By Ralph P. Locke
Composers in many lands in the twentieth century have tried to combine various modernist techniques with elements derived from the folk traditions and religious practices of their own land or ethnic group. The aim varied, of course. In the Soviet Union, composers were urged, or even required, to demonstrate their closeness to “the people” in this way.<1> In other lands, many composers—such as Heitor Villa-Lobos in Brazil, Manuel de Falla in Spain, and Béla Bartók in Hungary—came to the realization that using musical materials of their native gave their music a distinctive profile that helped distinguish it from the efforts of composers from countries often considered more “central” (such as France).
Jewish composers living in British-Mandate Palestine and, after 1948, in the State of Israel faced a somewhat similar situation. Many of them came from Central or Eastern Europe (e.g., Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and the Slavic-speaking lands) and had grown up speaking German or Yiddish. (The latter is a dialect of German that, over the centuries, had been further enriched by words from Hebrew, Russian, and other languages.) They were now keenly aware of living in a new and very different region, one where their distant ancestors had spoken Hebrew or Aramaic (languages that were related to Arabic). They were also in contact with Arab-speaking neighbors and could easily hear Arab and Turkish music on the radio.
Eager to create a musical voice for the young Zionist homeland, these “Jewish-Palestinian” composers applied to their new homeland the typically European conception of “folk-song nationalism” (such as had been practiced with great success by the Russian Five, plus the aforementioned Falla and Bartók). The result was something that several composers and their supporters (e.g., Alexander Boscovich and the writer Max Brod) dubbed the “Mediterranean style.”<2> The style took inspiration from musical traditions of Palestinian Arabs and of so-called mizrahi (“Eastern”) Jews, especially Yemenite Jews—whom many European-Jewish settlers regarded as inherently closer than they to ancient Biblical traditions—and Sephardic ones (from such lands as Turkey, Greece, and Morocco). The “Mediterranean style” also incorporated features that Israelis regularly heard in radio broadcasts that reached them from other Mediterranean lands, including such places as Greece and Italy.
The most prominent exponent of this distinctively Israeli “Mediterranean style” was Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), who had been born in Munich and had received his training largely in Munich; he had gained prominence as a pianist and opera conductor in Munich and Augsburg, but grew concerned for his future after the Nazi Party’s accession to power in 1933. That same year, Ben-Haim emigrated to Palestine.<3> Determined to achieve what he called “a new original Palestinian creation” through familiarity with “oriental [i.e., Middle Eastern] folklore,” he spent some ten years as accompanist and arranger to the remarkable Yemenite-Jewish singer Bracha Zephira.<4>
In 1959, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic released a recording of Ben-Haim’s compact, accessible Sweet Psalmist of Israel: Three Symphonic Fragments for Orchestra, a work based on selected Biblical verses about King David. This gained the work, and Ben-Haim, major international exposure in a way that he would not achieve again until a spate of CDs began to come out decades later, featuring such substantial works as the Clarinet Quintet. The full score of Sweet Psalmist was published by Israeli Music Publications in 1958 and is now available through the Israel Music Institute. You can find the recording on Spotify (see links in the next sentence).
The three movements are marked: “David before Saul” (Largo); “Invocation” (Molto calmato e con divozione profunda); and, lengthiest of the three, “A Song of Degrees” (broken into two tracks on Spotify: Con moto solenne followed by vivo—pesante—molto allargando—animando). The harpsichord has prominent solo passages in the outer movements; the harp, in the second (clearly alluding to David singing psalms to the Lord while strumming his own accompaniment). The program published in the score suggests that, in the third movement, David and the people of Israel sing hymns of praise, and perhaps dance as well, as they enter the Holy Temple.
That longish final movement takes the form of a theme and free variations. The procession begins at a “solemn” tempo, with a modal melody in C that briefly slips sideways (much as happens when a pianist shifts his or her hands an inch to the left or right), in the manner of Russian composer Prokofiev (1891-1953), but then finds its way back. The melody is presented over a tonic drone in a typically Eastern Mediterranean aksak rhythm, one that divides the eight pulses in a measure into 3 + 3 + 2.
