Israeli Music History

Music in modern-day Israel has a rich history reaching back to the years before the founding of the State.

This article provides an overview of the rich musical traditions in the State of Israel. It deals almost entirely with classical music, not popular music, which has its own unique Israeli story. While not covered in this article, many choral ensembles and composers of Jewish choral music (e.g., Yehezkel Braun, Aharon Harlop) have had a profound influence on Israel’s  musical landscape. Reprinted from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website with permission.

Music began to occupy an important place in the cultural life of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel after World War I, with various attempts made by enthusiastic amateurs and a tiny cadre of trained musicians at forming a symphony orchestra, a choral society and even an opera company. Music on a professional level, however, became a major activity only in the 1930s, when hundreds of music teachers and students, composers, instrumentalists and singers, as well as thousands of music lovers, streamed into the country, driven by the threat of Nazism in Europe. 

Orchestras, Operas, and More

The Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra (today the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), founded at the initiative of Polish-born violinist Bronislaw Huberman, gave its first concert in Tel Aviv under the baton of Arturo Toscanini in 1936. It immediately became one of the pivots of the country’s musical life and over the years acquired the reputation as one of the pre-eminent orchestras in the world. Soon after, a radio orchestra was established (today the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra) whose broadcast concerts attracted tens of thousands of listeners.

Additional musical organizations were founded at later dates, including the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Be’er Sheva Sinfonietta, and orchestras based in Haifa, Netanya, Holon, Ramat Gan, and Rishon Lezion, as well as the Israel Kibbutz Orchestra, whose members are drawn from kibbutzim throughout the country.

music standIn the early 1980s, the New Israel Opera began mounting productions on a high professional level, reviving public enthusiasm for operatic works which had declined following the disbanding of the first permanent opera company some years earlier.

During the early 1990s, Israel’s musical life underwent a transformation with the massive influx of over one million Jews from the former Soviet Union. This immigration brought with it many professional musicians, including instrumentalists, singers and music teachers, whose impact is felt with the formation of new symphony and chamber orchestras, as well as smaller ensembles, and a dynamic injection of talent and musical vitality into educational frameworks in schools, conservatories and community centers throughout the country.

The chamber music tradition, which also began in the 1930s, includes a number of internationally acclaimed ensembles and choral groups, which have expanded in range and variety since the immigration of the 1990s. Leading groups include the Rehovot Camerata, the chamber orchestra of the IDF Education Corps and the Kashtaniot Camerata of Ramat Hasharon. Many cities and towns sponsor their own choirs, and several festivals are devoted to choral music including Jerusalem’s Liturgica, vocal music in the churches of Abu Ghosh and the Zimriya festival.

Musical performances, from recitals to full symphony concerts presenting a wide range of classical works, are held in historic settings like the restored Roman theaters at Caesarea and Beit She’an, and in two major concert halls, the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. Smaller venues include the Jerusalem Theater complex, Tel Aviv’s new Performing Arts Center, the Tel Aviv and Israel Museums, as well as cultural centers in towns and kibbutzim throughout the country. Israeli concertgoers are enthusiastic and demonstrative, attributes much appreciated by the renowned guest musicians and world-famous Israeli soloists–Pinchas Zuckerman, Shlomo Mintz, Daniel Barenboim, and Itzhak Perlman–who are part of the country’s music scene every year.

Creating a Unique Israeli Sound

World-class music events which take place in Israel include the International Harp Contest and the Artur Rubinstein Piano Competition. Local festivals such as the Music Festival at Kibbutz Ein Gev, the Chamber Music Festival at Kibbutz Kfar Blum and the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, draw appreciative audiences, while the Israel Festival, which features music, theater, and dance performed by groups from all over the world, turns Jerusalem into a cultural magnet for three weeks each spring.

The creation of specifically Israeli music has been evolving since professional composing began in the country in the mid-1940s. While Russian and French traditions, German romantic and post-romantic forces, and the lively evocations of later European composers all left their mark on local compositions, a new expression of modern Israel in the so-called “Mediterranean” style, integrating traditional Eastern melodies and the cantillation of ancient prayer, has gradually crystallized.

The first generation of Israeli composers, all European-born, made great efforts to write in a new musical idiom after immigrating to the country. Paul Ben-Haim utilized expanded tonalities to create a post-expressionistic style, welding old and new, East and West; Oedon Partos saw in the assimilation of authentic folklore an important compositional method; Alexander Uriah Boscovitch used popular forms of expression as a compositional building block; Yosef Tal founded electronic composition in Israel; and Mordechai Seter concentrated on integrating Yemenite melodies and rhythms into his works.

The second generation, most of them direct and indirect students of the first, have worked towards a musical expression which integrates the Hebrew language, with its consonants and intonation, its relevance to Jewish liturgy and tradition, and its incorporation into the Eastern world. The third and most recent group of composers manifest a desire to participate in international composition with no national profile, to grapple with the Holocaust through music and to break down barriers within music, merging Eastern and Western traditions and incorporating some innovations from popular music genres.

Music Education

Talented young Israelis begin their training by attending one of the many conservatories or by studying with one of hundreds of private teachers; many gain experience by joining one of the country’s youth orchestras. Further study is provided at the degree-granting academies for music and dance in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Master classes for singers, instrumentalists, and chamber groups are frequently conducted by visiting international artists at the academies, as well as at the Jerusalem Music Center.

Music education and research at institutions of higher learning were inaugurated at the beginning of the 1960s with the establishment of the Artur Rubinstein Chair of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since then, musicology departments have been added at Tel Aviv University and Bar llan University. Two major areas of specialization are offered: Jewish music and the music of Israel’s various ethnic groups, with particular emphasis on the music of the Eastern/Sephardic communities.

“The songs and I are friends for life” is not just a line in a lyric, but expresses the proprietary attitude of Israelis towards their songs.

The early pioneers brought their songs with them, translating the original lyrics into Hebrew or setting new Hebrew words to treasured tunes. Since then, thousands of songs have been written, with melodies incorporating elements of the musical styles brought by consecutive waves of immigrants, ranging from Arab and Yemenite traditions to modern rock and pop, sometimes set to biblical or traditional texts or to the modern verses of Israeli poets and lyricists.

While it is difficult to define a typical Hebrew song, Israelis differentiate between songs written in Hebrew, on various themes and in a variety of styles, and the Shir Ivri (“Hebrew Song”), whose words transmit the voices, values and moods of the country and whose melodies are dominated by Slavic influences.

Accompanying the major historical events in the national life of the Jewish people over the past century, these songs have recorded the nation’s dreams, pains and hopes. While expressing universal sentiments like all folk songs, they also articulate strongly Israeli feelings such as love of the country and its landscape. These are the songs everyone knows, the songs which have become an integral part of the nation’s cultural legacy.

Israelis love to sing their songs, from those of the pre-state period to ones just written. Community singing takes place in public halls and private homes, in kibbutz dining rooms and in community centers, during hikes and around bonfires, often under the guidance of a professional song leader, accompanied by piano, accordion or guitar. Participation in such group singing generates a sense of togetherness, evoked by patriotic sentiments as well as by nostalgia for the early pioneering days and the struggle for independence, for wars won, friends lost and recurring moments of hope and love.

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