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Paul Ben-Haim and the Mediterranean School : A Re-assessment

by Malcolm Miller
posted 22 July 2005

One of the visionaries of that pioneer period of Israeli music was Paul Ben-Haim, who has become iconic in Israeli music as one of the founding fathers of the ‘Mediterranean Style’, and Israel ’s most famous composer. Two decades after his death it seems salutary to reflect on his career and his achievements, as a pioneer in the synthesis of East and West that still lies at the heart of Israeli contemporary music.

The pioneer generation who came to ‘Palestine’ from Eastern Europe and Russia in the 1920s and the émigrés from German-speaking lands in the 1930s were fuelled by a Zionist vision to nurture a new and dynamic national culture – and they were also subject to aesthetic concepts of a collective as well as individual nature. The latter group included mature musicians who fled Nazi persecution and, like those who went to America (such as Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg) and to Britain (Franz Reizenstein, Hans Keller, Hans Gál, Berthold Goldschmidt) were forced to rebuild their careers in strange and often harsh conditions. The debates that raged spanned from outright rejection of central European (mainly Germanic) influences (Ben-Haim and Boskovich) to a continuation of modernist developments of the Second Viennese School (Josef Tal and Mordecai Seter). The pluralistic culture which evolved reflected the wide diversity of backgrounds of the forty or more mature composers who came to Palestine from Europe . As the critic and composer Max Brod, a friend of Kafka, characterised it: ‘From every corner, very different stones are brought in, stones which constitute the structure of our music’.

Yet amongst the different styles of the pioneer generation, one eventually came to dominate, which did respond to the demands of the collective vision one which idealised rural, pastoral elements (as did American music of that period) and Jewish folklore, and attempted a radical new aesthetic based on an east-west synthesis. These composers rejected the Austro-German heritage in favour of French post-Impressionist methods: their melodies reflected the modality of prevailing folk idiom, harmonic style relied on a good deal of parallel motion of perfect intervals, rhythm inspired also by Arabic dance and modern Palestinian Hora, and texts drawn on the lyrical poetry of the Psalms. Indeed, The Sweet Psalmist of Israel was the title of a prize-winning symphonic poem by one of the most influential of Israel ’s pioneer composers, Paul Ben-Haim. Premiered in 1956, it was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation for the King David Festival commemorating 3,000 years of Jerusalem , alongside Milhaud’s opera David, premiered in Jerusalem in 1954. The ‘Mediterranean Style’, as it became known, was espoused by many émigré composers, including particularly Alexander Uriah Boskovich, one of its most forceful spokesmen; but the outstanding artist amongst them was Paul Ben-Haim.

Paul Ben-Haim (1897–1984) was born in Munich as Paul Frankenburger, and, after studies at the Munich Academy of Music, worked as Bruno Walter’s assistant at the Bavarian Opera and music director at the Augsburg opera until Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933 cut short his successful career and forced him to emigrate to Palestine. Already by the late 1920s Ben-Haim, inspired by his colleague Heinrich Schalit (a composer who emigrated to the USA), he began to explore Jewish topics and themes, shown by his 1933 oratorio Joram, a major work that had to await over 45 years for its premiere, in Tel-Aviv in 1979.

His last work in Germany was the Suite No. 1, Op.2a, for piano, which contains his earliest quotation from a Yemenite folksong, ‘Ali Be’er’, a song of which several composers made arrangements, including Paul Dessau. Ben Haim (then still called Frankenburger) treats the melody within an expressive, evocatively textured movement, with eastern melismatic ornaments and pedal points. This provides an exotic cloak through which the more French-influenced harmonisation of the Yemenite folk-song emerges, gradually becoming more and more oriental in sound. It was this type of synthesis of west and east which came to characterise Ben-Haim’s style as he became more and more acquainted with the musical tradition in Palestine and Israel, largely through the influence of the Yemenite singer Bracha Zephira, who inspired so many of the early Israeli composers. For Bracha Zephira, Ben-Haim made some 35 song arrangements, accompanying her with a small ensemble across the country. Several of the Yemenite melodies found their way into larger works, while the melodic style coloured his whole language, in a similar way to Bartók’s absorption of folk elements. By now the imprint of what became known as the ‘Mediterranean school’ had become distinctive, pervading works for all genres, from symphonies, chamber and solo instrumental music and works for choirs and solo voice.

