Volume 1, Number 2 (Autumn 2008)

Paul Ben-Haim: Father of Modern Israeli Music

by Kimberly Veenstra

[1] I recently shared my interest in the music of Israel with a Jewish composer. His response was, "What do you mean by 'the music of Israel?' Israeli music is many things!" The majority of Jews living in Israel today are, at most, only third-generation Israelis; Israel's current population is composed primarily of Jewish people returning to Palestine from far-reaching lands after a diasporic period that lasted nearly 2000 years. In other words, the music in Israel today is young and still developing.

An History of a National Jewish Music

[2] The history of the Jewish people began in ancient Palestine, centrally located in the Middle East. This proximity to surrounding nations lent itself to frequent contact with a variety of people, cultures and musics. These musical styles, their religious and social contexts, and the instruments used in Palestine were likely similar to those used in Egypt, Phoenicia, Assyria and Babylon. Although we know little about what Palestinian music actually sounded like, we can assume that it was similar to that which was heard in the surrounding Middle Eastern communities.

[3] After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Jews of Palestine were dispersed throughout the surrounding lands. The Jews of the Diaspora, as it has come to be known, primarily fell into one of three groups. Oriental Jews found refuge in neighboring communities in the Middle East, such as Babylon, Yemen, Syria, Egypt and Iran. Jews settling in Spain, Portugal and other areas surrounding the Iberian Peninsula are known as Sephardic. Finally, those Jews who settled in Central and Eastern Europe came to be known as Ashkenazic. Of the three Jewish communities, many believe that the music of the Oriental Jews remained the least changed from ancient Jewish music and that the music of the Ashkenazic Jews went through the largest metamorphosis.1

[4] Beginning as early as 1200, pockets of diasporic Jews returned to settle in the Land of Israel. Expulsion from Palestine and religious persecution were the primary reasons for Jewish resettlement in Israel. In the 1930s, conditions for Jews in Europe were becoming horrific. The period known as the Fifth Aliyah (1929–1939) saw 250,000 Jews immigrate to Israel in search of refuge.2 The idea of Israel as a place of refuge for persecuted Jews had great implications: with the ingathering of so many people comes the assemblage of a great quantity of diverse backgrounds. These new Israelis likely had very little in common, but what they all shared was their Jewish heritage and common struggles. Their collective desire to overcome adversity ultimately led to the unification of these post-diasporic Jews into a single nation and culture.

[5] Diasporic Jewish communities developed unique musical sounds, styles and traditions over the past centuries. In order to build a reunited nation, it was necessary to create a "national school" of music. As a result, several composers during the mid-1900s tried to create a national style of music for Israel; this process generally involved some sort of hybridization of Eastern and Western music. In this article I will discuss the compositional achievements of one composer: Paul Ben-Haim, one of the most successful composers of his generation in bringing about a fusion between music of the East and West.

The Life of Composer Paul Ben-Haim

[6] Paul Ben-Haim was born as Paul Frankenburger in Munich, Germany on July 5, 1897. His musical studies began on the violin, but he turned to the piano at age eleven because of its capability to produce multiple sounds at once. Ben-Haim's earliest compositions date to around 1910—mostly Lieder, very much influenced by the songs of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Robert Schumann. By 1920, Frankenburger had begun composing larger works. Still, the influence of late Romantic-era composers was quite evident.

[7] From 1924 to 1931, Paul Frankenburger worked as Kapellmeister at the Augsburg Opera House. Anti-Semitism was on the rise in Germany and intolerance of Jews was quickly building. German-Jewish composers responded to this prejudice in different ways. According to Philip V. Bohlman, "In Mahler, Schoenberg and Weill we see different forms of resistance, which were rather more circuitous routes to Jewish identity. Ben-Haim, however, did not seek a musical voice of resistance but, rather, one that shortened his route to a Jewish identity."3 It was during this period that Frankenburger began to write music that could explicitly be called Jewish.

[8] As Hitler assumed power in Germany, it became clear to Frankenburger that he should leave for Palestine, which became the preferred place for persecuted Jews to take refuge. He moved to Tel-Aviv in late 1933 after having spent six weeks in Palestine on a tourist visa. During his initial visit he changed his last name to Ben-Haim to avoid being discovered as a paid accompanist—one condition for a tourist visa was that he would "not seek any employment in Palestine, and will refuse any employment offered."4 This experience proved to be valuable, for upon Ben-Haim's immigration to Palestine he was immediately able to find work as a private piano teacher, a music theory instructor at the Shulamit Conservatory, and a performing pianist.

