by Tina Frühauf

The foundation for Israeli choral music was laid decades before the establishment of the Jewish state, in the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine during the British Mandate. At the end of the 1920s Russian-born Shlomo Kaplan (1908 – 1974), one of the halutzim or early pioneers, established the first choirs, which he conducted himself. A few years after the State of Israel came into being, he became the head the music section of the Histadrut, an organization embracing labor unions. In this function he was in charge of choral activities and advanced choral singing in collective agricultural labor settlements. By the time Kaplan had begun to develop choral music, Israel had enjoyed an influx of composers, predominantly from Europe, all eager to build the musical identity of the state and each bringing in their individual compositional style. Many of them wrote choral music.

This year’s Louis Lewandowski Festival is devoted to repertoires that capture Israel’s vast and diverse choral music landscape from the early years of statehood to the current day, created by composers who immigrated to Israel and those born on Israeli soil. The most recent composition created in the genre is Anna Segal’s oratorio Todesfuge (Death Fugue), composed in 2016 and dedicated to Holocaust victims and her grandmother Frida, who had survived. The Todesfuge is based on a poem by the same name, written by Paul Celan around 1945 and first published in 1948. It vividly describes the horror and death in a concentration camp. Segal’s oratorio receives its world premiere on the festival’s opening night, memorializing the eightieth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

If Kristallnacht and the shoah marked severe ruptures of civilization and in history, the foundation of the State of Israel gave hope and has been celebrated by many composers among them Paul Ben-Haim, whose was born in Munich as Paul Frankenburger (1897 – 1984). His sweeping Fanfare to Israel for orchestra of 1950 was inspired by the foundation of the modern state and will be heard in its original form in the opening concert and in the grand final concert in an organ transcription by another emigrant from the South of Germany, Karel Salmon (1897 – 1974).

Israeli composers wrote choral music for various occasions that were rooted in a variety of texts—liturgical, sacred, and secular. The former are represented by the Lekhah dodi, Hashkivenu, and Adon olam settings from Paul Ben-Haim’s Kabbalat Shabbat of 1966/67, and the Mizmor shir, an excerpt from Mark Lavry’s oratorio Sacred Service, op. 254 (1954). The opening words sung by the sopranos (“Tov l’hodot l’adonai”) allude to a traditional Ashkenazi motif of the Kabbalat Shabbat service. Ben-Haim and Lavry (1903 – 1967), who was born in Riga as Mark Levin, were among the most successful and prominent composers during early statehood and are associated with the embrace of indigenous eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern musical elements and influences within the context of Western forms—a synthesis that became emblematic of the newly cultivated art music of modern Israel.

The subsequent generation of composers found their own paths into choral music. Yehezkhel Braun (1922 – 2014), for example, has harbored a lifelong interest in both Hebrew and plainchant. In 1975 he spent a year at the Benedictine Monastery at Solesmes, France, studying chant there. His twin interest is reflected in many of his compositions. His arrangement of the Oriental melody to the medieval poetic text “Dror Yikra” (He will proclaim freedom) is noteworthy. The antiphonal style gives way to a spirited dance to the sounds of the darbuka.

Equally important contributions stem from Mordecai Seter (1916 – 1994), who was born in Novorossiysk (Russia) as Marc Starominsky and had moved to Palestine in 1926. Educated in Europe, he returned to Tel Aviv in 1937 and composed there, influenced by a broad variety of styles from the Renaissance to twentieth century, but most poignantly by Oriental Jewish music. This influence can be heard in Al naharot Bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon, 1950), a motet based on Psalm 137, in which he draws from a Babylonian dirge which generates a slowly unfolding darkened atmosphere.

The influence of different Jewish ethnicities on Israeli choral music is further evident in Hamavdil / The Sabbath Prayer (1952) by Oedoen Partos (1907 –1977). Hamavdil is the final blessing given on the Sabbath, praising God for making the separation between the holy and the profane. Using traditional Sephardic melodies, Partos selects the first and fourth stanzas of this hymn and alternates them with “Eliyahu hanavi”, commonly sung at the conclusion of the Havdalah service, which marks the separation between the end of the Sabbath and the new week.

To celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Israel, the Louis Lewandowski Festival features these and other gems of “classic” Israeli choral music; it also embraces popular and folkloristic melodies and arrangements by Naomi Shemer and Gil Aldema, as well as works by still living composers such as Tsvi Avni, and Avner Itai who has been Israel’s foremost choral conductor for more than four decades. All of the works heard during festival concerts attest to the growth of Israeli choral music and its lasting presence. This presence renders itself in religious music and arrangements of prayer song, to Yiddish, Hasidic, and Zionist repertoires, thus reflecting the underlying diversity of Jewishness on Israeli soil.

Photo: akg images GmbH