Religious texts on a personal note

Musicologist Andre Hajdu draws on his religious and secular roots to bring together people of all backgrounds.

Kulmus Hanefesh 311 (photo credit: .)
Kulmus Hanefesh 311
(photo credit: .)
On a November evening last year, the round hall of the Lab Theater hosted a rather unusual mix in its audience. Among the young students assembled next to religious and secular men and women, including a group of young Orthodox girls studying at a seminary, sat a group of Chabad Hassidim.
In a way, the unusual blend was also reflected on the stage, where young and not-so-young musicians performed, some of them secular, some observant, led by musicologist and composer Andre Hajdu. The program, Kulmus Hanefesh, was about Chabad tunes. In a way, the interaction between the young performers and the 70-year-old composer could easily have mirrored the typical relationship between a rebbe and his followers, though Hajdu would probably negate the comparison. The evening opened with the haunting tune “The Soul.” For a few minutes after the song ended, one could feel a shiver running through the audience.
Indeed, the enthusiasm expressed at the end of the performance illustrated the place that contemporary Jewish music is gaining among the Israeli public and the relationship that Hajdu has established over the years with his students.
For the past decade, some of the most original and intriguing musical programs of contemporary Jewish music have been associated with Hajdu’s name – Kulmus Hanefesh and The Floating Tower to name just two.
Basically, they are inspired by a succession of local musical journeys of various performers back to their Jewish roots and the sources. To a certain extent, Hajdu is part of this movement, but his professional development began even earlier. Hajdu, a disciple of Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Zoltan Kodaly, brings to that important journey back to Jewish roots a lot more than any other performer has done.
“There is nothing nostalgic or flattering in Hajdu’s work, which obeys the strict requirements of musicology. And yet there is, out of a profound respect for those [Jewish] sources, a beautiful and very inspiring result,” says Baruch Brenner, actor, director and performer and a member of the Ha’oman Hai ensemble. 
The packed halls at each performance are just one indication of how Hajdu has succeeded in touching a wide range of people.
Andre Hajdu’s life and personal experience lie at the heart of his musical journey. Born to assimilated middle-class parents in Hungary in 1932, it was not until he was in his 30s that, while teaching at the Tunis conservatory, he became profoundly aware of his Jewish roots. A few years later, while living in Israel, he found a way to combine them with his artistic path.
THE YOUNG Hajdu was a student at the Ferenz Liszt academy of music of Budapest when he was sent, in the early 1950s, as a student in composition of the national composer Kodaly, to find authentic folk tunes in the remote villages of Hungary.
“I was asked by one of my teachers if I knew what a Hungarian village was. Of course, I had no idea. After all, I came from an assimilated bourgeois family, with no particular Jewish roots but no Hungarian roots either. But that teacher was obviously anti-Semitic, and he evidently didn’t miss the opportunity to let me know that I was not ‘part’ of the true Hungarian identity. So he continued, ‘So you want to become a Hungarian composer and yet you have no local grounding, no roots. You may be very skilled, but where are the deep attachments needed for that task?’”
Hajdu was sent by his teachers to seek out authentic tunes in Hungarian villages.
“In the first village,” he relates, “I asked the first man I saw where I could hear their local songs. ‘Songs?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘songs – traditional songs you sing here. I want to listen to your songs.’ He sent me to the end of the village to a bunch of drunken men.  Imagine how they looked at me when I told them I wanted to listen to their songs. But after a while, one of them began to sing. Slowly but surely – it took me two years – I managed to gather a substantial number of songs. And I was not alone. A few students were required to do so. For me it was a cultural shock, not only their music but the whole way of life in the country. But after a while, I became passionate about it. I even had to learn to speak in a different way, not the way one speaks in Budapest.
After a while, he encountered Gypsies. “The real ones, not those whom you met in taverns and restaurants in the big cities, already Westernized,” says Hajdu. “It was something new. Nobody had gone there before to meet them, and I began to work with them. The scenes I witnessed were incredible. On one side you could see a woman breastfeeding a boy who looked at least five years old, and in another corner, a six-year-old boy was smoking! Back in Budapest, I showed my research to Kodaly. He said, ‘Do you know their language?’ I said no, and his reply was sharp: ‘You want to study their songs but you don’t speak their language?’ I had no choice, so I went back to study their language. Since then, I have become an expert on Gypsy music and authentic folk songs. In every musical encyclopedia today, you can still find my research.”
During the Holocaust in Hungary, Hajdu and his mother managed to hide. In 1956 he immigrated to France, where he continued his musical studies at the Paris conservatory, under celebrated composers Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messaien.
Between 1959 and 1961 he lived in Tunisia, where he served as a teacher at the Tunis conservatory.
“While my encounter with France was a real feast for me at the beginning, as I was full of admiration for the Western European culture, the encounter with Tunis and its Jews was a real revelation. For the first time in my life, I met Jews who were comfortable and content with their Jewish identity. It was the first step in a journey that would ultimately end with my renewing ties with my Jewish roots. But even at that time, I had begun to feel a growing interest in studying Jewish sacred texts, so I started to study Mishna and Talmud.”
Eventually, that encounter led him to complete his journey, and he made aliya in 1966. Just a few weeks after arriving in Israel, Hajdu was invited to spend a Shabbat at Kfar Chabad. That was the beginning of his love affair with the Chabad tunes, the Sefer Hanigunim. The haunting beauty of the melodies preserved over the years captivated him, and he soon became involved in composing the arrangements.
“I found myself in a recording studio with a hassidic choir and later on stage with some of the most famous Lubavitch soloists, who sang while I sat at the piano, with musicians of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra surrounding us,” Hajdu recalls.
