Happy Shavuot

“So how did it all start?”, inquisitive journalists tend to ask, like the writer of these lines, when they meet artists for an interview or for a light and unassuming chat. “What was your first piece?” This happens, is of course, when the artist is alive. When it comes to those who are long gone, that’s a different story. A researcher or for that matter a music lover who wants to discover the first fruits of the great names of yesteryear should trust those who cataloged the works. There were and are artists who kept a list; in other cases, other people were required for the work at hand after the composer’s death. Names like Köchel or Deutsch are probably the first to come to mind in the collective memory of music lovers. The first cataloged the works of Mozart and the second the works of Schubert. Does the music author attach real importance to his first work, or does he prefer to be remembered mainly as a more serious composer. Take for example Johannes Brahms: It is widely believed that before his death, he himself destroyed all his unpublished manuscripts.

In preparation for the Feast of the Firstfruits, we took a look at catalog lists and asked various composers about their first major work. One must first voice a caveat, when a composer decides that they do not want – for various reasons – to leave their first works to future generations. We must rely on their judgment. The first fruits of the classic composers were usually small works like a song or a dance. Often a work composed for a specific use, stemming from social circumstances, like Mozart the child prodigy who satisfied the needs of the nobility. His first documented piece is a minuet played by piano students to this very day. On the other hand, Schubert’s 1st opus is a Fantasia composed by someone who was well versed in the instrument and is no stranger to the theme and variations genre. In this case we rely on Deutsch’s accepted catalogue.

Mendelssohn composed at the age of 15 his first symphony which later became the first of his early symphonies. But less than a year later he added to the world repertoire two pearls, his octet and the overture to “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, to which he added 16 years later complete incidental music for the play, including the Wedding March. These two expressions of beauty, depth and clarity became instant hits. The young Chopin’s first opus was a Polonaise, a Polish dance, as its name implies. Not surprising, given the national feelings of the Pole who became the symbol of his homeland and is present in the cultural fabric of Poland to this day. Beethoven is first revealed as a miraculous improviser. The piece that got to register as his own Opus 1 is a piano trio with an impressive piano part, unsurprisingly. Fifteen-year-old Gustav Mahler tried his hands at writing operas and other pieces. All that was left from those experiences is a piano quartet movement.

Improvisation as a primary vehicle also lives on in presently famous living composers. Zvi Avni, 93 years old, remembers well his first pieces – which he played to his friends in the youth movement in Haifa, along with improvisations on familiar songs. He played them on a hand harmonica (Garmushka) and since he had yet to master the art of reading music, he invented a notation system by which he could play the melody again.

Moshe Zorman considers “Landing Lights” as seminal symphonic work. It was performed by the Jerusalem orchestra and is even available on YouTube. He wrote some small pieces that he calls prehistoric. They were written during his studies at Tel Aviv and New York City and were even performed. However, as mentioned, he considers his first large-scale symphonic work as his first. Haim Permont is similar in his approach and mentions a work called “An Essay for an Orchestra”, composed when he studied with Mark Kopytman at the Jerusalem Academy. The work was actually commissioned by an orchestra as part of a contest initiated by the Israeli Sinfonietta Be’er-Sheva.

Maayan Tsadka tries to recall her first compositions: “I studied piano and my first compositions were string arrangements performed at the Rimon School of Music by the IDF quartet, which included then the violinist Itamar Zorman and the cellist Maya Belsitzman.”

Joseph Bardanashvili considers as his first compositions the two that received the reactions of important Soviet Union composers at the time: the first is a piano quartet and the second is called “Poeme-Dialogue) for cello, piano, four horns and a guitar. The work was commented on by Alfred Schnittke as well as Sofia Gubaidulina and paved the road of progress in Moscow and elsewhere. Indeed, firstborns truly worthy of their name.

Author: Yossi Schiffmann