Halfway through the movement, a contrasting episode suddenly changes the mood to one of unbridled joy and vitality. The entire string section of the orchestra starts playing in the manner of a traditional-music ensemble from Istanbul or Cairo, including long passages in heterophony (that is: a single melody is played by many instruments but with slight differences between them). The oboe—as if it were a zurna—sometimes offers brief two-measure replies, sometimes simultaneous commentary.
Ben-Haim’s good friend and publisher Peter Gradenwitz had originally proposed that the composer devote one section of the piece to portraying the famous biblical incident of David dancing (ecstatically and somewhat immodestly) before the Ark of the Covenant.<5> Though the published program note does not mention the dancing-David incident, the brilliantly colored music in this quick section of the final movement seems to have it in mind. Its style associates the young king with the festive rejoicing of 1950s-era Arabs and/or “Oriental” Jews. East and West then merge musically when, in mm. 202-5, Ben-Haim adds Western triadic harmonies to the quick-twisting theme, turning David—though, again, the published program-note gives no hint of this—into a hora-dancing kibbutznik.
The whole work is a nice reminder that musical modernism—including stylistic experiment resulting in a certain cut-and-paste quality—can at times coexist with elements that are more familiar or “popular” in style—elements that help the work remain accessible to a broad, non-specialist public.
More recent Israeli composers tend to avoid the Mediterranean style, apparently thinking of it as a compromise that helped to define the culture of (pre-statehood) Jewish Palestine some eighty years ago but is no longer needed. These composers often incorporate the latest developments and techniques from other composers in Europe, America, or elsewhere. And the reverse: some Israeli-born and -trained composers—such as Shulamit Ran and Chaya Czernowin—now live elsewhere and have helped shape a generation or two of non-Israeli composers.
But the works of Ben-Haim, Ödön Partos, Alexander Uriah Boscovich, and others who were active in the 1930s-50s continue to have a broad appeal and will be welcomed by general audiences in ways that some more consistently modernistic music may not. Leonard Bernstein’s aforementioned recording (featuring harpist Christine Stavrache and harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe) was later re-released on compact disc (Sony 47533; also 48178). Two other important pieces by Ben-Haim that have had a long life are his Symphony No. 1 (recent recordings conducted by Omer Meir Welber and Lahav Shani) and the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, recorded at least four times, by such notable performers as Klaus Hampl and the Quartetto di Roma.
- Locke, Musical Exoticism, 250-51, 282-83. The present article is based freely on the author’s discussion of Paul Ben-Haim in that book (283-84).
- On the origins of the term “Mediterranean style” in Jewish Palestine, see the unpublished article by Ronit Seter, “The Israeli Mediterranean Style: Origins, 1930s-1950s”: https://www.jewish-music.huji.ac.il/sites/default/files/Seter%20Ronit%20Med%20Style.pdf.
- His name, until his emigration, was Paul Frankenburger. Like many Jews who settled in British Palestine or (later) Israel, he changed his name to a Hebrew one, whether for ideological or practical reasons.
- Ben-Haim, autobiographical sketch, 1945, transcribed in Seter, Yuvalim, 166, also 116 and 176.
- Letter from Gradenwitz to Ben-Haim, 22 October 1952 (referring to 2 Samuel 6:14-23), cited in Seter, Yuvalim, 212-48.
Hirshberg, Jehoash. Paul Ben-Haim: His Life and Works. Tel-Aviv: Israel Music Institute, 2010.
Locke, Ralph P. Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. The present article is an expanded version of material in pp. 283-84.
Seter, Ronit. “Yuvalim be’Israel: Identity, Ideology and Idioms in Jewish-Israeli Art Music 1940-2000.” Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 2004.
Ralph P. Locke is Emeritus Professor of Musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and a Research Affiliate at the University of Maryland/College Park. His writings on music and musical life since 1900 include Musical Exoticism (see Bibliography) and the co-edited volume Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860 (University of California Press, now available Open Access). Further writings are listed on his webpage.