The Boy From the Sticks Wrote a Masterpiece

Composer Joseph Tal talks about finding his place in a world in which ostracism preceded recognition.

Years ago, it was subjected to ridicule and relegated to the back shelves of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra library. Now even his adversaries admit that Josef Tal's Second Symphony is a masterpiece.

He composed it in 1960, employing the 12-tone composition technique developed by Arnold Schnberg. And Tal was branded an outsider by a society that yearned for an authentic Israeli musical culture, without imported European ideals of style.

Tal says starting on this composition was a turning point in his oeuvre, in which he began using the new technique. The work is being offered in the current Israeli Music Days, the Zman Achshav Biennale and the Asian Composers Festival so aficionados may listen to the work once more (today at the Jerusalem Theater, with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra conducted by Doron Solomon). In Tal's opinion - as expressed in a conversation with him - this is not the perfect opportunity.

"Look at the company in which my symphony is being played," says Tal while looking at the program, in which appear works by composers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Korea. "I couldn't understand what it was doing there, until I figured it out. I am included in the program because this is a festival of Asian music. And we, too, are in Asia. Meaning that I've become an Asian yekke (nickname for German Jew)! But what is Asian or Israeli music? Qu'est-que c'est? I heard the supposed Asians when I was in Japan, and they played Bach and Mozart better than a lot of Europeans."

Behind his amused tone is a history of immigration, changing nationality and music. Tal turned 94 in September, and recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of his arrival in Palestine. Beginning with the 1940s, at the height of the dispute over the existence of an Israeli style (which after the ideas of composer Alexander Boscovich was sometimes called Mediterranean), Tal took an unpopular stand, which negated any national tendencies in music. He considered himself an individual: the Berliner Josef Gruenthal, for whom no ideology would alter either his heritage or personality. This sense of alienation was a constant part of him. "You no doubt remember that Schnberg was offered to come here and direct the Academy of Music," he says. "It's lucky he didn't come."

Why lucky?

"Because they would have killed him, if he hadn't killed himself first. His was not Jewish music nor Israeli music, and that was the only thing they wanted here."

You didn't write Israeli music?

"What's Israeli music? Define it!"

Boscovich tried to define it.

"And we saw what fate befell his famous definition. He himself eventually wrote in 12 tones. And he wasn't the only one. There were a lot of sacrifices to this ideology, of Israeliness in music at any price. In the end, I was accepted in Israel: as a pianist, as a lecturer, but not as a composer. My music was not accepted, just as the yekkes were not accepted in Israel. It was admired, yes, but only from the technical side."

Maybe because you are an avant-gardist?

"What is `avant-garde'?" Tal demands, frightened at hearing yet another stylistic label. "Listen, Bach and Pachelbel were candidates for the prestigious position at the St. Nicholas Church in Hamburg. And who got the job? Pachelbel, because Bach was considered peculiar and difficult, terms that came before modern and avant-garde. He was disqualified, and justly so. You cannot ask everyone to understand his innovative nature. Let me ask you, in your opinion is Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata avant-garde?"

Maybe the first movement. Yes. "Ah, a diplomatic answer. You should know that the entire sonata is avant-garde, which is why the publisher gave it that name, so that everyone would have the appropriate associations when they heard it. Otherwise, no one would have bought the sheet music."

A cantor who improvised

Tal did not come from a musical family. His father was the rabbi of Poznan in Poland and an expert on ancient Semitic languages, before becoming the director of an orphanage in Berlin ("He never differentiated between his biological children and his orphans, meaning that I always lived among 30 brothers and sisters," relates Tal.) He was introduced to music primarily from listening to the synagogue choir and his grandfather, a cantor.

"He was a craftsman in the fur trade, and a cantor, too, even though he never studied. He had an amazing voice, and he was sought after throughout the area because he only sang melodies that he created and improvised on the spot. Evidently, they fascinated the audience. Maybe there is something holy about the well-known melodies, but my grandfather knew how to sing what everyone wanted to express, but couldn't. Which is why he was closer to God than the other cantors."

At age 17, Josef Tal was accepted at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik, where he studied with the greatest musicians in the world, including Paul Hindemith and Curt Sachs. "It was the most highly rated institution of its kind in the world - each year, only seven out of about 100 candidates were accepted. In the test, I had to improvise on a musical subject. It wasn't a big problem for me, because I'd learned everything by improvising, and I was a decent pianist. When I was through, one of the examiners said, unkindly: `That was la Beethoven, no?' Modernism was the height of fashion at that time, and my classical improvisation was seen as belonging to ancient history. I asked: `Should I take that as a compliment?' All of the judges, including Hindemith, started laughing. With this impertinent question, I'd touched directly on the wound: On the basis of what can a musician be judged during a period of the avant-garde and innovation? How were they supposed to decide who would be accepted and who not, according to which criteria? Evidently they didn't know, so I was accepted; however, I did understand that I was from the provinces, that I knew nothing, and in order for me to advance, I had to learn a new, atonal, musical language. That was my entree into the world of 20th century music.

