Hope springs eternal

Musicologist and concert pianist Astrith Baltsan’s eight-year journey into the history and heritage of ‘Hatikva’ dispels myths and raises questions.

astrith baltsan AJ 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
astrith baltsan AJ 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Did Mozart play “Hatikva”? Was our national anthem stolen from Bedrich Smetana or did the Czech composer borrow the melody from a 600-year-old Sephardi prayer? How did the author of its lyrics die in penury in New York and how did a convicted Nazi sympathizer end up conducting “Hatikva” in Tel Aviv as David Ben-Gurion announced Israel’s independence?
Musicologist and concert pianist Astrith Baltsan undertook an eight-year journey to research the story of the national anthem – a journey that resulted in a book, Hatikva – Past, Present, Future, and more recently in a show, Hatikva – A Hymn Is Born, that come up with some surprising answers.
Baltsan’s interest in “Hatikva” began in 2000 when she invited her father, the late Haim Baltsan, a philologist and the author of several Hebrew dictionaries, the most famous of which is Webster’s New World Hebrew-English-Hebrew Dictionary, as well as a the founder and first manager of the Itim news agency, to a concert, her first with the Israel Philharmonic, focused on works connected to national movements in the 19th century.
“It all began with my first concert with the Israel Philharmonic,” recalls Baltsan, 54. “My father, who was already 90 years old, came to the concert in a wheelchair – my mother had died a year earlier – pushed by his caregiver. He was right in front of me in the first row at the Mann Auditorium. I started with the Grieg piano concerto; my father made a huge effort to follow me and he looked tired and almost sleepy, but then when it got to Smetana’s Die Moldau, which is mistakenly thought by many to be the origin of ‘Hatikva,’ all of a sudden I saw my father raising his head and the twinkle came back to his blue eyes and he was smiling at me proudly.
“Then when I talked about the connection with our national anthem ‘Hatikva’ I saw a tear in his eyes. This tear became his will to me. I understood that this was something that my father would have wanted me to study, to devote time to. He could hardly talk at this time, but told me excitedly: ‘This is not a concert; this should be a book.’
“Thus started my big odyssey with ‘Hatikva.’ All of a sudden Bach and Beethoven were pushed aside, and during my summer vacation every year I devoted myself to research the origins and history of my people’s hymn.”
Previously a member of faculty at the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University, together with her husband, the composer Moshe Zorman, she founded a successful adult education music school, Hakatedra Lemusika (The Music Chair).
The story of “Hatikva,” says Baltsan, who describes herself as “a Zionist with no ifs and buts,” is the story of the Zionist movement, the story of the Jewish people, a story of political intrigue and national awakenings, a story of irony and endlessly unfolding tales. It begins with Naphtali Herz Imber, who in 1878, aged just 22, wrote a poem called “Tikvateinu,” our hope, expressing the hope of the Jewish people to return to the land of its forefathers, a poem that would later become the Zionist and then the Israeli national anthem.
Imber was born in 1856 in Zoczów (now Zolochiv, Ukraine), a town in Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to a family of members of Hovevei Zion, one of the early Zionist societies. He composed his first Zionist poem at 10 and after his father died when he was 18, he traveled across Europe trying unsuccessfully to scrape a living from his poetry, although he did collect an award from from Emperor Franz Joseph for his poem “Austria” on the centenary of Bukovina’s joining the empire.
In 1882, while in Constantinople, Imber met by chance with Laurence Oliphant, an English parliamentarian, author and mystic who was headed to Palestine to settle Jews there in the belief that this would hasten the redemption. Oliphant took Imber with him as his personal secretary and Hebrew teacher to his wife Alice. The Oliphants and Imber settled in the Druse village of Daliat al-Carmel – a fact that would come into play more than 100 years later – but things did not work out.
“Imber was a bohemian character who could not hold a job, was a heavy drinker and a womanizer,” explains Baltsan. “After six months with Oliphant, Imber became romantically involved with the Englishman’s wife and was fired.”
Imber moved on to Jerusalem and wandered around the country on a donkey visiting all the early Zionist settlements and offering to write anthems for them. “Tikvateinu,” which was published in 1886 in Jerusalem as part of Imber’s first book of poems Barkai (the dawn star), became the anthem of no fewer than nine settlements.
It wasn’t until 1895 that “Tikvateinu” became “Hatikva” when it was published in a book of poems of the First Aliya. David Yellin, the founder of the Hebrew language committee, changed the order of the versus, and then Leib Matmon Cohen, headmaster of the Rishon Hebrew School, radically changed the second verse so that by 1905 the version we know today was in place, although “Tikvateinu” is still sung in the Diaspora.
Imber, meanwhile, broke and discontent, had had left Palestine in 1887 for New York, where he married a Christian woman who converted, divorced her and died penniless from alcohol-induced liver disease at 53.
At the same time, Shmuel Cohen a 17-year-old Romanian immigrant, put the words of “Hatikva” to the music of a Romanian folk song, “Carl cu Boi,” Cart and Oxen. The melody is similar to the one Smetana used in Die Moldau, written in 1874, and is the origin of the misconception that “Hatikva” was taken from the Czech composer’s seminal work. “The truth however is much more complicated,” says Baltsan, adding that “we didn’t steal the melody from Smetana, he stole it from us.”
THE MELODY in fact goes back 600 years to the Sephardi prayer Birkat Hatal, the prayer for dew, written in Toledo, Spain, by Rabbi Yitzhak Bar-Sheshet. After the Inquisition, the Jews of Spain were dispersed across Europe, the Balkans and North Africa, and the melody found its way to Italy, where it became a popular love song “Fugi, Fugi Amore Mio.”
