Paul Ben-Haim, Symphony No. 2

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.