Dissonance: The Clash of Cultures That Produced Israeli Art Music

European Jewish composers came to Palestine knowing nothing about Zionism, yet they were expected to ring its bells, says author of new work of history.

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Assaf Shelleg: Saw that his doctorate on Jewish music was a prehistory of Israeli music.Credit: Emil Salman

“Jewish Contiguities and the Soundtrack of Israeli History” (University of Oxford), a new book by young Israeli musicologist Assaf Shelleg, brought him back to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, the first institution where he taught in the United States.

“There are 70,000 Jews in the area, and the conflict is very important to them,” he says. “For many Jews the perception of Israel is Orientalist utopian, and the wars are what punctuate history for them: Everything is subordinate to militarism. I wanted to show them how we really look, and the concept was to teach the history of the culture. I said to myself, There’s no way that I won’t dwell on Israel’s music and art; after all, we don’t have only ‘new historians.’ And I’ll punctuate the study of Israel with culture.”

He says that the students there had to undergo a process of unlearning. “I taught them [the early Land of Israel song] ‘Beautiful Nights of Canaan.’ The words are by Yitzhak Katznelson about Canaan – in other words, inspired by the Bible, which at the time served as a symbolic bridge from the Jewish sources to Zionism – and the music is an erotic Bedouin folksong, with more than a hint of a woman’s sexuality. It’s Jewish-Arab exoticism, which was born long before the conflict, and through it we understand that the major clash between us is not territorial, but mythological. This understanding forced me to be multidisciplinary. To look at history through other fields of knowledge: poetry, music and literature. And when you examine it that way, the binary definitions collapse.”

Andre Hajdu: Reads rabbinical texts and sets them to music.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

After returning with his family to Israel after a long stay in the United States, where until recently he was a professor of musicology and Jewish studies in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Virginia, he taught at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University, where he has now been appointed a researcher.

Shelleg was born in Petah Tikva in 1974 to Moroccan-born parents, and wrote his doctorate about Jewish art music in Europe, where it originated. He explains that historically, so-called “art” music is music written in notes that grew from within the classical tradition and is based on theoretical and structural formulas.

In his study of Jewish art music he touched on the Jewish composers in Europe in the early 20th century, including, for example, Arnold Schoenberg of Austria, Ernest Bloch of Switzerland, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco of Italy and Darius Milhaud of France, as well as Jewish composers from Russia, members of the St. Petersburg School (some of whom came to Palestine, such as Joel Engel).

Paul Ben HaimCredit: No credit

What is the meaning of a “Jewish composer”?

“Ironically, both philo-Semitic studies and the anti-Semitic Nazi music lexicon defined Jewish composers similarly, based on external characteristics of their music. That’s why I didn’t want to talk about “Jewish” or “non-Jewish.” After all, the composers themselves were strangers to their Jewishness: They didn’t know Hebrew, were not familiar with Jewish liturgy, perhaps only on Yom Kippur.

“For example, after Ernest Bloch visited a synagogue, he didn’t speak at all about the music he had heard, but about how threatened he felt by the strangeness surrounding him. Bloch’s intellectual handling of Jewish symbols was based on very few critical tools and very little knowledge of the culture with which he wanted to identify musically. Only later on, with Leonard Bernstein, did we get a generation of composers who really knew – a fairly small group that grew up with Jewish music.”

Shelleg’s research led him to insights about the significance of Jewish music as the source of Israeli art music: “The day I finished my doctorate I understood: Oops – I’ve written the prehistory of Israeli music! It began already with the importing of the tensions between modernism and romantic nationalism in Europe, and the foreignness of Jewish composers who knew nothing at all about Zionism, and despite that were expected to ring its bells.

“Ostensibly the most successful of them was Paul Ben Haim. The Yemenite element, for example, in his music and that of members of his generation is amended with a Western hand, it undergoes modernization – which is what was also demanded of the Arab Jewish immigrants: to be secular and modern. Precisely what they were not.

“This demand reflected a binary concept in our culture: What is secular is modern, and what is religious – pre-modern. There was presumably an ingathering of exiles: Jerusalem, Yemen, Persia – these exiles came together in European music. Come and be Zionists, was the message, but like us. Give up your identity. And you can hear that in the music. Every citation of Ben Haim confirms the intra-Zionist hierarchy between whites and blacks, Europeans and Arab Jews, Jews and Arabs.”

And were there any exceptions?

“There were. Josef Tal for example. He couldn’t switch over from being oppressed – a Jew in Germany in the 1920s – to being an oppressor. Tal was a modernist, and at the same time, in the spirit of his legacy from Schoenberg, he didn’t favor severance from the past, and did it only for the purpose of dismantling the discourse from within. Instead of being nationalistic, his style was non-nationalistic, instead of tonal – non-tonal. Andre Hajdu is also different. He’s the only composer in the world who can read rabbinical texts on his own and set them to music. In him you can see how the liturgical sources are stronger than the nationalist arguments.

“And when nationalism collapses there’s no such thing as ‘Jew’ versus ‘non-Jew,’ but rather a dialectical movement. Composers such as Tal, Alexander Boskovitz, Tzvi Avni or Hajdu understood that in order to leave the ghetto of nationalist discourse they had to abandon the direct historical line that leads from destruction to redemption, and in its stead adopt a musical syntax that would be the common denominator for the two forces: Arab Jewish music and modernist composition.

“When the European collapses, it is replaced by the mythical East, the Arab Jewish musical culture – and this time not as a citation. The tendency was to objectify non-Western music, in other words to use Eastern liturgical musical sources in Western works. Objectification means turning the Arab Jewish source into a Western image of the East by means of a tonal filter that distorts it.”

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