PIANO MUSIC FROM ISRAEL
The works on this CD were composed in Israel between 1945 and 2001. They span an era antedating the founding of the state of Israel and extending into the recent past. They were written by composers of different generations. Josef Tal, the son of a rabbi, was born in Pniewy near Poznán, Poland, in 1910. He grew up and studied in Berlin, left Nazi Germany in 1934 and emigrated to Greater Israel with a degree in composition, harp and piano. Tzvi Avni was born as Hermann Steinke in Saarbrücken, Germany, in 1927. When the Saar region was annexed to Germany in 1935 he emigrated with his parents via Switzerland to present-day Israel. As his father was abducted and killed in 1936, he had to help support his family from an early age and was unable to start music lessons until he was 16. Through self-instruction he managed to attain a university degree and to pursue a career as a composer. Both Tal and Avni were actively involved in establishing Israel’s musical life, working in many capacities and constantly seeking international contacts. Gil Shohat, born in Tel Aviv in 1973, is two generations younger. His mother was a journalist who wrote for the liberal daily newspaper “Ha’aretz”. He grew up in Israel and studied in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, after which he perfected his training in composition, piano and conducting in Rome and Manchester.
Josef Tal’s Variations
Tal wrote Cum mortuis in lingua mortua in 1945 when he still bore his original name, Josef Gruenthal. It is a set of variations on the like-named piano piece from Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, where it occurs as a variant of the “Promenade” following a piece on the Roman Catacombs. Regarding the title Mussorgsky wrote: “Latin text: with the dead in a dead language. A Latin text would be suitable: the creative spirit of the late Hartmann [the painter of the pictures in the said exhibition: H.T.] leads me to skulls, summons me to them, the skulls have quietly lit up”. To the 35-five-year-old Tal, this seemed like a weak metaphor for the victims of the Shoah, among whom were his parents and many of his relatives and acquaintances. He knew that there was no direct form of artistic expression for the atrocities that German Nazis committed with the extermination of European Jewry, nor for the suffering of the survivors. Images, formulae and testimony from history formed an initial bridge between the languages. In his variations, Tal subjects isolated bars, aspects and turns of phrase from Mussorgsky’s piece to closer scrutiny, interpreting them in an exegetical spirit and transforming them into opposing gestic characters. They circumscribe two modes of expression: lamentation (which can harden into indictment) and a volatility that can suddenly turn into frenzy. In their polarity and inner ambivalence, both modes symbolize profound grief. This grief especially pervades those sections that seem rigorously constructed, such as the opening of Variation III, passages of Variation VI and the opening of Variation VII. The grief cries out for forms and formulae so as not to sink into despair. Tal ends his cycle with a “Fuga con variazioni”, a fugue obtained from Mussorgsky’s “Promenade” theme, stylised and transformed into a funeral dirge. It incorporates and develops reminiscences from the preceding variations, first from Variation VI and finally from Variation I. The work fades away with the memory of them. But the circle comes full close in an unusual way: it is not the theme that reappears at the end, as in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but the thoughts and memories initially kindled in Tal by the Mussorgsky piece.
Josef Tal’s “Essay II”
Between 1986 and 1998 Tal composed a total of five Essays for piano. Their title is at once an understatement and a reference. Only on superficial hearing do they sound sketchy and loose-limbed, for in fact they are as thoroughly and rigorously constructed as all of Tal’s music. They gather together a world of experience while trying out models of musical design.
Essay II was composed in 1988. At that time Tal was 78 years old and had written works in every traditional genre, from pieces for unaccompanied instrument, to chamber and vocal music for a very wide range of forces, to symphonies and stage works. The world premiere of his then most recent opera, Der Turm, had just taken place a year earlier at the 37th Berlin Festival. Having founded Israel’s first electronic music studio (a pioneer achievement in this field), he wrote purely electronic works as well as others for standard instruments and electronics, including three concertos for piano and electronic music. In a series of articles, lectures, seminars and compositions, he worked through the possibilities that the electronic medium opened up for new sounds, processes and forms. His discoveries also had repercussions on his music for standard instruments.