[9] An interest in cultivating a national music style had arisen. Initially brought on by the Palestine Broadcasting Service, there was an unspoken request for the composers who had settled in Palestine in the 1930s to create a specifically Jewish-Palestinian musical repertoire. The Broadcasting Service provided a way for composers to present their works before an audience. Music critics, however, were not satisfied with the first musical outpourings, disappointed with the foreign influence5 that stood in the way of pure Jewish flavor. The task set before these composers is stated well by one such music critic, Professor David Schorr: "In short, the national Jewish composer must sweep from his path many obstacles, while coping with audience apathy and lack of enthusiasm for Hebrew music."6

[10] When Paul Ben-Haim returned to composition, he worked tirelessly at capturing the essence of Jewish melodies. As part of the process, Ben-Haim avoided melodies of German influence, and began writing modal melodies like those of Debussy and Ravel. Before long, his melodies turned even further from his German roots. In a review of Johoash Hirshberg's biography of Ben-Haim, Philip Bohlman comments that, "Ben-Haim found himself pulled in various directions by the other immigrant composers, some drawing on an aesthetic of the biblical past, others assembling a bricolage out of the many sounds of the ethnic Jewish in-gathering and the historical Arab presence in the eastern Mediterranean."7 Ben-Haim began using folk tunes and other melodies known to have descended from Oriental8 Jewish groups, such as the Arab peasant song Moladeti, Erets Kena'an ("My Homeland, the Land of Canaan"), which he used as the theme in his Variations on a Hebrew Theme. To Ben-Haim, melodies originating from pockets of Oriental and Sephardic Jews appear to have encompassed the essence of Jewish tunes.

[11] Ben-Haim not only created a more ethnic flavor in his music with his melodic construction, but he also simulated timbres on Western instruments to reflect local sounds. An early example of this exists in the piano accompaniment of Variations, where he juxtaposes major and minor seconds, imitating the sound of indigenous, Middle-Eastern plucked string instruments.9

[12] Although the melodic contour and the aural effect of Variations are evocative of the Middle East, the expertise of Ben-Haim as a classically-trained European musician is evident. The imitative relationship between the piano and the violin are a reflection of Baroque contrapuntal writing. As a result, Variations on a Hebrew Theme proves to be an excellent example of Ben-Haim's ability to create a hybrid musical style, one that essentially softens the severity of Western influence within an Eastern locale.

[13] Paul Ben-Haim's inclination toward hybridization grew stronger in the following years. In 1939, he met and began working with Bracha Zefira. Zefira, born into a Yemenite family in Jerusalem, was orphaned at a young age. She lived among several different communities in her youth, where she was exposed to many songs of the Yemenite, Sephardic and Persian Jewish traditions.10 When she was sixteen, she was sent to a music school in Jerusalem, which was staffed primarily with European-trained musicians. While in music school, Zefira developed a love for singing—especially singing the songs from her youth. She became passionate about sharing these songs with audiences of Western orientation and, through the 1930s and 1940s, she was a well-respected vocalist who performed folk, popular and art music in a style that has been dubbed "ethnic-fusion."11 Part of Zefira's success was due to the help of gifted accompanists, such as Paul Ben-Haim.

[14] Ben-Haim was not only Zefira's accompanist, he was also responsible for arranging many of her songs. In most cases, he first had to transcribe her melodies into Western musical notation. Zefira's melodies stemmed from Sephardic, Persian, Bucharan, Yemenite, Turkish and Syrian traditions, which complicated the arrangements due to the frequency of unmeasured meters and rhythms and non-tempered intervals. Ben-Haim would add either piano or a small instrumental ensemble to the melodies, creating an accompaniment in a style, texture and timbre that seemed best suited for each tune.

[15] The relationship between Zefira and Ben-Haim was symbiotic: Zefira was able to share her music with an audience that would likely not have listened to her in any other context. She also had a tremendous influence on the development of a local Israeli school of composition.12 Ben-Haim, on the other hand, was introduced to a large repertoire of authentic Middle-Eastern melodies. Again, the idea of a hybrid form of music is brought to fruition. Eastern melodies, which were altered slightly to sound more Western, were combined with Western harmonies, which were altered in kind to sound more Eastern.

