Jaime Kardontchik

Paul Ben-Haim – The music of Israel

Paul Ben-Haim passed away 40 years ago, on January 14, 1984, in Tel-Aviv. Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), was born in Germany. He was an accomplished pianist, composer, and orchestra conductor. In 1924 he was appointed as Kapellmeister and choir conductor at the Augsburg Stadttheater, a position previously held by both Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Over seven years he conducted some 40 operas and operettas, until he lost this position with the rise of the Nazism. In 1933, with the beginning of the “Boycott the Jews” campaign in Germany, he emigrated to Israel, where he Hebraized his name to Paul Ben-Haim (his birth name was Paul Frankenburger.) His sister, Rosa, perished in Auschwitz’s concentration camp.

He composed his first symphony in 1939-1940. This was the first symphony composed in the Land of Israel. He dedicated it to the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra (then known as the “Palestine Orchestra”, before the Jewish independence from the British), that had been founded a mere three years before in Tel-Aviv, in 1936.

It is a magnificent symphony, composed in classical tonal style. The symphony is thirty minutes long and has three movements. Its first movement, “Allegro energico”, evokes the tragedy unfolding in Europe, with the beginning of World War II. It has a short basic motif that dominates the whole movement, similar to Beethoven’s main motif in the first movement of his 5th symphony. The second movement, “Molto calmo e cantabile”, is pastoral, and elegiac and lyrical at times. The final movement, “Presto con fuoco”, is like a whirlwind of rhythm, with alternating short respites.

Click on the following link to listen to a recent rendition of Ben-Haim’s symphony:

Prior to the 1930s there was no “serious” concert music in Palestine. The arrival during this decade of many classically-trained musicians fleeing the horrors of Nazism, changed this completely. In Western Europe contemporary music had become mainly atonal, did not know national boundaries nor were their composers interested in including local, national, characteristics: listening to this music one could never tell if the composer lived in Europe or in America. But another trend also developed, represented by musicians like Bela Bartok (Hungary, 1881-1945) and Zoltan Kodaly (Hungary, 1882-1967), where ethnic, folk-music, elements were integrated in their works.

The newly arrived Jewish musicians from Europe faced the same dilemma, but to them the decision was clear: they had fled the horrors of Europe, they wanted to bury and forget anything related to that continent, they had come to a new country, Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) and they eagerly began looking to integrate elements of the Eastern culture into their music. They found these elements in the Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish songs and melodies. But how to integrate them into the “serious” music? These songs and melodies were based on scales different from the Western scales one finds in the classical music of Mozart and Beethoven. The solution? Go back to the ancient pre-classical music principles: modal music. Modal-based music was very versatile and in the same way that one could write music using the Mixolydian, Dorian and Lydian modes, these musicians could also integrate the “Yemenite” and “Ladino” scales into “serious” orchestral music. And so was born the “Eastern Mediterranean” Israeli style that became the hegemonic style of writing music in Israel, from the 1940s till the 1960s.

Paul Ben-Haim was inspired by the songs of Bracha Zefira, a Yemenite folksinger, and he often accompanied and composed orchestral arrangements for her songs. The influence of her popular melodies and style can be found in his orchestral suite “From Israel”, composed in 1951. The suite consists of five movements or dances: 1) Prologue, 2) Song of Songs, 3) Yemenite Melody, 4) Siesta, and 5) Celebration. You can listen to this suite at:

(Lexicon: “siesta” is a Ladino/Spanish word literally meaning “a light rest or sleep”, taken usually in the early afternoon, after a meal. May also have the connotation of a light and pleasant “dream” in the middle of the day. You will understand the mood when you will listen to the music.)

Another classic example of this “Eastern Mediterranean” Israeli style – this time in the realm of sacred music – is Paul Ben-Haim’s piece “Kabbalat Shabbat”. If you love Johan Sebastian Bach’s sacred music, his cantatas and oratories, you will enjoy also Ben-Haim’s “Kabbalat Shabbat”, although it sounds very different from Bach’s music because of its use of modal composition. “Kabbalat Shabbat” was first performed in the Lincoln Center Symphony Hall in New York, in year 1968. The duration of the piece is about 40 minutes and it consists of 15 short movements.

Use the following link to listen to the whole piece:

As a guide to the listener, the first movement is called “Introduction and Chorus: Psalm 98”, and the last, fifteenth, movement is called “Concluding Hymn and Benediction: ‘Adon Olam’”.

About the Author
Jaime Kardontchik has a PhD in Physics from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. He lives in the Silicon Valley, California.
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