Paul Ben-Haim


Paul Ben-Haim: From Munich to Tel Aviv

-Joshua Jacobson

Paul Frankenburger was born in July 1897 in the Bavarian city of Munich. Munich was a city of high culture, and quite conservative in its tastes. Jews comprised about 2% of the population. Paul’s mother, Anna, came from an assimilated family, and most of her relatives had converted to Christianity.

Paul recalls that his father, Heinrich, although not observant, was a religious man, and attended synagogue regularly. It’s interesting to note that Heinrich, affiliated with the Liberal Jewish community of Munich, was indifferent or even hostile to the Zionist movement.

Heinrich’s father was strictly religious man who served his local synagogue in Uhlfeld as a ba’al tefillah – a volunteer but highly skilled leader of the prayers. Apparently he was a competent musician as well, playing both violin and flute and musically literate. Paul recalled, “The ultra-Orthodox disapproved of his singing in the synagogue from written music, and for this reason he came close to losing his position.”

Paul’s musical talent was soon evident. His violin teacher discovered that the child had perfect pitch. But the violin wasn’t enough for Paul. He wanted to explore harmony and switch to piano. Soon he was enrolled in the Music Academy of Munich where he concentrated on piano and composition. In his student years he was a prolific composer of Lieder (art songs).

In 1916 his music studies were interrupted when he was mobilized to serve as a soldier in an anti-aircraft unit fighting in France and Belgium. This was a traumatic experience for Paul. Not only the shock of battle, and Germany’s loss. He almost died in a gas attack. And his older brother died in combat. And while he was in the service his mother passed away at the age of 51.

Paul returned to Munich in 1918, walking by foot most of the 700 kilometer journey home. Ill and depressed, he found comfort in his music. He resumed his studies at the academy and graduated in June, 1920.

Within a year he had a job at the Munich opera as Korrepetitor -- coach and deputy conductor of the chorus. This was a great opportunity for Paul to work alongside great some of Europe’s greatest singers and conductors.

His next job was at the Augsburger Stadttheater as Third Kapellmeister and Choir Conductor. He received rave reviews for his conducting, and in 1929 he was appointed First Kapellmeister and immediately took the company on an international tour.

December 1929 he arrived in Merano, Italy with his opera company. He loved the city so much he returned there the following spring. He wrote an article for the Augsburg Opera House Bulletin, in which we begin to see Paul’s fondness for a Mediterranean climate:

 How wonderful are the spring evenings in Merano! This is the real south, for which we long so eagerly; although it is not the classic south of Naples or Sicily, its charm bears not a trace of the north. Here is the magic of vineyards and of laurel, myrtle and almond trees, and skies as blue and as smooth as silk. Coming through the Brenner Pass, the glorious Italian breezes caress the brows of those coming from the misty, muddy grayness of the North.

But by 1931 the tide of Anti-Semitism was rising in Germany. Here is an excerpt from a review by Ulrich Herzog in the Neue Badische Landeszeitung of Mannheim: “Paul Frankenburger’s Psalm 126 sounded like an ecstatic hymn. Racially inferior art, of course, but sincere.” In 1931 the new director of the Augsburg Opera told Paul that his contract would be terminated at the end of the season, despite his great successes. He was now without a job.

March 1933 a Nazi government was elected in Bavaria. The racial laws were then applied to the Jewish community. Of the 9,000 Jews living in Munich, only about 800 left the city right away. 140 of them went to Palestine.

April 1933 –the German Musicians Union passed a resolution instructing all branches to work against “racially alien phenomena, Communist elements and people known to be associated with Marxism.”

Later that month Paul’s Concerto Grosso was performed by the Chemnitz orchestra. The Chemnitz newspaper published an article blasting the orchestra’s management for performing a work by a Jew.

Paul knew it was time to leave Germany and he decided to make an exploratory trip to Palestine. And of course Paul Frankenburger was meticulous in his preparations. From the composer’s autobiography:

Because of the rising tide of Jewish immigration from Germany, the English consul piled obstruction upon obstruction. … His first question was: What did I actually want to do in Palestine? I replied: ‘I want to see the country and investigate the possibilities of immigration.’ ‘Very well,’ he said, ‘I am prepared to give you a tourist visa — under the following conditions: 1. You may stay in the country for 6 weeks, and not one day longer. 2. You will submit a formal statement to the effect that you will not seek any employment in Palestine, and will refuse any job offered to you. 3. You or your father will deposit with me the sum of 10,000 marks to be forfeited if you violate any of these conditions.’

 I collected the necessary things, I packed my bags, and on May 15 1933 I took the train from Munich to Trieste. On May 16 I embarked on the Italia, an old and small steamer…. This was the beginning of a five-day voyage from Trieste to Jaffa. I had a third-class ticket and was forced to sleep in a windowless cabin with 12 other men.