[16] Zefira's melodies had a lasting influence on Ben-Haim. He continued to use her songs in his compositions throughout his musical career. It is no surprise that he became one of the most recognized leaders of the Eastern Mediterranean school of composition. According to Bohlman, the Eastern Mediterranean school was a movement that "sought a musical language that included dialects from Greece, Turkey and the Arab areas of the Middle East, as well as from the Oriental Jewish groups. More specific, however, was the focus on Sephardic and Yemenite Jewish musics, especially the latter, which was thought to symbolize the most ancient Jewish traditions."13

Jewish Influences in the Music of Paul Ben-Haim

[17] Three pieces strongly illustrate Ben-Haim's success in creating a repertoire of nationally recognized Jewish music: Three Songs Without Words, For Israel and The Sweet Psalmist of Israel. Three Songs Without Words was originally written for solo voice with piano accompaniment. It comprises three movements: "Arioso," "Ballad" and "Sephardic Melody." Each movement evokes a particular mood, with the melodies acting as the driving force of the composition. In this piece, Ben-Haim is able to both create his own melodies in an oriental style, as with the "Arioso" and "Ballad," and to set a pre-existing Sephardic folk tune. Ben-Haim later wrote versions of Songs for various solo instruments with piano accompaniment.

[18] The importance of From Israel is clearly stated in a publication of Israeli Music Publications Limited honoring Ben-Haim's 70th birthday. This orchestral suite, according to the publishers,

"pursues—and attains—its aim at creating an Eastern-Mediterranean musical atmosphere in the most consistent way. Ben-Haim's melodic lines are not conceived in micro-tones (as are the melodies of the Near-Eastern countries) but he creates the atmosphere of oriental singing and playing by moving around certain important melodic notes and by embroidering his motives melodically."14

The direct influence of authentic local traditions is once again apparent with the inclusion of a movement entitled, "Yemenite Tune." Ben-Haim also creates an Eastern-Mediterranean atmosphere with his choice of instruments. In addition to the central body of stringed instruments, he adds harp and harpsichord. The exotic sound these instruments create when played simultaneously adds to the ethnic impression of the music.

[19] In The Sweet Psalmist of Israel, Ben-Haim once again orchestrates for harp and harpsichord in addition to a fairly standard orchestral ensemble. In this piece, however, the harp and harpsichord serve as solo instruments, perhaps to depict the sound of the ancient harp or lyre. This piece has been recognized by Israeli Music Publications Limited as Ben-Haim's most "outstanding work in linking the music of East and West."15

Hybridization in the Music of Ben-Haim

[20] Although Ben-Haim moved away from Western-European influence in his composition and replaced it with influence of the local music styles of Israel, there must be a part of his music that reflects his original compositional style if his music is truly to be considered a form of hybridization. There is, in fact, some carry-over from his early style, and it seems to be most prominent in the musical forms he used in his compositions. Two examples of this have already been cited: his use of imitative counterpoint, and his composition of Three Songs Without Words. However, Ben-Haim's body of work also comprises suites, quartets, variations, concertos and sonatas. Bohlman provides support for this observation saying,

"on the surface there is greater attention to programmatic aspects, with certain passages intentionally evoking images of the landscape of Palestine. The frequent use of open harmonies and parallel treatment of fourths and fifths reveal the co-opting of techniques from Impressionism, but the larger formal structures clearly derive from Central European traditions."16

[21] The idea of hybridization as presented here may best be understood by relating it to a broad framework of musical change given by Bruno Nettl in a journal article in 1978.17 Although Nettl's framework is built upon non-Western responses to Western music, it is possible to view Ben-Haim's response to non-Western music in similar terms. For example, Nettl speaks of one possible response being "consolidation," citing that "this has occurred often as a function of the creation of nation-states."18 Nettl later provides an example of some African musicians "whose purpose is to create a nationally recognized music from a number of once more distinct traditions."19 These comments concerning consolidation strongly reflect the actions of Ben-Haim and various other Jewish-Israeli composers of the time.

