Paul Ben-Haim was a German-born, Israeli composer who, in part through his long working relationship with Bracha Zefira, became one of the leading exemplars of the Mediterranean approach to Israeli music.
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Paul Bein-Haim was born in Munich, where he began his musical studies at the age of nine, studying violin and, later, piano, harmony, and counterpoint. His family—the Frankenburgers—though not committed to religious or ritual observances, identified with the Liberal Jewish community there. His mother came from a completely assimilated family, many of whom were converts to Christianity. But his father (whose own father had been an occasional lay cantor in the local synagogue in Ühlfeld, in Franconia) was active in local Jewish affairs from time to time. According to Ben-Haim’s recollections, his father attended the major Liberal synagogue in Munich with some regularity, often bringing the young Paul; and prior to the First World War he held an honorary office as deputy president of the Munich Jewish Community (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde München). Shortly after beginning his piano and composition studies at the Akademie der Tonkunst in Munich, Ben-Haim was called up for army service and fought at the French and Belgian fronts. By that time he had been composing intensely and, for his age, prolifically, with a particular focus on lieder. When he resumed his conservatory studies after the armistice, he became a composition student of Friedrich Klose, who had been a pupil of Bruckner, and he pursued conducting as well.
Between 1920 and 1924 Ben-Haim was an assistant conductor at the Bavarian State Opera, where he worked under Bruno Walter and Hans Knappertsbusch. After that he conducted the Augsburg Opera until 1931. Between 1926 and his immigration to Palestine, in 1933, he wrote a number of choral as well as solo Psalm settings and motets on biblical texts (Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Job)—all in German. Although his biographer has alluded to some of these pieces as “works of Jewish character and content,” no evidence is provided to the effect that they were so intended; it is difficult to see them as anything other than biblical expressions well within the western European art music tradition, notwithstanding the composer’s obvious interaction with the spiritual significance of their texts. Many truly Judaic and Judaically inspired works were to come, but only after his aliya. Indeed, Ben-Haim described his biblical motets as “religious music in the widest sense, without a specific liturgical purpose.”
Ben-Haim was befriended in Germany by the Jewish composer Heinrich Schalit (1886–1976), who was born in Vienna but lived and worked in Munich beginning in 1907. Schalit, unlike Ben-Haim at that stage, developed solid and overt Zionist sympathies—which he expressed artistically through his settings of poetry by Yehuda Halevi extolling the primacy of “the East” (read Jerusalem and the Holy Land) for Jews. Schalit, who turned his attention increasingly to Judaically related as well as specifically functional liturgical music, became the organist and choral director in 1927 at Munich’s prestigious Liberal synagogue (the Great Synagogue), where he worked with the brilliant cantor and cantorial composer Emmanuel Kirschner. Following Schalit’s immigration to the United States, he became one of America’s most important synagogue composers—especially in the Reform arena. Despite their mutual respect and admiration, he was unsuccessful in his several attempts to persuade Ben-Haim to contribute his gifts to synagogue music, or at least to Jewish expression. “I felt it my duty,” Schalit reflected, “to try to convince him of the need to channel his talent into the music of the Jewish culture.” Ben-Haim did conduct a concert of Schalit’s Halevi songs, and in 1928 Schalit’s songs and a trio by Ben-Haim were programmed together. Even though Ben-Haim did not surrender to Schalit’s pressure, preferring to perceive himself artistically as historically and culturally German, Schalit always felt that he had at least “kindled the Jewish flame” in him—a flame that would blaze and radiate his art for more than four decades.
Following his abrupt termination from the Augsburg Opera in 1931, Ben-Haim was unable to find a similar full-time post elsewhere in Europe, and he could concertize or present his own works only on a one-off basis. He attempted to ignore or overlook the growing anti-Semitism during that period, but after the virtual handover of power to the National Socialists in 1933 through their invitation into the government—his sense of alienation further fueled by the launching of anti-Jewish restrictions and other persecutions—he determined to emigrate. The party’s perverse racial views vis-à-vis music and musicians—especially with respect to Jews—had been made known in print even before the 1932 elections that led to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and the National Socialists’ assumption of complete power. Now the musicians’ union ordered its branches to oppose “racially foreign phenomena, Communist elements, and people known to be associated with Marxism”—i.e., largely “Jews,” as Ben-Haim was no doubt astute enough to read it. Moreover, his partially “neo-Baroque” Concerto Grosso was premiered in Chemnitz in March 1933, only to elicit a comment in the local press condemning the management of the orchestra for permitting it to perform a work by a Jew. In a 1971 autobiographical sketch published in Israel, Ben-Haim defined that incident as the decisive moment in his decision to emigrate. Possibly influenced by Schalit, he gave first consideration to Palestine and made an exploratory trip there two months later.
On that preliminary trip Paul Frankenburger changed his name to Paul Ben-Haim—not out of a Zionist cultural incentive to Hebraicize it, but simply to avoid detection by the British authorities for performing concerts, which was a violation of the “no-employment” provision of his temporary visa. Having determined that he could probably make a living and at least survive artistically in the yishuv, he returned to Germany to organize his actual immigration—which occurred in late autumn 1933.
