4. Eastern European visions of the Mediterranean

The concept of Mediterraneanism in the art music of Israel is generally associated with the Hungarian-born Jewish composer Alexander U. Boskovitch (1907-1964) who immigrated to Palestine in 1938. In an essay elaborated in several stages and published in its final version in Hebrew in 1953, titled "The problems of Jewish music" (Orlogin 9 [1953], 28-93), Boskovitch maintained that music is a function of time and place, not an universal language. He then argued that "music appropriate for the misty seclusion and melancholy of northern Europe would be out of place in the Mediterranean countries 'where everything is sharply delineated'" (Hirshberg 1995:262ff). Hirshberg maintains that Boskovitch was influenced by Nietzsche's concept of the "ancient man's public speech" (Jenseits von Gut und Böse) in his vision of the "dynamic landscape" of "the scorching Mediterranean sun, the sand dunes of Tel Aviv, … and the excited vocal gestures of spoken Arabic and Hebrew" (Hirshberg 1995: 263; see similar remarks by Mishori in Fleisher 1997: 51). Following this rationale, Boskovitch argued that only the Jewish composers living in Palestine, nourished by the spirit of their time and place (the eastern Mediterranean), would be able to create a true Jewish national style of music.

Yet, it was actually the composer and critic Max Brod (Prague, 1884 - Tel Aviv, 1968) the first one to use, in his book Israel’s Music, the concept of a 'Mediterranean style' attributing it to Boscovitch. According to Brod, Boscovitch employed the term to refer to musical works that were influenced by the "Oriental" Jewish folksongs collected and made public by the Yemenite Jewish singer Bracha Zefira (Brod 1951: 57-58; for Zefira see Flam 1986; Hirshberg 1984). The adjective 'Mediterranean' also appears in the name of few musical compositions from about the same time (early 1950s), such as Menahem Avidom's Mediterranean Sinfonietta of 1951.

Mediterranean Sinfonietta,
excerpt from the third movement. Performed by the Kol Israel (Voice of Israel) Orchestra conducted by Shalom Ronli-Riklis, 1956. Recording of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, courtesy of the National Sound Archives, Jewish National and University Library (Avidom collection, tape 1118).
(mp3 file, 708 kb, 1.28 min)

As Bressler (1985) pointed out, Brod's approach to the Mediterranean signifier was mainly based on a list of musical traits. Works of Mediterranean music, according to Brod had their rhythm in the harsh irregular meters, the obstinate repetition but also the manifold ceaseless variation which enchants by its apparent freedom from rule and impulsiveness. The structure of the movement is sometimes linear, unisonal, or at least not polyphonically overburdened. The influence exerted by the melodies of the Yemenite Jews, the neutralization of the boundaries between major and minor keys, the return to ancient modes the neglect of the augmented second, so characteristic of the Diaspora [for this interval as an icon of traditional Eastern European Jewish music, see Slobin 1982. E.S.] - in all these respects, lines of connection can be drawn with Arabic music… Climate and landscape, shepherd's song, oboe and clarinet, play their part. Accompaniment by tympani or tambourine, real, only hinted at, or imaginary, add to some of these songs… a strangely monotonous, even hypnotic character; but whoever immerses himself in this apparent monotony is enabled to hear delicate and subtle nuances which have been denied to European ears (Brod 1951: 57).

The model of Brod's 'Mediterranean music' then is 'Arabic music'. This music is described as "southern", "infused with the bright light of the Mediterranean air", "utmost attractive", "tense" and "anti-bourgeois" (see Bressler 1985:138 after Brod 1951: 57). His Mediterraneanism is a true, if anachronistic echo of late 19th century European musical Orientalism. As it is well known, the abstract concept of Arabic music does not exist in reality, for many contrasting genres and styles of music coexist in the different Arabic cultures. One may also wonder how much Arabic music Brod had actually listened to.

Criticizing Brod's generalizations, Hirshberg vehemently argued against the very existence of a "Mediterranean school" of Israeli music, referring to this signifier as a "fallacy". According to Hirshberg, Boskovitch never spelled out Brod's concept of Mediterraneanism. Moreover, one could not talk about "schools" of music in the compact circle of Eastern European Jewish composers of Western art music active in Tel Aviv in the late 1940s. Hirshberg concluded that "the so-called Mediterraneanism did not constitute a coherent musical style but a set of semiotically-loaded musical patterns which were frequently juxtaposed with other similar sets, such as that of Diaspora-related patterns. Nor did Mediterraneanism effect any significant change on the level of selection of musical genre." (Hirshberg 1995: 271-272)

In spite of all the inconsistencies pointed out by Hirschberg, the Mediterranean concept coined by Brod still reverberates in the historiography of Israeli art music. It reappears, for example, in a survey of art music in Israel by the musicologist Peter Gradenwitz originally written in the 1950s (Gradenwitz 1978: 63-101) or in a later study of Israeli choral music (Jacobson 1984), both studies using the label of "Eastern Mediterranean school". Later on Bohlman (1989:189) speaks about "eastern Mediterraneanism" as a bridge between the founder fathers of Israeli music and a younger generation born in Israel who had "internalized the sounds presumably unique to that region". More recently, Fleisher discusses the "Mediterranean school" in some detail, as an expression of the East-West encounter in the Israeli music of the 1950s (Fleisher 1997: 49-52, 318, n. 87).

Thus the Mediterranean signifier did not loose its appeal to composers, musicologists and music critics of art music, persisting in contemporary Israeli musical discourse. A recent manifestation of this use of the Mediterranean signifier can be found in the title of a concert by Musica Nova, one of Israel's most prestigious ensembles of contemporary Western art music: "Mediterranean Fantasy: On the Search of an Israeli Musical Identity" (took place in Tel Aviv in June of 2000). The concert included works by Israeli composers from different periods and styles such as Paul Ben Haim (a representative of the founding school of Israeli art music born and educated in Germany), Ami Maayani, Mordecai Seter, and Zvi Avni (all three representatives of the second generation of composers born or educated in Israel) and Joseph Bardanashvili (a new immigrant composer from Georgia in the Caucasus). By relating the Mediterranean to the realm of "fantasy", the producers of this concert apparently implied that there is a certain link between Mediterraneanism and a fantastic reality in which the musical identity of Israeliness can be located.

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