From there the tune had two separate paths. On one it wandered to Romania, where it was altered by the local gypsies and that was the melody that Cohen used. It other path went through Italy, where it was heard by the 12-year-old Mozart, who had been sent to study there and would later incorporate it into the eighth of his 12 variations on a popular French children’s song called “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman.” Mozart took it to Vienna and on to Prague, and there Smetana picked it up.
The irony is, explains Baltsan, that Smetana also used it to express a nationalistic sentiment. “Smetana was part of the of Czech national movement and the Czechs were under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and were forbidden to speak Czech. Smetana, who had participated in the failed revolution against the Habsburgs in June 1848, dreamed of writing a Czech anthem, but how can you write a Czech anthem if you aren’t allowed to speak Czech? So he thinks of an anthem that will be purely instrumental and he looks for a tune that is based on a scale. He asks himself, ‘What is a national movement?’ It is like a river and he he thinks of the national river, the Vltava [in German, the Moldau]. A river is always flowing; you can’t stop water, just like you can’t put out hope. It [“Die Moldau”] became the second movement of a six-part symphonic poem called My Country, and the whole work became a sort of anthem, but is an anthem without words.”
As nationalism swept through Europe, Baltsan continues, Herzl, inspired by the Dreyfus Affair, developed political Zionism and in 1898, a year after he organized the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, he announced a competition to write a Jewish national anthem. The prize was 500 francs, and although 43 songs in five different languages were submitted, the judges – Herzl and Max Nordau – ruled that none was worthy of the prize. Later that year Herzl visited Palestine, and when he came to Rehovot he was met by settlers who presented him with a bouquet of flowers and sang an anthem that had been “written for them” by Imber, “Hatikva.” From that moment on nothing would replace it.
At the Fourth Zionist Congress in London in 1900, the delegates broke into a spontaneous rendition of “Hatikva.” The following year Imber asked to have it recognized by the Fifth Congress, but it was only at the Eighth Congress in The Hague that it was registered in the protocol. Imber died two years later.
It was more than 120 years after “Hatikva” was first written and almost 60 years after the State of Israel was founded before it became the official national anthem, and once again there was a twist in the tale, as it took the vote of Ayoub Kara, a Druse MK, to push through an amendment to the Flag, Coat-of-Arms and National Anthem Law. Kara is from Daliat al-Carmel and his grandfather had worked as an assistant to Oliphant.
THE FACT that it took so long to gain official recognition is hardly surprising, says Baltsan. “There are a lot of problems with ‘Hatikva,’” she says. “For the Arabs it’s a Jewish soul; for the religious, it’s how can it be the anthem of the Jewish people if God isn’t mentioned; in literary circles they ask who’s Imber? He’s not [Haim Nahman] Bialik, he’s not [Shaul] Tchernichowsky, he’s a second-rate, one-poem poet and he should write our anthem? Then there’s the issue of the melody, which isn’t original. But that’s what stuck, that’s what history chose.”
History was to provide further twists. At the end of World War II, 10 days before Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin and five days after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the Jewish chaplain to the British Second Army, Reverend Leslie. H. Hardman, led a group of survivors in a Kabbalat Shabbat in the open air in the midst of the camp. This choir of human skeletons sang “Tikvateinu” in haunting voices in a recording that emerged from the library of the Smithsonian Institute a few years ago.
“These people knew they were being recorded,” reported the BBC’s Patrick Gordon Walker. “They wanted the world to hear their voice. They made a tremendous effort, which quite exhausted them.” The recording ends as Hardman says, “The children of Israel still liveth!”
Back in Palestine, the British Mandate had forbidden the playing of “Hatikva,” so the radio would play Die Moldau. “The British of course couldn’t put a work of classical music on their blacklist,” says Baltsan. Then, as the Mandate began to draw to an end and Israel prepared its organs of state, the end of the war mysteriously brought here a top Italian conductor who was to orchestrate “Hatikva” into what Zubin Mehta has called “the most beautiful national anthem of them all.”
In October 1948, Bernardino Molinari arrived in Palestine on a British bomber claiming that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to help the Jews. Baltsan explains that until Molinari’s arrival there had been no musician of stature here with the exception of his fellow Italian Arturo Toscanini, who had conducted the first concert of the Palestine Orchestra, the precursor of the Israel Philharmonic, in 1936, but had not remained here.
While Toscanini had refused to perform in his native country underMussolini’s Fascist dictatorship, Molinari had stayed on as theconductor of the Orchestra di Santa Cecilia. In Palestine, Molinarispent three years with the Palestine Orchestra and one of the firstthings he did, says Baltsan, was to orchestrate“Hatikva” and it was he who conducted theperformance of the national anthem when Ben-Gurion declaredindependence in Tel Aviv. Then, in 1948, Israel started to hunt downNazi collaborators and just as mysteriously as Molinari appeared, hedisappeared. It later transpired that he had been put on trial as aFascist sympathizer who had corresponded with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazipropaganda minister.
“That doesn’t explain though why he was put on trial,” remarks Baltsan.“He was found guilty, became depressed and died isolated in amonastery. I tried to find out from the archives of Orchestra di SantaCecilia what exactly he had done. Out of the fog it appears that he haddenounced Jewish musicians in his orchestra and they were deported tothe camps. There isn’t a conductor of such stature about whom so littleis known. Why did he come here, perhaps to clear his name? In anyevent, he built a monument and fled.”
“Wherever you look at ‘Hatikva’ there is a story,”concludes Baltsan. “Peel off the layers and you will see that not onlyis there an endless history, there is also a yearning for an eternalfuture.”