The connection between music and nationality is a clear by-product of the “Spring of the Nations” era in the mid-19th century in Europe. The liberation from the yoke of a foreign occupier sought a musical expression, a kind of political statement. Composers turned to the local musical treasure, to the melodies and dances prevalent in their countries. Hence, the ‘upgrade’, ostensibly, of folk dances to the concert hall stage did not surprise the audience, which itself became at the same time a consumer of music in the concert halls. Significant examples are provided by, for example, the Polonaises and Mazurkas, the Polish dances prevalent in the piano works of Frederick Chopin and in the famous opera “Halka” by Stanislaw Moniuszko, the national composer of Poland.
At the same time the countries that make up the Italian boot began to merge and form a unified state, under the rule of one king. This spirit is expressed by Giuseppe Verdi in the opera “Nabucco.” The longing of the Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem was well understood by the Italian public as a clear political message. As a historical anecdote one might mention that Verdi enlisted in the Italian political movement Risorgimento (Resurrection) and for a short time served as a Parliament Member on its behalf.
The Czech Bedrich Smetana also appealed to the national spirit. His first opera “The Brandburgers in Bohemia” deals with an historical episode of Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), but did not receive public acclaim. His second opera “The Bartered Bride”, an out-and-out love story, became a national work, since Smetana had incorporated in it two folk dances, the Furiant and the Polka.
Mikhail Glinka, the first Russian composer, or ‘father of Russian music’, as he is commonly called, incorporated in his work “Ivan Susanin or Life for the Tsar”, considered as the first Russian opera, four dances: Waltz, Krakowiak, Mazurka and Polonaise, all Polish dances which were popular in contemporary Russia. Polish dances in Russian works were also prevalent in Glinka’s successors, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Tchaikovsky. Hungary, while not gaining political independence at the time, was recognized as an independent entity under Austrian rule. There the composer Ferenc Erkel, composed “Bánk Bán” and “Hunyadi László”, history-laden operas whose prominent status in the schedule of opera houses in Hungary is prevalent to this very day. Romania and Bulgaria, which were also liberated from the yoke of foreign conquerors (the Ottomans, Austrians and Russians), waited for their first national expression until the beginning of the twentieth century in the works of the Romanian Tiberiu Brediceanu or the Bulgarian Emanuil Manolov.
Israel joined this list with the immigration of Mordechai Golinkin to Israel at the beginning of the third decade of the last century, about a hundred years ago, 25 years after the first Zionist Congress. Golinkin, who founded the first Israeli opera in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, decided that in the Tel Aviv Opera House, operas would be sung in Hebrew in the spirit of ‘national’ works, and he would stage Anton Rubinstein’s “The Maccabees”. “The Maccabees” was sung in Hebrew, but the fact that the new opera house produced a work by a Russian composer for its inauguration provoked angry reactions in the Hebrew press of those days. The rectifying moment arrived in February 1945 when the Folk Opera premiered Mark Lavry’s “Dan Hashomer” (libretto by S. Shalom and Max Brod). This time the synopsis was local and topical, the settlement in a new locality. A musical-Zionist event whose historical-political message is clearcut. Ten years earlier, Mark Lavry composed music for Rafael Eliaz’s song “Emek” (Valley). “Emek” gained popularity and Lavry composed a symphonic tone poem based upon the song. The work was widely performed by Israeli orchestras in Israel and abroad. In the 1940s, the first works by composers who settled in Israel were recorded, the most prominent of which is Paul Ben-Haim’s Symphony No. 1. In the early 1950s, at the invitation of Shalom Ronli-Riklis, the musical director of the Gadna Orchestra, Ben-Haim composed a short work, “Trua LeIsrael,” which later also represented Israel in the world.
Generally, one might do well to remember that in the first years of the Jewish settlement in Israel and later of the State of Israel, concert music did not receive proper treatment. The Zionist leadership, led by Ben-Gurion, saw Israel as home to the Literary Folk and not the Musical Folk, so a few official musical events were recorded: the Israel Prize was awarded to composer Ödön Pártos for his work “Ein Gev” in 1954. Another Israel Prize was awarded in 1961 to Menachem Avidom On his opera “The Hasmonean Alexandra,” set to a libretto by Aharon Ashman, a national work.
When the government decided to award the Prime Minister’s Prize it was initially intended for writers only, since Israelis are The Literary Folk. In 1983, an appropriate political constellation was formed – the Composer’s Union was headed by Ami Maayani, affiliated with right-wing politicians, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir – it was decided to award the Prime Minister’s Prize to Composers. The first to receive the prize was Yaakov Gilboa. Another front on which the local art music struggled was the orchestral managements who allegedly spoke on behalf of the audience who they said shied away from Israeli music and demonstrated absence or left the auditoriums. The result – to the list of features that allow execution was also added to the length of the piece. These were the rules but there were also exceptions to these rules.On the eve of Israel’s 73rd Independence Day, things look different, with Raanana Symphonette Orchestra proudly denoting the performance of more than a hundred Israeli works in the subscription series during its thirty years of existence. The music created in Israel should not fight for its right to exist, rather for the attention of the audience. We won.
Happy Independence Day – From Raanana Symphony Orchestra
Author: Yossi Schiffmann