Proms fever

The UK is treated to a bout of Israeli music-making.

Composer Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984). (photo credit: Courtesy)
Composer Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984).
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Now that we in the UK have had the Last Night of the Proms, the world’s biggest music festival, and lustily sung our hearts out in Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, it’s time to consider another Proms concert that was more Jerusalem or even Hava Nagila, and which has single-handedly changed the perception of Israeli music in this country.
Born in Munich in 1897 into a religious family (his father was a regular shul-goer and his grandfather an occasional lay hazan), the young Paul Frankenberger learned violin and piano early, and at 11 began studying harmony and counterpoint. Indeed, he progressed to such an extent that in the early 1920s, he was assistant conductor at the Bavarian State Opera under the illustrious Bruno Walter and Hans Knappertsbusch, and in 1924 was appointed conductor at Augsburg Opera.
However, once the anti-Jewish legislation got going in the early 1930s, things became difficult, and two instances of Nazi involvement in the sphere of music finally persuaded him that now was the time to leave Germany. First there was the publication of a pseudo-scholarly book by Richard Eichenauer entitled Music and Race with its pointed antisemitic overtones, followed by a newspaper comment, picked up on by Frankenberger, which strongly reprimanded an orchestra for performing a work written by a Jew.
A trip to Israel in 1933 found him entranced by its “oriental-biblical” ambience, and deeply moved by visiting the Kotel. He formed the opinion that Tel Aviv would be the location where he may be able to live and work. Nevertheless, here was a Jew coming from the cloud and gloom of Munich into the unbearable heat of the desert, wearing all the wrong fabrics and clothes, and simultaneously stepping into a culture entirely alien to him, all of which he needed to absorb quickly if he were to succeed.
His musical transformation was enhanced by a chance meeting with the Yemenite singer Bracha Zephira (1910-1990), who asked Frankenberger to arrange for piano and voice some of her songs, such as “Adonay Ro’i” (The Lord Is My Shepherd), and “Yefeh Nof,” an ancient poem by Yehudah Halevi extolling Jerusalem.
It had been a condition of his temporary exit documentation from Germany that he was forbidden to accept employment. However, with the possibility of music recitals beckoning, his manager devised a simple solution: he should change his name. His father’s name was Heinrich, which was Haim in Hebrew. “Well then” was the answer “you’ll be called Ben-Haim.”
Later in 1933, now satisfied that he would be able to teach, perform and compose in Israel, he made the move permanent, and once settled, he provided the piano accompaniment for Zephira’s song recitals between 1939 and 1949. Gradually her Jewish, Persian, Arabic and Ladino gestures and modes of expression began to permeate into his musical consciousness.
So what was the music in this year’s groundbreaking Prom? The orchestral palette of Ben-Haim’s First Symphony, the first by an Israeli composer ever to be performed there, is a captivating mix of his formal Germanic grounding in Brahms and Mahler, exotically infused with his recently acquired Israeli and Yemenite inflections.
The work was written between August 1939 and June 1940, and while it’s not programmatic as such, Ben-Haim remarked that “as a Jewish composer and a resident of Palestine…. This work is not free from the influence of contemporary events: the horrible terror of the forces of evil.”
Accordingly, the first movement opens and closes with militaristic marches, reflecting the German fighting machine (just as the English composer Gustav Holst had foretold of the First World War in Mars from The Planets suite). Ben-Haim will also have been aware that marches played an important role in 1930s Israeli folk songs, endowing the country’s youth with strength and optimism. By way of respite, he has beautifully interwoven into the core of this movement the other-worldly prayer motif of the Ahavah Rabbah.
The central movement is the serene beating heart of the symphony. The melodic nature of the string writing is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending, the current No. 1 in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame in the UK, while the intertwining flutter of woodwind and harp, underpinned by the throbbing strings, creates an impressionistic canvas.
Here, Ben-Haim introduces the perfumed theme from a traditional Persian Jewish song “Essa Eynay” (I Shall Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto The Hills), the words of Psalm 121. The final movement’s agitation again reminds us that there’s a war on, although closing optimistically with an Israeli hora rhythm, which Ben-Haim would have seen danced in the kibbutzim during the years leading to independence.
Following its premiere, Ha’aretz welcomed the symphony as a work by a Jewish musician “who uses all the resources of his art to express his emotions.”
Le Soir in Paris commented that the symphony “represents the image of a people struggling for freedom.” It was a major step toward an explicitly Jewish classical music style that many Jews, both in pre-independence Palestine and throughout the Diaspora, had been longing for. Fast forward almost 80 years to the work’s first performance in this country, and the audience and commentators at the Proms were blown away by its colliding traditions and its breadth, scope and idiomatic honesty.
After the establishment of the State of Israel, Ben-Haim’s works were performed by leading musicians such as Leonard Bernstein, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin. In 1957 he was awarded the Israel Prize honoring achievements in the arts, scholarship and public service for his orchestral suite with soloists, “The Sweet Psalmist of Israel.”
Ben-Haim died in 1984. His legacy is preserved both in the Milken Archive of Jewish Music in the USA and in the National Library of Israel, the latter deposited by the composer himself and divided into works written in Germany before his aliyah and those written in Eretz Yisrael. Ben-Haim’s oeuvre embraces many Judaic and Israeli inspired works, which are now well represented on CD, including excellent versions of his two symphonies, together with chamber works, pieces for violin and his emotive choral masterpiece “Kabbalat Shabbat.”
The enlightened purveyor bringing this wondrous music to our ears is Omer Meir Wellber. Born in Beersheba in 1981, he was a child prodigy a la Mozart, studying accordion and piano at the age of five and becoming a composition student at nine, coincidentally a progression echoing that of Ben-Haim himself.
Wellber quickly established himself as a leading conductor of both operatic and orchestral repertoire, playing worldwide in New York, Paris and Beijing. Last year he was accorded the great honor of being appointed in the UK as chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and performing the Ben-Haim symphony at the Proms was his debut appearance in that capacity.
Wellber also carries a strong commitment to “giving back” to Israel, conducting both the Israel Philharmonic and Israeli Opera, and is heavily involved in social outreach programs: he is a founder of Sarab – Strings of Change, which brings musical education to Bedouin children in the Negev, and is also a goodwill ambassador for Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli-based charity providing critical cardiac support.
An Israeli symphony conducted by an Israeli maestro in the UK – that’s a real occasion for a lehayim! Now where’s that bottle of pomegranate wine I bought?