Israeli Composers

When Israeli music is mentioned, one immediately imagines young pioneers romping around a campfire singing Hava Nagila and dancing a hora. Or perhaps a klezmer band playing variations on Eastern European music with a minor key Mediterranean intonation. In reality, there is a concert music tradition which is definitely Israeli in character and, unfortunately, largely unknown.

Israeli concert music can be divided into three broad categories: Those composers trained in Europe who, because of the conditions prevalent in Europe, emigrated to Israel in the second quarter of the 20th century; those composers born in Israel and trained by the first group and finally those Israeli–born–composers who have been trained by native born Israelis.

The most prominent of Israeli composers is Paul Frankenberger, born in Munich in 1907; trained at the Munich Academy of Arts, 1915 to 1920; assistant conductor in Walter and Knappersbusch, 1920 to 1924; then conductor at Augsburg from 1924 until 1931. He then abandoned conducting and devoted himself to teaching and composition. In 1933, he emigrated to Tel Aviv and changed his name to Paul Ben-Haim. Some of his works include the Concerto Grosso of 1931, Symphony No. 1 of 1940 and Symphony #2 of 1945. In 1953, he won the Israeli State Prize for the composition Sweet Psalmist of Israel scored for harp, harpsichord and orchestra. This has just been reissued on Sony Classic Royal Addition with Bernstein conducting. This is part of a set that includes Ernst Bloch's Avodah Kodesh (Sacred Service) with Robert Merrill and Lukas Fosss Song of Songs with Jennie Tourel. Ben-Haim's music can best be described and late romantic with an Oriental/Mediterrean overrtone. He embodies the general tendencies of this group of composers who were trained in the classic late romanctism of the late 19th, early 20th century. After escaping from the difficulties of European life, they turned to the life that they were embarking on and like VaughnWilliam, Bartok, Kodaly and Grainger, they began to incorporate the music and folkways of the country of which they became part of. Ben-Haim died in 1984

Another composer of this time was Arthur Gelbrun, born in Warsaw 11 July 1913. He studied at the Warsaw State Conservatory and with Alfred Casella at the Academia Chigiana in Siena. He then returned to Warsaw and played violin and viola with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. He went to Switzerland with Radio Lausanne and then became conductor of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchester until 1948. He emigrated to Israel in 1948. Performed as guest conductor of the Israel RSO, the Kibbutz youth choir and the Inter-Kibbutz orchestra. He is now professor of composition and conducting at the Academy of Music, Univ. Of Tel Aviv. His music is primarily romantic with modest use of serialism and new techniques. I personally know very little about his music and have only one composition in my collection; Lamento (from Five Pieces) for Cello Solo, performed by Michael Haran, cello with Alexander Volkov, piano and Ayal Rafiah, percussion on Music from Israel Disc No. MII-CD-7.

A composer with a greater degree of international recognition was Odeon Partos. Partos was born in Budapest on 1 October 1907. He was a child prodigy and studied with Hubay. In the 1920', he played violin and viola with the Stadtorchester Budapest Konzert Orch. In moved to Berlin and was first violin at the Jewish Cultural Center. In 1935, he then went to Baku where he taught violin and composition at the Academy. In 1938 Bronislav Huberman, founder of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra invited him to become first violist; a post that he remained at until 1956. He was also violist with the Israel Quartet until 1956. He then taught strings, composition and conducting at the Academy of the University of Tel Aviv. He died in Tel Aviv 6 July 1977

In Europe, he was steeped in the modern music of Bartok and Kodaly. In Israel, he turned to a study of Israeli folk music, working closely with Bracha Zafira, the noted folklorist, especially in Sephardic material. Some early compositions were Four Folk Songs followed by Four Israeli Tunes for String Instruments and piano. Two noteworthy works in the Sephardic are Haquanot for flute, piano and strings, and Maqamot for flute and string quartet. A piece that get international recognition is Yizkor (service for the dead) for viola and orchestra. Several recordings of this piece do exist.

In 1960, he composed a 12 note threnody called Tehillim Dunyot and for his own needs: Sinfonia Concertante for Viola and Orchestra and Agada for viola, piano and persussion.

His writing for strings include eastern practices, such as very long notes, richly varied embellishments and microtonics, all to be found in Maqamot, Psalms, Shiluvim for viola and chamber orch. and Netuvim. Serial works include Arpihyot and Mizmor.


