice was revealed in high school, and from 1931 she performed Eastern Jewish ethnic songs and Arabic songs in Palestine and in neighboring countries with improvising pianist, Nahum Nardi. From 1939 she started commissioning arrangements for European instruments from composers of art music, foremost of them Ben-Haim who made use of most of them in his chamber and orchestral works. The dance theme of the Scherzo is the first phrase of the Persian dance to which Zephira’s elderly informant, Yitzhak Eliyahu Navon, had fitted the poem Mibein lahakat segel (‘From among the group of beauties I singled you out’) which Ben-Haim arranged in 1941.

The slow third movement introduces a sudden expression of pain and is the most Mahlerian in the Symphony. Following the first theme, the cellos quote the folk melody Ben-Haim had arranged for Bracha Zephira to the poem by poet Sha’ul Tschernihowsky, A child is born unto me. The quote is fully integrated into the theme.

The Finale is a climactic cyclic summation, which contrasts a paraphrase of the first theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a lively horra dance (the horra, of Hassidic origins, was since the 1920s the most popular folk dance of Jews in Palestine and later in Israel). The dance alternates major and minor thirds in emulation of the typical Arabic 3/4 tone. The movement reaches its climax with a superposition of its two themes together with a quote of the main theme of the first movement.