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.