Of the composers who eventually made up the hard core of the “establishment” in the yishuv or in the early decades of the state, and who contributed mightily to the rich musical life there, several were, like Ben-Haim, German Jews who emigrated directly from Germany. Erich Walter Sternberg (1891–1974) preceded Ben-Haim by two years, but Ben-Haim was the first German-Jewish composer of any significance to arrive in Palestine following the installation of the National Socialist regime. There followed Karel Shalmon [Karl Salomon; 1899–1974], Hanoch [Heinrich] Jacoby (1909–90), Joseph Tal, and Haim [Heinz] Alexander (b. 1915). Others who were not German-born and hailed from various countries in central or eastern Europe can—by virtue of study as well as professional life in Germany for some formative period—be considered products of the German cultural orbit and musical sphere. To that category may belong Odeon Partos (1907–77), originally from Budapest but from Berlin since 1929, and Marc Lavry.
Ben-Haim’s association with Bracha Zefira (1910–90), the famous Yemenite Jewish folksinger who had a seminal impact on Israel’s cultural life, had a fortuitous influence on the development of his own musical language. Between 1939 and 1949 he was Zafira’s accompanist for concerts. He also arranged many of the songs she introduced to him, and he quoted from them in some of his orchestral works. Apart from specific songs, the stylistic imprint of her Yemenite, Bokharian, Persian, Arabic, Ladino, and other eastern Mediterranean, North African, and Near Eastern Jewish repertoires is apparent in much of his oeuvre—especially insofar as it reflects characteristic modalities, ornamentation, evocative embellishments, and other semiotic patterns and motifs.
Though he arrived in Palestine with no illusions of instant success—in fact with serious concerns about competing for remunerative work—let alone of artistic acknowledgment in a world to which he was an unknown newcomer, Ben-Haim eventually achieved recognition beyond anything he would have imagined. He served as president of the Israel Composers League in 1948, and he taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music (1949–54), though he declined an invitation to become its director. He also taught at the Shulamith Conservatory in Tel Aviv. But his role in influencing future serious composers involved private tutorials in his home. One of his first composition students to attain a position of prominence among the second generation of Israeli composers was Ben-Zion Orgad [Büschel; b. 1926]. In 1945, for his first symphony (1940), Ben-Haim shared the Tel Aviv municipality’s annual prize in memory of the composer Joel Engel with Mordecai Seter [Starominsky; 1916–94]. (Seter’s winning work was his Sabbath Cantata. An honorary prize was also awarded to Solomon Rosowsky [1878–1962], Engel’s colleague in Russia in the activities of the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik.)
In 1953 Ben-Haim was again awarded the Engel prize—for his second symphony, about which Brod wrote, it “satisfies to a high degree our longing for an explicitly Jewish music.” And in 1957 Ben-Haim received the coveted Israel Prize—the nation’s most prestigious award for achievement in the arts, science, scholarship, and public service—for his orchestral suite with soloists, The Sweet Psalmist of Israel, which had been commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation. By that time he had become one of the few Israeli composers to enjoy a truly international reputation. His catalogue as Ben-Haim—viz., following his aliya in 1933—includes nearly 150 works (in addition to the more than 100 pieces he composed while still in Germany). These encompass numerous other orchestral pieces; solo sonatas, suites, and concertos; chamber music for a variety of combinations; many original songs as well as arrangements; individual choral settings; and larger-scale choral cantatas. Notable in the last category are The Vision of a Prophet (Ezekiel 37), which includes a male speaking choir in addition to other choral, solo, and orchestral forces; Liturgical Cantata, which comprises concert settings of liturgical texts; and Hymn from the Desert—on texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls—commissioned by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. His oratorio Joram, completed in Germany shortly before his decision to leave, received its premiere in Jerusalem in 1979 in a Hebrew version by David Frischmann. It is an intensely spiritual, even religious, but in no way Judaic work based on Rudolf Borchardt’s Das Buch Joram, and Ben-Haim is said throughout his life to have considered it his magnum opus.
To acknowledge his role in kneading the dough and molding the material for one prong of a Mediterranean approach—one with his distinctive stamp and that of his time and environment—is not, as some would fear, to reduce the aggregate product of Israeli composers of that era to a dogmatic, artificially academic, or chauvinistic monolithic style. Ben-Haim was neither an ethnomusicologist nor a folklore collector, and he never claimed that personal systematic field research among ethnically distinct communities constituted the source of his compositional ingredients. He relied instead, as did most of the Israeli composers associated with the Mediterranean sobriquet, on secondary—i.e., concert—performances, which in his case involved principally his close work with Bracha Zefira, and to some extent on notated collections. Some revisionists have suggested that because he relied only on such secondary transmission of indigenous properties—and therefore they could not have gestated within him—he did not actually contribute to modeling a style. This may be an exercise in summoning a purely academic adversarial argument out of the aurally obvious. One cannot dismiss the transparency of assimilated eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern elements in Ben-Haim’s music or that of some of his contemporaries. That is not to say he necessarily operated as an ethnological theorist. As a composer of his time and place, he naturally reflected his atmosphere, absorbing its ubiquitous sounds in his own music. Of the intersecting albeit individual stylistic planes of Israel’s musical creativity during that period, Ben-Haim’s was certainly one. That it represents a natural rather than a contrived process need not preclude its perception as one Israeli style.