On the voyage he met a violinist, Simon Bakman, who was traveling to perform some concerts in Palestine. Simon invited Paul to be his accompanist. They did a few concerts on the boat and promised to meet again in Tel Aviv.

Paul landed in Jaffa and made his way to Tel Aviv. Paul wrote:

A truly modern European city is being built here on the sandy dunes with indescribable diligence and energy; a really impressive experience. The entire population here is Jewish: policemen, clerks, drivers, down to the last of the road-workers, all are Jews. By the way, the Palestinian Jews, especially the teenagers, are an exceptionally beautiful and sturdy race; the scruffy, often un-aesthetic exterior of many Jews from Eastern Europe no longer exists here!

Paul loved the Tel Aviv beach. After settling in Tel Aviv he went swimming in the beach every day, winter and summer!

He was welcomed by many refugees from Germany. Among them was Moshe Hopenko, who owned a music store and was the manager for Simon Bakman, the violinist Paul had met on the boat. From the composer’s autobiography:

The next day I met Simon Bakman at Mr. Hopenko’s, that is, in his music shop. … Mr. Hopenko welcomed me in a most friendly and pleasant manner. We fixed our concert dates: two in Tel Aviv, one in Jerusalem, and one in Haifa. Now that my name was about to appear on posters and in the press, the problem arose; I had been forbidden to accept employment of any kind! Mr. Hopenko knew a way out. ‘Very simple,’ he said. ‘change your name!’ ‘But how?’ I asked. ‘What is your father’s name?’ he asked. ‘Heinrich,’ I replied. ‘Haim in Hebrew.’ ‘Well then,’ said Hopenko, ‘You’ll be called Ben-Haim.’

Paul wrote a letter to his father at the end of June 1933. “I can already see clearly that I will move here. This will not be easy. Everyone has close links with the country in which he grew up and whose culture he has absorbed, but the order of the day is: look ahead, not back. Even if it is difficult.”

Upon his return to Munich, Paul assembled all his documents and his compositions. The process of obtaining all the papers needed for immigration took a long time, but on the last day of October he finally got permission from the British consulate, and left for Palestine. He was the first notable composer to reach Palestine from Germany after the Nazis came to power. But others soon followed. The very next day Karl Salomon arrived. And within the next 2 years Heinrich Jacoby, Joseph Tal (Gruenthal) and Haim (Heinz) Alexander.

From the composer’s autobiography:

I taught 6 to 8 pupils at Hopenko’s Shulamit conservatory. The students were not particularly gifted and it was not easy for me to work with beginners. Before long, I began to teach classes in music theory. This was even harder for me, since I had to explain a complex subject in my elementary Hebrew and at the same time maintain discipline in a class of boisterous 12 to 15 year old children. I managed to overcome the difficulties to some extent, but I would not like to do it again.

Between 1932 and 1939 more than 300,00 Jewish immigrants came to Palestine, fleeing Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. These were, for the most part, not Zionists, and many came from assimilated families. But once settled, many, like Paul Ben-Haim, were quite taken with the Zionist enterprise and their quest to create a new culture.

Many Israeli composers were searching for a new style – one that would blend elements of East and West: using the forms of European music, coloured with elements of Middle Eastern music: the scales, rhythms, melodies, timbre, instrumentation, texture.

They took as their inspiration an essay by, of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche. Once a fan of Richard Wagner’s work, Nietzsche was now turning against the German composer. Now he’s excited about Bizet’s opera, Carmen. Nietzsche wrote:

 What it [Carmen] has above all else is that which belongs to sub-tropical zones—that dryness of atmosphere, that limpidezza of the air. Here in every respect the climate is altered. Here another kind of sensuality, another kind of sensitiveness, and another kind of cheerfulness make their appeal. This music [Carmen] is gay, but not in a French or German way. Its gaiety is African. …  I envy Bizet for having had the courage of this sensitiveness, which hitherto in the cultured music of Europe has found no means of expression—of this southern, tawny, sunburnt sensitiveness. … What a joy the golden afternoon of its happiness is to us! …Il faut mediterraniser la musique: and I have reasons for this principle. The return to nature, health, good spirits, youth, virtue.

Compare that to Ben-Haim’s comments about Italy 1930. “How wonderful are the spring evenings in Merano! This is the real south, for which we long so eagerly; …, its charm bears not a trace of the north. Here is the magic of vineyards and of laurel, myrtle and almond trees, and skies as blue and as smooth as silk. …, the glorious Italian breezes caress the brows of those coming from the misty, muddy grayness of the North.”

The Israeli composers and critics dubbed this new style “Eastern Mediterranean” תכון מזרח.

