Paul Ben-Haim: Father of Israeli Music

By Bloom, Cecil | Midstream, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Paul Ben-Haim: Father of Israeli Music


Bloom, Cecil, Midstream


Israel is a home for music. A number of Eurovision Song Contests have been won by the Israeli entrants (although music lovers might question whether some of the winning songs can claim to be music!), and the country is full of composers of serious music. Relative to its population size, it has probably more composers than any other country.

Many present-day Israeli composers are in the avant-garde at the forefront of modern music, but the classical tradition goes back to the early days of the modern aliyah. The first school of music -- the Shulamit -- was established in Tel Aviv, in 1910, not long after that city's foundation. A Hebrew version of Verdi's La Traviata marked the foundation of an operatic organization in 1923. Once Britain received the League of Nations Mandate, composers of substance began to settle in Palestine either temporarily or permanently. Joel Engel and Solomon Rosowsky were two of those with international reputations.

The country's musical life was, however, transformed with the creation, in 1936, of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, later to develop into one of the great orchestras of the world under its new title, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Bronislaw Hubermann, the eminent Polish-Jewish violinist, was its moving spirit and its first permanent conductor, but its inaugural concert was given under the baton of the great Arturo Toscanini. There is a story that when Toscanini arrived for his first rehearsal in Tel Aviv, he was put out by not seeing any people outside the hall waiting to catch a glimpse of him -- however, inside he found it completely packed with a huge crowd anxious to be present at the rehearsal. Many famous conductors, such as Leonard Bernstein, Felix Weingartner, Adolf Busch, and Sir Malcolm Sargent, appeared with the orchestra in pre-1948 days.

An influx of musicians, first from Germany, then from places further East, settled in Palestine following Hitler's rise to power. Composers such as Erich-Walter Steinberg from Germany, Joachim Stutchevsky and Joseph Tal from Eastern Europe, Odeon Partos from Hungary, and Alexander Boskovich from Romania made their mark, and there are now many sabra composers. But standing above all is Paul Ben-Haim, who is recognized as the father of Israeli music, the man who has contributed most in developing the music of his country to its present status. More than that of any other, his music reflects the atmosphere and spirit of Israel.

Ben-Haim was born Paul Frankenburger in Munich in 1897; he established himself in music before leaving Germany. Although his maternal family mostly converted to the Christian faith and his father was a supporter of the Liberal Jewish movement, he was a fully-committed Jew. Influenced by Mahler and Richard Strauss, he had written by age 19 a number of compositions -- mostly lieder -- the first published compositions being two song cycles set to texts by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the German-Jewish poet and dramatist.

Frankenburger studied the piano as well as composition, and he became a competent performer. At the early age of 23, he was appointed deputy director and coach of the Munich Opera chorus, and it was here in 1922 that he wrote his first work on a Jewish subject. It was a setting of Psalm 22 for soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, accompanied by chorus and large orchestra. This is a long involved piece, and it launched his compositional career. The following year he composed two songs that added to his reputation; one was on the subject of Jesus. He was to set many psalms after he settled in Eretz Israel, but the lied was his main interest when he was young. He set a large number of poems by three lesser German poets; Goethe's and Heine's poetry also attracted him.

Frankenburger was directly influenced by Heinrich Schalit, an Austrian Jew who lived in Munich. Schalit is now an almost forgotten figure, but in the Wiemar Republic he was a major composer of Jewish music. …

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