Later, some of those tunes found their way into his compositions.
“I believe that had I stayed in Hungary, I would have been blocked by those two huge examples of musical journey achievements through the research in authentic folk music [Bartok and Kodaly], while in France I couldn’t do anything with the musical traditions I had been taught in Hungary. France in those days was so far from anything connected with the ideas of early civilization as expressed in authentic folklore. They had Boulez and such influences; there was nothing for me there. It was the right thing to do to come to Israel, to find my own areas of research, especially in the Chabad tradition,” says Hajdu.
“In fact, apart from the short period I spent in Tunisia, I had felt like an outsider all my life until I came here.”
In the Israel of the early 1960s, Hajdu found an interest in traditional ethnic melodies from the major composers working here. But as he recalls, “Their approach was totally different from the school I came from. It was a look from outside; it was something transformed to be adapted to Western ears, while I was taught to deal with the hardcore of the deep, authentic musical tradition of the people. In a way, it was my luck that nothing had yet been done in that realm, and I could start from the foundations.”
“A PUPIL of Zoltan Kodaly and Olivier Messiaen, Hajdu is a sort of Bela Bartok of hassidic music,” wrote composer and maestro Gideon Lewenshon in an article dedicated to Hajdu’s work. “Like his illustrious example and compatriot [Kodaly], he has been collecting many nigunim, spiritual melodies of various hassidic groups, as well as from many other Jewish communities from which he composed original pieces. He wrote a very interesting study about the Meron Nigun and composed pieces on Mishna texts. Hajdu is also a great improviser and has a phenomenal encyclopedic knowledge in both Torah-oriented and secular realms.”
Soon Hajdu found his way to the Rubin Academy of Music, both in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, he was also deeply involved in an exciting new educational project: the High School for Sciences and Arts, where he became a professor of music. There, Hajdu had a chance to apply his methods of musical education – to open and enlarge the limits, to give the students an experience none of them would forget, to literally live through and for music, theater, artistic expression. Nothing is too new, too unknown or too experimental for the man who has become observant, and some of the connections created there will remain steadfast for years.
Thus was born Ha’oman Hai, a music and theater ensemble that performs music and works that are faithful to the composer-educator-researcher-performer.
Andre Hajdu was already well known in this country, especially after he received the Israel Prize in 1997. Around him some of his students from the Science and Arts High School play, sing, dance and act, as well as some of their friends, whom they met in music high schools. Baruch Brenner, a long-time explorer of Jewish roots and music and texts, back from a few years’ experience in theater and directing in Italy, joins in. Brenner, who is also a rabbi, naturally finds his way to this new experience, which seems personally adapted to his quest.
The former students listened to and played the famous Chabad Nigunim so dear to their teacher, and Hajdu joined them. “This interaction sparked the idea of rearranging the melodies in the spirit of these young musicians, all of whom showed a talent for composition and improvisation. For them the term ‘nigunim’ represented a completely new sound that was far removed from their musical experience. We had no intention of masquerading as Hassidim and competing with their traditional music,” explains Hajdu.
The result, first performed in the framework of the Israel Festival, has since been performed again and again and still attracts large audiences. As for the decision to choose the Lubavitch tunes, Hajdu explains that it was an attempt to seek the origins of the hassidic movement when Hassidism was a sort of avant-garde movement in Judaism.
Hajdu plays the piano, conducts, composes and reads some of the text for Ha’oman Hai.
Three other members, Nori Jacobi and Jonathan Niv from the High School of Arts and their friend Yair Harel, whom they met at the Oriental School of Music in Musrara, joined the group. They also created their own trio, which Hajdu recognizes as his “spiritual heir,” though he is not personally involved. The Tafilalt  ensemble, which focuses on prayers set to original contemporary music, performs with the same ecstatic enthusiasm that accompanies parts of the Chabad program, and have also released an album.
ANOTHER EXCITING experience is linked with another aspect of Hajdu’s life. His study of the Mishnayot as part of his Jewish observant way of life has also found its way to the stage through music and theatrical expression, including a woman’s performance – not a simple matter, considering the material and the composer. But as Hajdu points out, there are no boundaries to limit him or his art.
The Floating Tower, composed by Hajdu over the years, set to music the text that serves as a basis of daily learning for every Jew: the Mishna. The mere idea of composing music for a text considered sacred and performed on a theater stage is just another example of this composer’s extraordinary ability to intertwine tradition and experimental, modern, even revolutionary means of expression through music.
But while Hajdu’s work and art are finding their way into the Israeli artistic scene, the interest it raises abroad is, by comparison, astonishing. The ensemble is invited to every major Jewish festival around the world. One of the latest invitations came from the Krakow Festival of Jewish Music and Theater, the largest and most important festival of Jewish art in the world. Besides Krakow, Ha’oman Hai and Tafilalt are also invited to perform in San Francisco, Dresden, Kiev and more. So far, all these invitations are still on hold, as the Foreign Ministry, which has a special department to encourage and promote Israeli cultural performances abroad, has not found a way to finance the cost of the trips.
Whether it is with the Ha’oman Hai ensemble or as part of hisnever-ending musical research and experiences, Hajdu has set a uniquemodel of relationship between the teacher and his students: The musicis at the center, the music is served by the skills of all involved,and any hint at some kind of hierarchy is totally inadmissible. “Whenmy students and I worked on these texts and the pieces of music set tothe Mishnayot, it was in fact an act of recreating a beit midrashinside the sounds. We were all on the same level, encounteringsomething we all shared. I was no longer isolated as a composer – Ibecame part of something greater. It is very Jewish.”