All Hail the King

A tribute to Moshe Wilensky (1910-1997 ), the man who gave Israeli culture its sound, on the centennial of his birth.

The thickest layer of rust accumulates on that which is taken for granted. During his lifetime, Moshe Wilensky's name and songs became the most taken-for-granted things in the world of Israeli music. From the early 1930s until the 1980s, close to 1,500 songs flowed from his pen, and for an entire generation, hardly a day went by when at least one of his compositions wasn't heard on the radio. The music accompanying most of the famous hora dances was his, as were Tel Aviv cabaret songs, the works performed by the army's Nahal entertainment troupe in its heyday, some of the most memorable songs of 1948, and the children's tunes we all sang in nursery school.

Moshe Shai

It almost seemed as if all these weren't created by a specific person, rather that they just materialized somehow out of thin air. Indeed, Wilensky was so ubiquitous he was invisible. Even when combined with collaborators: Alterman-Wilensky, Hefer-Wilensky, Mohar-Wilensky, Almagor-Wilensky and, of course, Shoshana Damari-Moshe Wilensky, the name always had something in common with the chirping of birds, the honking of car horns, the prattle of the news, the daily Bible verse and all of life's other eternally repetitive sounds.

Wilensky was to Israeli culture what Irving Berlin was to American culture: He gave it its sound. Neither invented the "song" which they brought to its ultimate form per se, but both gave it that refinement and polish that elevate it to the most sophisticated and perfectly realized plane. And above all: Both connected it to the world, to what lay beyond their particular place in space and time. Wilensky did not achieve personal wealth on a par with Berlin, of course, but in every other aspect he is at least his equal. And when it comes to melody - the very essence of song - he surpasses him by far.

Like most Israeli composers in the heroic era of zionism, Wilensky was not born in Israel and his musical world was not shaped here. But unlike most of these composers, he received a very advanced and refined musical education at the Warsaw Conservatory, where he specialized in composition and conducting. This background, combined with his extraordinary talent and his brilliant mind, made him, after his immigration to Palestine, the most sophisticated musician in these parts.

Wilensky belonged to a special group of Jewish musicians born in Central and Eastern Europe, who were trained there, educated in that spirit and then immigrated (or fled ) westward, in many cases to America, where they found their place in the culture and entertainment industry. Some of them became renowned composers in Hollywood's glory days - like Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman, Ernest Gold and Erich Wolfgang Korngold - and were involved in creating the "Hollywood sound." Because of them, this sound was derived from the post-Romantic European musical world. The influence of this sound and its attendant Wagnerian concepts on world cinema continues to resonate to this day. Wilensky belonged to this group and brought something similar to Israeli culture.

To understand his cleverness, one need listen not only to the melodies of his songs but to his orchestrations. The latter, in addition to showcasing his wonderful skill and inventiveness, reveal the composer's wide-ranging world of musical associations.

The subtle orchestration of "The Little Shepherd from the Valley" implies that this melody is not of the "Hora-hey-ho"-type, but rather an observation of the music's innocent past as viewed through the prism of urban modernism. The orchestration of "Kfar Sava Tango" shows that Wilensky added a musical joke to Alterman's verbal one: In order to highlight the discrepancy between the tango genre and the provincialism alluded to in the song's name (Alterman and Wilensky's keen awareness of the state of the Israeli entertainment industry is implicit here! ), he scored his tango in an especially grandiose, exaggerated and brilliant style, as if it were the accompaniment to a Broadway show in the Art Deco era.

Wilensky possessed a gift for musical humor. This humor is responsible not only for the abundance of ironic charm that suffuses his compositions for the Nahal entertainment troupe (his "Venezuela" is a sort of parody of the South American style of music, years before it became such a popular fashion; "The Pick-Up is Driving" is a joke on the Mizrahi-style "flute" songs, and so on ), but also for his attitude toward "song": Wilensky is never naive. He relates to song via the genre, from a distance, like Chopin to the waltz. As if such a thing once existed and he is resurrecting it from the dead.

Every song of his sounds completely different; each seems to have been created by a number of different composers. Wilensky was the king of composing "shmaltz" (such as Shoshana Damari's song "Once Upon a Time" ), as well as a champion of the Mizrahi Zionist style (such as "In the Vineyards of Yemen" and the wonderful "Gedalia" ) and was just as skillful in creating serious and hard-hitting works.

One of the most delicate, chill-inducing and significant examples in the history of Israeli song was also composed by Wilensky. This is "Sabbath Eve Song" (to words by Yehuda Amichai ), which was performed so beautifully by Nurit Galron, and more recently by Rona Keinan. The relation between the melody and the lyrics is tense here, charged and quite rich, and in it Wilensky showed that his thinking with respect to Israeli connectedness per se wasn't made up solely of symbolic simplification, as in "The Final Battle," but was also finely attuned to the prevailing mood - to a completely credible and intimate local discourse.

The fundamental distinction between art and entertainment should sometimes (infrequently ) be dissolved, not because of the total blurring of these spheres, but because it sometimes happens that the creative level in an item of entertainment is so high and the work is so exceptional that it transcends its concrete, temporary context and reveals itself as possessed of genuine art, even if it did not originally aspire to that.

This is easily demonstrated by several of the songs that Wilensky wrote for the Nahal troupe. The lyrics of "My Outpost" (by Yehiel Mohar ) no longer speak to anyone: The context in which the song was written is long gone, a thing of the past. But the music is still riveting. It pulses with a tremendous speed and overflows with brilliant ideas. If it were to be played just on string instruments, without vocals, its unique power would be instantly apparent. Or "Before Mount Sinai" (Mohar again ), that remnant of Ben-Gurion's messianic exhortations at the time of the Sinai Campaign. The lyrics are quite possibly the most hollow of any Hebrew song. But the music? Wilensky wrote it for several voices (as he sometimes did when writing for the Nahal troupe ) and hinted at a most magnificent modernist-liturgical style. He created musical ecstasy.

There is nothing coarse, overheated or superficial about it. If these sounds were to be integrated instead with the words to some ancient Hebrew liturgical poem, or to "find redemption" in tandem with other witty lyrics - the real and surprising power of the music Wilensky gave to the song would become evident.

When the rust of the overly familiar is scraped away, the presence that was hidden beneath shines through in all its dazzling splendor. In Wilensky's case, not only have we taken his brilliance, charm, passion, prolificacy and inventiveness for granted, we haven't even begun to understand it.