In Essay II Tal explores the behaviour and development of antitheses on various levels of musical composition. The pitches of the opening figure in the low register are precisely notated (they form an 11-note row), but the manner in which they are to be played (“soft, very fast and distinct”) is left to the pianist. The low-register figure is answered in the high register by an expressive melody (“cantabile”) comprising the same pitches, apart from the final one. Both antitheses are subjected to various forms of manipulation. The fast low-register gesture is expanded with interpolations and shortened by omissions – a procedure reminiscent of the handling of modules in electronic music. The “cantabile” is expanded from monophony to a texture of two or more voices. These two components are not kept separate: fast high-register passages take on the character of the first theme and the register of the second, gathering them together to create the semblance of a perpetuum mobile preceded by a passage of short, hesitant, complementary motifs.
The principle of antithesis also extends to the overall formal design. Essay II might be called a reinterpretation of the tripartite A-B-A’ form. Its middle section forms a high-register perpetuum mobile with interpolated melodic fragments and chords. In contrast, its first section is divided into several usually antithetical subsections. Several of them return in the final section, creating an “essay” on reference and difference.
Tzvi Avni’s “Epitaph” Sonata
When he was still teaching, Tzvi Avni regularly visited exhibitions of modern art with his students. He believed that understanding and open-mindedness toward the sister arts would benefit his own, that the paths of inspiration run both ways. Avni himself was often inspired by painting or literature to create new works, though in the latter case the words of the literary model need not always appear as a vocal part. Throughout his career he studied Jewish legends and mysticism in much the same spirit as Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem, not in opposition to the modern world, but as paths to spiritual depth. They belong not only to the history and identity of Judaism but to Avni’s life story. In the 1920s his parents moved to Germany from Jarosłav and Przemysl, the region where Chassidism once originated and flourished. Testimonials of the rich culture that emerged there are among the wellsprings from which Avni draws his (musical) thought. His Epitaph Sonata, composed over a relatively long period from 1974 to 1979, provides a good example. Avni wrote: “The composer sees his Epitaph Sonata, written between the years 1974–1979, as a musical document embodying much of his personal credo. In the course of its single movement the work encompasses a wide range of textures, moods and sonorities. The term ‘sonata’ refers here to the scope and the lyrical and dramatic content of the music and not to its formal structure which is essentially free. The excerpts about the fountain and the heart of the world form one of the tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, The Story of the Seven Beggars (1), serves as the work’s motto. The story is not used as a basis for ‘programme’ music, however, but is merely the spiritual starting-point – an idea in which more is concealed than is revealed, as it were.”
Historical forerunners of Avni’s artistic approach can be found in Franz Liszt’s Dante Sonata or the organ sonata on Psalm 94 by his short-lived young student, Julius Reubke. However, there is no resemblance in language, intensity or form. Among Avni’s many reasons for composing an “epitaph”, one stands out in particular: in 1973, one year before he began work on the sonata, his wife, the soprano Pnina Avni, died prematurely of cancer. Ten years earlier he had composed a path-breaking work for her, a Vocalise for soprano and electronic music. This piece, too, was written in the “free form of a sonata, in which the human voice and electronic sounds, not themes, are the contrasting formal elements” (Yehuda Walter Cohan: Werden und Entwicklung der Musik in Israel, Part 2 of Max Brod: Die Musik Israels, rev. 2nd edn., Kassel, 1976, p. 90). The melodious, expressive passages that constitute the form in Epitaph are memories of Pnina. They begin as monophony and expand to a texture of two and more voices. Similarly, the sorrowful retrospection gradually expands into history, to the place where a large part of the Jewish people once sought happiness only to find death many generations later. The passages are headed “cantabile” and “nostalgico”.