[22] In even broader terms, Nettl refers to three "overarching responses"20 to Western music: syncretism, westernization and modernization. The term that may be the most useful in explaining Ben-Haim's work is syncretism, or a "fusion of elements from diverse cultural sources."21 Again, the term anticipates a non-Western response to Western music, but one cannot ignore the attempts of Ben-Haim to fuse together elements of German music with the local music in Israel.

[23] Once Paul Ben-Haim settled in Palestine, his compositional work centered on creating a Jewish musical idiom that could serve as a national standard. One can gather from merely skimming over the titles on his list of works that he succeeded in this goal. To the average listener, there is something in his music that sounds "Jewish." Having poured his energy into creating a national music style, Ben-Haim and his music are a treasure for the music critics who have been searching for a genuine Israeli composer. Ben-Haim is by no means the only German-born Jewish-Israeli composer to have attempted such a task, but he is without doubt one of the most successful.

Selected Bibliography

Bohlman, Philip V. "The Immigrant Composer in Palestine, 1933–1948: Stranger in a Strange Land." Asian Music. 17, no. 2 (1986): 147–167.

———. "Review: Paul Ben-Haim: His Life and Works, by Jehoash Hirshberg." Music and Letters. 74, no. 1 (1993): 124–126.

Edelman, Marsha Bryan. Discovering Jewish Music. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2003.

Flam, Gila. "Beracha Zefira—A Case Study of Acculturation in Israeli Song." Asian Music. 17, no. 2 (1986): 108–125.

Hirshberg, Jehoash. Paul Ben-Haim: His Life and Works. Jerusalem: Israeli Music Publications Ltd., 1990.

Israeli Music Publications Limited. Paul Ben-Haim. Tel Aviv, 1967.

Kanarfogel, Ephraim. "The Aliyah of 'Three Hundred Rabbis' in 1211: Tosafist Attitudes Toward Settling in the Land of Israel." The Jewish Quarterly Review. 76, no. 3 (1986): 191–215.

Nettl, Bruno. "Some Aspects of the History of World Music in the Twentieth Century: Questions, Problems, and Concepts." Ethnomusicology. 22, no. 1 (1978): 123–136.


1 Philip V. Bohlman, "Review: Paul Ben-Haim: His Life and Works, by Jehoash Hirshberg,"Music and Letters 74, no. 1 (1993): 155.

2 Ephraim Kanarfogel, "The Aliyah of 'Three Hundred Rabbis' in 1211: Tosafist Attitudes Toward Settling in the Land of Israel," The Jewish Quarterly Review 76, no. 3 (1986): 193.

3 Bohlman (1993), 125.

4 Jehoash Hirshberg, Paul Ben-Haim: His Life and Works (Jerusalem: Israeli Music Publications Ltd., 1990), 101.

5 This "foreign" influence seems to be primarily associated with "German" influence, which connotes the oppression that so many Central European Jews faced prior to their immigration to Israel.

6 Ha'aretz, 27 March 1935, quoted in Hirshberg, 140.

7 Bohlman (1993), 125.

8 The aural essence of the melodies of "Oriental" Jews may appropriately be described as "indiginous to the Middle East," "local," or "ethnic" to avoid any negative connotations unjustly assigned to the term "oriental." When speaking specifically about the "Oriental" Jews (as opposed to "Sephardic" or "Ashkenazic"), I will continue to use the term, "oriental."

9 Hirshberg, 157–8.

10 Gila Flam, "Beracha Zefira—A Case Study of Acculturation in Israeli Song," Asian Music 17, no. 2 (1986): 108.

11 Ibid., 111.

12 Though it is not made explicitly clear, I assume Flam is referring to the "Eastern Mediterranean" school. See Flam, 108.

13 Philip V. Bohlman, "The Immigrant Composer in Palestine, 1933–1948: Stranger in a Strange Land," Asian Music 17, no. 2 (1986): 155.

14 Israeli Music Publications Limited, Paul Ben-Haim (Tel Aviv, 1967), 7. This short biography and appreciation was published on the occasion of the composer's 70th birthday.

15 Ibid., 9.

16 Bohlman (1986), 156.

17 Bruno Nettl, "Some Aspects of the History of World Music in the Twentieth Century: Questions, Problems, and Concepts," Ethnomusicology 22, no. 1 (1978).

18 Nettl, 132.

19 Ibid., 132.

20 Ibid., 133.

21 Ibid., 133. This definition for syncretism originates from the Encyclopedia Britannica and is cited by Nettl in his article.