The Munich Motet Choir
The Munich Motet Choir. After it was composed, Ben Haim’s oratorio was not performed for 45 years.
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Composer Paul Ben Haim, one of the fathers of Israeli music.
Composer Paul Ben Haim, one of the fathers of Israeli music.

Sometimes an unknown work is rescued from oblivion and performed at a concert before an audience. Usually it's a minor work that somehow eluded the catalog and was stuck in a drawer of some unimportant library, and its eventual discovery and performance mark the end of a painstaking process of collecting all of a composer's oeuvre.

It is therefore fascinating to see a major piece rescued in this way - especially when it is not simply "big," but a magnum opus. Indeed, that was the opinion of Paul Ben Haim, one of the fathers of Israeli music, regarding his oratorio "Joram." And now, almost 80 years after its completion, and for the first time in a complete and professional rendition (it was performed in part over 30 years ago ), the oratorio will be staged in Israel as part of a grand project - featuring the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a guest choir from Germany, the Munich Motet Choir, with dozens of singers and soloists - thanks to government and private donations. The vocalists are even paying about 350 euros each toward the cost of their visit here. A performance is being held at a special price on Tuesday at 8:30 P.M., at the Smolarz auditorium at Tel Aviv University.

Why wasn't "Joram" performed in its day, despite the fact that Ben-Haim was one of the most important composers of his time and place? History provides the answer to that question: On the large score, Ben-Haim wrote the place and date of completion: "Munich, February 1933" - the month Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Ben-Haim was destined to be ousted as a driving force in the musical life of that country.

The composer had already received a clear indication of what was about to happen two years earlier: Ben-Haim, whose name at the time was Paul Frankenburger, served until 1931 as the musical director (kapellmeister ) of the Augsburg Opera House, when he was dismissed from there with all his Jewish colleagues. The young composer, 34 years old at the time, returned to his family in his hometown of Munich, and began work on "Joram," a piece that he had dreamed of composing since his youth. But when it was completed the Nazis came to power, and the oratorio had no chance of being performed.

When he inscribed the date of its completion, Ben-Haim didn't even dream that that same year he would leave Munich and Germany, would move to Palestine in the Middle East, and his life would change drastically.

And the oratorio "Joram"? Ben-Haim shelved it. The score was packed into a large crate and forgotten.

Some 40 years passed, and a young Israeli musicologist who had just received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and returned to Israel to lecture in the musicology department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was given a suggestion: to write a biography of Ben-Haim.

"That invitation, and the work on the book, changed my life," says Prof. Jehoash Hirshberg who, over the years, has become a central figure in the world of music in Israel - a senior researcher in varied fields, a teacher of generations of students, the recipient of important awards, and an important member of the academic community.

"I immediately made contact with Ben-Haim," the professor recalls now. "He had recently had a traffic accident: In 1972 he was invited to Munich in honor of his 75th birthday and was run over in the street by a passing car. He remained disabled, in a wheelchair, and depressed after having been a very active person. Among other things, he used to walk along the beach every morning. That's how I met him."

Hirshberg then began to research Ben-Haim's music. "'What did you write in Germany?' I asked him. And Ben-Haim replied 'It's not important.' I didn't give up and then he asked his wife to show me several crates he had brought with him from Germany. There was a tremendous amount of material there. All his papers were preserved, everything was documented, every taxi and laundry receipt.

"And after I threw out all that, a treasure remained: poems by Bialik, music for all types of performances - an entire body of an earlier work. 'Is that all?' I asked, and he led me to more crates on the balcony, containing valuable letters - for example, correspondence between him and violinist Yehudi Menuhin and conductor Leopold Stokowski, and songs he had composed at an early age. Everything was there. And then we discovered a huge score: the oratorio 'Joram.'"

Jehoash Hirshberg realized that he had was now involved in a rescue project. He contacted Prof. Israel Adler of the Hebrew University musicology department, the director of music department of the National Sound Archive, and arranged a meeting between him and Ben-Haim. The composer agreed to transfer his works to the archive. And the very next day Adler approached Hirshberg, who says, "Today this entire huge collection of work is safely entrenched in the national archive, cataloged and computerized. That's how I started working on 'Joram.'"