The irregular spaces between the repeated notes at the opening represent “being-in-time”, and thus transience. On the one hand they give rise to chords, now bell-like, now oppressive, that pervade the entire sonata as points of articulation. On the other they signify declamation, where the music comes close to an imaginary language, like a preparatory lamentation before a song. In the middle of the work is a melody undergirt by brief chords. The form of the sonata is built around this melody in concentric correlations. At the end, the melody fades away with the repeated notes of a throbbing heart and yearning cries from and in the distance. Actually, the piece doesn’t end at all: it vanishes from our aural perception. “Infinity is endless” are the words the composer wrote where “Fine” would otherwise stand.
Tzvi Avni’s “From My Diary”
The piano cycle From My Diary, written for a piano master-class in 2001, is likewise built on memories. Piece No. 1 invokes the pioneering days of Israel’s new music, with its fondness for Impressionism and for integrating folk patterns from various traditions, such as the popular Hora dance, whose contours shine through Avni’s piece again and again. Pieces Nos. 2 and 3 recall the inspiring power of modern art. No. 2, Heroic Fiddling after Paul Klee, is a grandiose exercise in make-believe violin virtuosity. Its line-by-line subdivisions correspond to the structure of Klee’s 1938 painting. “Night Song of a Flying Octopus relates to my impressions of Miró’s works which make the spectator feel he is watching a world of weird and enthralling creatures floating through the air.” The fierce Piece No. 4, wafting away at the end, was inspired by the Biblical figure of Cain, whose sacrifice God rejected while accepting Abel’s. His feelings of humiliation, disregard and envy turned him into a murderer. Like many Biblical figures, Cain stands for particular aspects of humanity. The final piece, Amen, is dedicated to Martin Buber. To quote the composer: “Buber would probably call the loudest ‘amen’ in the 20th century and the study of his writings is the brightest ray of light in the sombre paths of human suffering. Even in the questioning which he presents to us from time to time, he is forever seeking out the positive and the acceptance of our world as it is – the acceptance which I translate into the D major chord which ends this part and concludes the entire work.”
Gil Shohat’s Piano Pieces
Gil Shohat was born 25 years after the founding of the state of Israel. He grew up in the tense community that viewed the integration of different traditions as its cultural mission, and that successfully warded off outside danger in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. Few countries were blessed with so much overflowing artistic intelligence, and Shohat benefited from it from the moment he started to study music systematically at the age of seven. He began to compose at an early age and played his own piano pieces in public at 12. The works on our CD likewise bear witness to a musical language attained at a young age. Three Improvisations on Paintings was written when Shohat was 16. The paintings he chose stand at the threshold to modernism: Munch, Klimt and van Gogh. His piano pieces (Shohat is himself a brilliant pianist) project the act of composing from the mutual confluence of the arts – the same approach that Tzvi Avni had adopted a generation earlier. They evince consummate artistry.
Rather than trying to recreate the paintings in sound, Shohat captures their basic mood and ambience. The Scream, from Edvard Munch’s famous like-named painting, is not set to music; instead, Shohat articulates the gloomy background from which the scream emerges and indicates the glaring height at which the pain takes effect. The piece on Gustav Klimt’s allegorical Tragedy is derived, in a nod to post-1900 modernism, from the melodic ethos of the 12-note row. It is subject to opposing forces: circular motions whose motivic nucleus becomes entangled inside them, scurrying figures that fly up or spin in place in the background. They produce textures onto which various forms of the row are inscribed. The piece is designed as a crescendo that breaks off at the end because it has no destination. Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night prompted Shohat to create a waltz-fantasy in the style of the lightly Americanised, stylishly erotic entertainment music of France’s Bohemian subculture.
One year after Three Improvisations Shohat composed his piano piece The Kiss of Salome. At the end of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, the “daughter of Herodias and princess of Judaea”, flies into an erotic ecstasy as she fondles and kisses the decapitated head of Johanaan (John the Baptist). Shohat’s piece, a work of astronomical virtuosity, relates to this passage. To quote the composer: “The Kiss of Salome is an improvisation, a musical impression, a passing vision. This is the endless sensuality of Salome, the love breaking forth, darkening life, burning, destroying. This is the kiss of Salome, the height of love, the peak of degradation.” In Wilde’s play the princess ends her monologue with the words: “The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death. One should see only love.”
Translation: J. Bradford Robinson