"In those years, when Schnberg came to Berlin from Vienna, they began talking about his 12-tone method, and I learned it, too. I once again felt like someone who has to forget his mother tongue and learn another language. I was interested by the technique, as well as the philosophy behind it. I realized that just like in traditional music, the composition technique does not ensure good music, but nor does it decree that the music will be awful."

In the early 1930s, Jews began to be expelled from the Hochschule, and Tal was among the last students who managed to complete their studies. His father, sister and her family were later sent to Auschwitz. His sister's family survived, but his father was killed.

"After the war, I once again needed to learn a new language," recalls Tal, "the serial technique, which became popular in Europe in the 1950s. After it, there were more styles. Every 15 years, I learned a new style in music, and I composed in all of them, because all of them fascinated me. This variation reflects the 20th century. It could have happened only to someone who lived the entire length of this century, like me, stubborn guy that I am. This is why I see my works as autobiographical: Although a new edition of my written autobiography will be coming out in Germany next spring, music is still my true life story."

Although Tal is deterred at using Israeli lingual expressions, and remains faithful to his European stylistic heritage, most of his vocal compositions were based on Jewish and Israeli subjects: From the Bible and from history, from literature and Hebrew poetry. Nathan Zach, Israel Eliraz, Nathan Yonatan, Else Lasker-Schiller - these are only a few of the writers whose texts were put to music by Josef Tal.

Among his compositions: The poem "The Death of Moses," the "Sukkot Cantata," "Parade of the Fallen" based on a text by Haim Hefer and "Dream of the Circles" based on Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav; no fewer than 1 operas and dramatic scenes, from "Saul at Ein Dor" (1957) to "Ashmedai," "Masada," "Backyard" and "Joseph" in 1995; and dozens of compositions for every possible instrumental ensemble.

Tal also made his mark in the Israeli academic world, as director of the Rubin Academy of Music and as head of the Department of Musicology at the Hebrew University. He won numerous awards all over the world, including the Wolff Prize and in 1971, the Israel Prize. He was named a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France.

His modernism was also expressed through his pioneering work in electronic music in Israel.

"Electronic music is the new direction," he says. "In electronic composition you have to educate the mind to think in a completely new way, and therefore this style is still undeveloped, like a baby."

But hasn't this dream of electronic music as a revolution in musical language ended?

"How long has it been since this music began? Half a century? That's nothing. Certainly not enough to decide that it has no future. We've had written musical notation for a thousand years, but look how long it took for it to culminate in the partitures of Mahler and Stravinsky.

"In electronic music, it's not only a matter of time - the entire way of thinking is altogether different. It's only too bad that some of the composers in this discipline busy themselves with technology, not music. All of the emotion gets lost."

Can you really express human emotion with electronics?

"Really now. From where does the human emotion that affects you so much in Beethoven's Fifth come? It comes from familiarity with the style. People from other cultures wouldn't be able to sense the emotion in Beethoven without learning it, and the same holds true for the Westerner listening to Eastern music. I remember hearing the instrumental ensemble of a Kabuki theater in Japan. They play without notes, producing sounds you couldn't imagine, and which you could not reproduce. Sounds that are gentle, incredibly rich in language, with thousands of expressions. If they weren't explained to me, I could never reach the emotional response that I reached. And the opposite is true. Even the simplest major-scale composition would not be understood by anyone to whom Western culture is alien."

If so, music is intended only to the fortunate few who study it, and who are willing to enlist emotionally in order to experience it.

"Look pal, do you read Schoepenhauer or Kant? Maybe you read a newspaper every day, but that is still far from what is needed to read and understand these philosophies. By the same token, there is need for a background in order to understand music."

Are you composing now?

"It's very hard for me, because of my eyesight. I wrote a composition for solo viola for Tabea Zimmerman and she played it in Berlin. Since then, I added a composition for solo voice. I'm not physically capable of taking in a whole partiture with my eyesight. Only a single melodic line. It's a tragedy but who am I going to complain to?"

Maybe nature.

Tal laughs. "Can you tell me who that is?"

And are you interested in music being written today?

"What would I be if I were not interested in the music of the present? Isn't that the essence of my entire life? But what really interests me is not this music or the music of the past, but that of the Third Millennium, the future, the place we are going to."