Suffering of humanity

"The Book of Joram," which so fascinated the young Paul Frankenburger, was written by a German poet named Rudolf Borchardt, who was born in 1877 to a Protestant family of Jewish origin. The book is based on the Book of Job: Joram is a victim of a series of disasters imposed upon him by God - among others the destruction of his family and his sale into slavery in a distant land. In the end Joram is redeemed from his sufferings, among other things during an argument with God in which the deity is revealed to him. Love is reignited between Joram and his wife, and the book ends with the birth of their son: a white-haired infant who is the messiah. Joram's suffering, therefore, is not only private: Inspired by the stories of the gospel from the New Testament, he bears the suffering of the messiah and of all of humanity.

"Ben-Haim found the path of compromise of Jewish existence in the German environment," explains Hirshberg. "His desire to strengthen his affiliation with German society was reflected in all the subjects of his works during that period - as for example in the poems 'A Boy's Magic Horn," which he set to music at the time. Such works symbolize a synthesis of Judaism and Christianity."

Ben-Haim shaped his work based on the Lutheran Passions, like Bach's St. Matthew Passion: It is a story sung by a tenor and other singers, who portray various roles. Songs from the Psalms, lovely finales, Baroque-like trumpet arias, Stravinsky-style neoclassical allusions, Romantic opera, Oriental elements, multivocal music inspired by the early Medieval period - all these are reflected in this fascinating work.

"In my opinion it was a last desperate attempt by Frankenburger to adhere to his German heritage after he was dismissed, and to confront the Nazism that was running riot in Munich," says Hirshberg. "He hoped that the ugly wave would pass quickly. But that didn't happen."

"Joram" remained in manuscript form and was not performed for 45 years: "This is a masterpiece," declares Hirshberg, "which is as good as Mendelssohn's 'Elijah' - a German oratorio that reflects the musical history from Bach's Passions up to the 20th century of Mahler and Strauss. Frankenburger grew up in Munich, it's not the Viennese or Berlin avant-garde, but Romantic German music.

"Ben-Haim had no intention of immigrating to Israel," adds Hirshberg. "He wasn't a Zionist, and only came to check out the situation here. Had it not been for the Holocaust, he would undoubtedly have become one of the greatest Bavarian composers. 'Life is all right,' he wrote from here to his father in 1933. 'We eat vegetables and dairy products, and in any case I'll be coming to Germany every two months in order to perform my works, and this is not a final decision.'"

In the end Ben-Haim remained alone in Palestine, after one of his brothers died from an illness, another brother was killed in World War I, his sister was sent to Auschwitz and his parents passed away.

The debut performance of "Joram," after Hirshberg rediscovered it, took place at the Spring Festival in Jerusalem, in April 1979. Ben-Haim came to the concert in a wheelchair, very excited, but, as Hirshberg recalls, the performance suffered from many mishaps: At the last minute the chorus' conductor, Aharon Harlap, replaced the original conductor, George Singer, who was already very old and weak at the time; the choir didn't prepare itself properly in advance, and the oratorio was performed with many omissions; there were sections when the orchestra played and the vocalists remained silent.

"But surprising things happen in life," says Hirshberg. "I was in Austria at an ethnomusicology convention, and by chance I met a woman from Munich who is a member of the Munich Motet Choir, and who convinced the conductor to rescue the work."

Hirshberg initiated and encouraged the performance of the work, and also lectured about it.

So in 2008, "Joram" received its world premiere in an authentic performance, and was rescued from oblivion. In the Philharmonie Hall in Munich and the church of Nuremberg (two major cities during the Nazi era ), and in the famous Frauenkirche church in Dresden - in each of these venues the oratorio was performed before thousands of people. Now Hirshberg has helped arrange the production by the Israeli Philharmonic, which as mentioned received generous donations from the Goethe Institute, among other places, and even from the president of Bavaria herself.

So it is that eight decades after it was composed, "Joram" will be heard in this country, too.