Joseph Tal was born Joseph Penne near Poznan, Poland 18 April 1910. He studied at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik with such luminaries as Hindemith, Sachs, Kreuzer and Saal among others. He emigrated to Israel in 1934 as worked at a hachalut (pioneer) on Kibbutz Gesher until 1936 when he assumed the post of piano instructor at the Jerusalem Conservatory which became the Israel Academy of Music upon the creation of the state of Israel. He was director of that institution from 1948 until 1952.

Although Tal belongs in the 'First Generation' of Israel Composers, i.e., those that were trained elsewhere and emigrated to Israel as full fledged muscians, his musical development was actually the precursor of the next generation. The earlier composers (Ben-Haim, Engel, Partos, Lavry) were anxious to establish a new music for a Jewish State. Basically they applied the late romaticism of Middle Europe to the traditional strophes and techniques prevalent in the Middle East (Maqamat) and what emerged is a type of composing generally classified as the 'Mediterranean School.' Tal, who is deeply committed philosophically, politically and emotionally to the state of Israel disdained using older models and has sought a voice that was uniquely Israeli and not vestiges of states in which Jews lived in prior to Israel. Thusly, he is looking for music that is 'Israeli' in the same fashion that the 'Choral' symphony of Beethoven is 'German' and that 'Carmen' is a 'French' opera.

He was an early pioneer of electronic music and founded the University for electronic music in 1961 and he was an early director. He composes using a 12 note technique as well as electronic tape and sometimes even more conventional methods. He expresses himself most completely through the medium of opera and one of his most important works is 'Ashmedai'. He also composed the opera 'Joseph' for the grand opening of the new splendid opera house in Tel Aviv in 1994. Unfortunately, this opera was never recorded commercially and the only tape of it that I know about is at the Israel Music Institute in Tel Aviv.

Some of Tal's work

---Opera---

Saul ein Dor, Joseph, Ashmedai, Amnon and Tamar, Massada 967

---Orchestral---

Symphonies 1, 2, and 3, Piano Concertos 1, 2 and 3, Shape for Chamber Orchestra, Festive Vision, Viola Concerto

---Vocal---

Exodus, Succoth Cantata, The Death of Moses, Songs on verses of Heine

---Instrumental---

3 preludes, 6 sonnets, Piano Sonata, String Quartets 1,2 and 3

---Works with tape---

Piano Concertos 4,5 and 6, Exodus II, Ranges of Energy, Variations

Mordecai Seter was born in Russia, 1910 and emigrated with family to Palestine in 1926 when he was ten. Returned to Europe and studied in Paris at the Ecole Nomale with Dukas. After Dukas's death with Nadia Boulanger and Stravinsky. Under influence of Debussy and Ravel wrote several song cycles (Chansons de Bilitis, Chansons Lyrique, Chansons de Bablylonais) which are markedy impressionistic in style. Returned to Palestine in 1937. As his musical growth progressed, he was now under the influence of the Middle European composers such as Bartok, Kodaly and Symanosvki. Began collecting Jewish and Israeli "Folk' songs and interpreting them in a Eastern European fashion, but from all of this an 'Israeli' music was beginning to emerge. His move toward a distinctive style began about 1938 and culminated the the Sabbath Cantata of 1940 in which a style that was an amalgam of French Impresionism, Eastern European Tradition and Israeli experience finally emerged. His reputation began to grow and in 1950 he was commissioned to write a ballet (Judith) for Martha Graham.

Seter's music can be classified into three phases; nationalistic with liturgical elements, individualisitc within natural idioms using folk motifs; a combination of the previous two using a modified version of the Schoenberg 12 note technique. Some of his compositions are Ricerare, Midnight Vigil and several works for solo piano. He was a notable teacher at the Rubin Academy and among his students was Avni, Sheriff and Gary Bertini. He died in 1994.

Noam Sheriff belongs to the first generation of composers that was born in Israel and trained in Israel. He was born 7 January 1935 in Tel Aviv. He showed much talent as a youngster and studied with Paul Ben Haim and Ze'ev Price.

Bernstein chose his 'Festival Overture' to celebrate the opening of the Mann Music Auditorium in Tel Aviv in 1963. Chaconne for Orchestra commissioned by Ormandy and played by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1968. String Quartet commissioned by Library of Congress in 1978. Music is an amalgam of Mediterreranan and European styles. While primarily a traditional composer, has experimented with atonality and electronic music....

send email to Edward Eisen

Return to the Unknown Composers Page