The Eretz Israel Style

      by Dr Yitzhak Yedid

   The Eretz Israel Style

From the 1940s to the 1960s, composers in Israel looked into ways of merging what was then called Oriental music with Western classical music. Arabic music was one of the genres of Oriental music. These composers include, German-born Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), Abel Ehrlich (1915-2003) and Ben-Zion Orgad (1926-2006), and Romanian-born Alexander Uriah Boskovitz (1907-1964), all of whom immigrated to Israel from western and eastern Europe to escape Nazi persecution prior to World War II (Kerm 1980). They brought to Israel a strict and well-defined German-European musical tradition. However, they aspired greatly to find their place in the music scene in Palestine/Eretz Israel (Land of Israel) of the time (Kerm 1980). Some were familiar with the folk music of Eastern Europe but the music that they called Oriental was new and unfamiliar to them. After exploring the components of Oriental music they dedicated their efforts to establishing a compositional style that some termed the Eretz Israel style. The Eretz Israel style comprises European concert classical music, but incorporates Middle Eastern elements, in particular Yemenite music (Kerm 1980). At that time many Jews were migrating from Yemen, and their music and culture took up an important place in Israel. Characteristics of Arabic music are represented in a number of works written by composers from Israel at that time. 


Israeli composers whose works influenced my compositions include: Abel Ehrlich (1015-2003), Alexander Uriah Boskovitz (1907-1964), Ami Maayani (b. 1936), André Hajdu (b. 1932), Ben-Zion Orgad (1926-2006), Betty Olivero (b. 1954), Benjamin Yusupov (b. 1962), Gideon Lewensohn (b. 1954), Haim Alexander (1915-2012), Josef Tal (1910-2008), Joseph Mar Haim (b. 1940), Mark Kopytman (1929-2011), Menachem Wiesenberg (b. 1950), Mordecai Seter (1916-1994), Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), Sergiu Natra (b. 1924), Tsippi Fleischer (b. 1946) and Yehezkel Braun (b. 1922).



   Works of Recent Decades

My composition folio acknowledges works by Israeli contemporary composers who have examined the integration of Arabic and Jewish genres and contemporary Western classical music. I have followed the approach of Arabic-influenced improvisation and methods of incorporating Maqamat in works that integrate a classic Arabic instrument in a Western ensemble by Menachem Wiesenberg (b. 1950). Wiesenberg’s Trio (Lamento) for Oud, Cello and Piano (1996) is an example of a piece that has been confronted with some similar challenges to my Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio. Both Trio (Lamento) and Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio were composed for two Western practice players and one Eastern and Arabic specialist player. Wiesenberg wrote (1996) that “the work develops in a free associative manner and contains, side by side, written parts open to improvisation by one of the instruments on the basis of ostinato by the other two”. I have followed this approach to improvisation and in sections of my works one instrument improvises while the rest or part of the ensemble play ostinato. Wiesenberg’s approach of incorporating microtonal pitches was one that influenced my works too. Wiesenberg avoids notated microtonal unisons and octaves for the full ensemble. However, he allows the performers to add, through improvisation, ornamental microtonal pitches to the composed lines. I adopted his approach and have not composed microtonal unisons and octaves for the full ensemble, however, I have composed unisons of microtones for pairs of instruments. Similar to Wiesenberg, my works allow ornamental microtonal pitches in the composed lines.


I have followed methods of heterophonic textures in the later works (from 1972 onwards) of Mark Kopytman (1929-2011). Nancy Uscher (1986) writes that Kopytman, within his personal compositional style, has conceptualized the ancient word ‘heterophony’ and that his music is often characterized by a strong melodic orientation, clearly inspired by the Jewish oriental folk tradition (pp. 19-22). Cantus II for violin, viola and cello (1980) is one of Kopytman’s works that I have corresponded to. In discussing his trio he writes:


The idea of Cantus II grows out of my intention to underline the linear, melodic nature of music and through this to stress its emotional effect. My attention was eventually directed not so much to the melody as a whole, but rather to the motives, indivisible units which give the lines their innate impetus. My increasing interest in these ‘nuclei’, which I derived from micro-intonations of Jewish tunes, led me to use them as the background for a special kind of texture which I call heterophonic (Uscher p.19).


I have adopted Kopytman’s approach of stressing the emotional effect of Jewish tunes. However, a distinctive difference from his compositions and his work Cantus II - which is fully notated, in my works the performers are required to stress the emotional effect by improvisation. In some cases I composed a Piyyut-like melody and guided the performers to improvise variations of it. There, specific musical elements (i.e., microtonality, vibrato, tremolo, and glissando) have been noted and from them the performers are required to create the heterophonic texture. The heterophonic texture stresses the emotional effect of musical lines. I believe that the volume, in terms of intensity, expression and loudness, of the heterophonic textures in Cantus II is more or less ‘fixed‘. This is because it is fully notated. In my works, the aim was to bring in heterophonic textures and this emotional effect in various ways and volumes but within a specific range, and, similar to its source (in Arabic music and Jewish tunes - Piyyutim), within improvisation. 


The compositional approach of Israeli composer André Hajdu (b. 1932) has also had an influence on my works. In conversations with Mira Zakai in their collective book “Where Does The Salmon Fish Swim To? Dialogue” (1999), Hajdu talks about his studies at the Fanz Liszt Academy of Music and Paris Conservatoire. He tells about his interactions with Zoltán Kodály (1882-1968), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and mentions his friendship with his fellow students György Kurtág and György Ligeti. He also discusses his compositions and teaching approaches. His philosophical view and his approach to music in general have influenced me as a composer and a performer. For example, he discusses (p. 119) a concept of “Know I live” and “Know I write music” and says they should not be separate. I follow this concept and, in my works, sections have been given titles to evoke various images that transfer ideas and thoughts that inspired my compositions. My compositions evoke personal memories, experience and emotions. Hajdu’s interest in Jewish topics and Jewish themes as can be seen, for example, in his Mishna-Variations for string quartet (1998) and Mishnayoth (1972–1973) for choral has also influenced me and can be seen in my titles. The relationship between the performers and the composer and how to allow pianists other than myself perform my works are aspects with which I have been confronted. Hajdu discusses this in his book (p.202). As with his works my compositions were also born from my piano practice, from improvisation and from my passion to perform, and these ideas and messages have had to be conveyed to my performers. 


Book of Challenges (1991-1999) is a collection of piano-pedagogic short works by Hajdu that uses guided improvisation. Hajdu’s techniques of guiding improvisation have had an influence on my works. His pieces leave only specific musical elements to improvisation. In one of the works, for example, the pianist receives written rhythmic figures for the right hand and is required to fit pitches (in wide intervals) for the figures. This method can be seen in sections of my works. For example, I composed several rows of ordered pitch collections (without rhythm) and instructed the performers to improvise phrases.