Amongst his piano works, an eastern flavour is found in the Five Pieces for Piano , Op. 34, of 1943, where the ‘Pastorale’ uses delicate modal melodies with hints of shepherd pipes, plaintive cantillation phrases and fragmentary dance-rhythms. The ensuing ‘Intermezzo’ is a folk-like tune accompanied by textures which evoke the oud, a middle-eastern lute. The Piano Sonata, Op. 49, of 1954, dedicated to the pianist Menahem Pressler, features a gentle fugue based on an oriental, Yemenite subject as its second movement, while the finale is a rustic Israeli dance. His final piano work Chamsin (1972) is more reflective, based on a stark ground bass with an improvisatory meditation at its heart that evokes cantorial music. One of his most powerful works is the Solo Violin Sonata, composed in three days in 1951 to a commission from Yehudi Menuhin who gave the premiere at Carnegie Hall in February 1952. Inspired by Menuhin’s 1951 performance in Tel-Aviv of Bartók’s solo sonata, it is similarly modelled on Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas. Yet throughout there are eastern flavours, with a shepherd-call slow movement, and a fizzing Hora finale. In 1981 Menuhin, an ardent admirer of Ben Haim also commissioned his final instrumental work, Three Studies for Violin.

Although many of Ben Haim’s works are based on biblical and liturgical texts, such as the Three Psalms and Hymn from the Desert (to a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls), Ben-Haim composed only one work destined for synagogal use, the KabbalatShabbat [Friday Eve] Service, which mixes Sephardi and Ashkenzi traditions. The premiere was given at the Lincoln Centre in 1968, alongside Bloch’s America and Ben Haim’s Fanfare for Israel (1950), then as a service at Temple Israel in Boston . Following the tradition of synagogue music by art composer such as Bloch, Milhaud, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Kurt Weil, produced in the 1930s and 1940s, Ben-Haim’s was especially significant as a symbol of the aim to bridge the increasingly perceived divide between religious and secular aspects of Israeli society.

His late large-scale works, such as the Symphonic Metamorphoses on a Bach Chorale, and The Eternal Theme, encapsulate a musical personality that is clearly rooted in both east and west, exploring the paths of expanded tonality rather than atonality of the European modernism. In that he is comparable to Bartók and Kodály in Hungary or Shostakovich, contemporary but yet not avant garde.

Certainly, there is a wide stylistic distance between Ben-Haim or Boskovich and younger Israeli composers like Yinam Leef and Gil Shohat, equivalent to the distance between the British composers Holst and Vaughan Williams and Oliver Knussen and Simon Bainbridge. Yet the beneficial influence of each generation on its successors is keenly felt and an intimate relationship and unanimity of purpose and identity thereby fostered. Each generation is grappling with similar aesthetic issues – the assimilation and balance of local and international idioms. Twenty years after Ben-Haim we may be grateful for the pioneer generation’s efforts in enabling a new idiom to take root and grow. The aesthetic debates of the early years are reflected in healthy diversity of approaches in the music of the younger generations. It may not be too unreasonable to suggest that new music in Israel will play a vital role in furthering the creative paths in the international arena in the decades ahead.

Ben-Haim's piano music played by Gila Goldstein is available on Centaur CRC 2506. More of Ben-Haim's music is featured in a new release Psanterin: Anthology of Israeli Music for Piano, produced by The Israel Composers League and the Israeli Music Center (IMC), 55 Begin Rd. Tel Aviv, Israel. (Tel/fax: 00-972-(0)3-562 1282. Email: icl [at] zahav.net.il; 9 CD set is $95 (plus $5 post); single CD is $15 (plus $3 post).




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