Writer Max Brod described this sound as (1) southern, infused with the bright light of the Mediterranean air, lucid, striving for clarity; (2) the rhythm … the obstinate repetition, but also the manifold, ceaseless variation which enchants by its apparent freedom from rule, and impulsiveness. (3) The structure of the movement is sometimes linear unison, or at least not polyphonically overburdened. (4) The influence exerted by the melodies of the Yemenite Jews, … the return to ancient modes, … in all these respects, lines of connection can be drawn with Arabic music ….

These European musicians were fascinated by the music they heard around them: music of the Christian and Moslem Arabs, as well as the music of the Jewish Arabs.

Ben-Haim wrote:

These are the features typical of Israeli [classical] music:  A special orchestration, which includes a mixture of oriental sonorities; preference is accorded to the woodwinds (such as oboe and flute), whose origin is undoubtedly in the East. The musical tradition of the oriental communities has been relatively well-preserved in its purity, due to the isolation which they imposed upon themselves, and their non-involvement with the gentiles... if any influence existed, it came from the Arab side. We should not reject such influence. On the contrary: we must also take an interest in Arab folklore. If we wish to speak of an Israeli revival, we should welcome all Semitic influences, and oppose western ones.

The one person who exerted perhaps the greatest influence on Ben-Haim and his fellow immigrant composers was Bracha Zephira. Zephira was born into a Yemenite family in Jerusalem in 1911. Her parents died when she was a small child and she lived in a series of foster homes of Yemenite, Persian and Sephardi families. In 1924 she was sent to a boarding school near Hadera, where she was again surrounded by children from Middle-Eastern backgrounds.

In the 1930s she began to perform Oriental Jewish songs in concert, accompanied by the pianist Nahum Nardi, first in Europe and then back in Palestine. Soon Zefira was performing with other European composers, who were enchanted by her exotic music and her dark beauty. Most prominent among these collaborators was Paul Ben-Haim.

In the summer of 1966 the National Federation of Temple Youth, a branch of American Reform Judaism, commissioned Ben-Haim to compose a setting of the Friday night liturgy, according to the American Reform prayer book. The composer wrote:

I have tried to set the prayers to music in as simple and modest a style as possible, to express the spirit of the Jewish liturgy.…According to the request of the commissioning body I gave an especially simple character to the concluding hymn, for which I used motives of an ancient Sephardic tune. For the refrain of the Sabbath hymn (“Lecha Dodi”) I have used an old traditional melody sung by Sephardi Jews to a different text (“Yedid Nefesh”). In no other parts than the two mentioned above were traditional melodies quoted or used, but I have tried everywhere to keep my music faithful to the spirit of our religious tradition.

Kabbalat Shabbat had its first performance April 24, 1968, at Lincoln Center in New York, conductor Abraham Kaplan and Cantor Ray Smolover. Ten days later performed at Temple Israel Boston as part of a service.  Herbert Fromm (Ben-Haim’s old friend) conducted, and Bill Marel was the cantor.

May 1968 the president of the republic of West Germany awarded Paul Ben-Haim Germany’s highest honor: Das Verdienstkreuz, erste Klasse (The Cross of Distinction first class).

When Ben-Haim was about to turn 75, he received another honor: the city of Munich invited him to visit as an honoured guest. July, 1971 Dr. Hans Joachim Vogel, the head of the Munich City Council (Der Alt Oberbürgermeister), wrote in his invitation to Ben Haim, “During the time I have been the city’s senior counsellor …I have paid special attention to the renewal and cultivation of contacts with past residents of our city, forced to leave after 1933 for political, racial or religious reasons.” And on May 4, 1972, The City of Munich presented a special concert of Ben-Haim’s music in his honor.

Sadly, A few days later he was walking down the street in Munich, reminiscing about his childhood, when he was struck by a car. Hospitalized. Left him partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair..

But he continued to compose until his death January 14, 1984 at the age of 87. His legacy can be summed up in this wonderful quote:

I am of the West by birth and education, but I stem from the East and live in the East. I regard this as a great blessing indeed and it makes me feel grateful. The problem of synthesis of East and West occupies musicians all over the world. If we-thanks to our living in a country that forms a bridge between East and West-can provide a modest contribution to such a synthesis in music, we shall be very happy.

Gradenwitz, Peter. Paul Ben Haim. Tel Aviv: Israeli Music Publications, 1967.

Guttman, Hadassah. The Music of Paul Ben-Haim: a performance guide. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1992.

Hirshberg, Jehoash. Paul Ben-Haim: His Life and Works. Translated by Nathan Friedgut. Jerusalem: Israeli Music Publications, 1990.

Plotinsky, Anita Heppner. “The Choral Music of Paul Ben-Haim.” American Choral Review, 16 (1974): 3-10.

ComposersAyan Sanyal