Jewish music is honoured — but what is it?

By William Littler

Many years ago the American composer Virgil Thomson was asked how to write American music. “First you be an American,” Thomson replied. “Then you write any kind of music you like.”

It was a good answer, although it avoided the questioner’s implication that certain qualities should be involved to make one kind of music different from another.

During much of the 19th century, an age of nationalism, those qualities were often rooted in folk traditions. The visiting Czech composer Dvorak advised his American colleagues to look to their country’s Black heritage for inspiration.

Musical styles became more internationalized during the 20th century and yet the question of stylistic identity persists. Witness a press conference I attended not long ago in Montreal, during which $200,000 prizes were awarded for the composition of Jewish music.

Every two years, beginning in 2014, the Azrieli Foundation has awarded the Azrieli Prize for Jewish music to a composer deemed by a jury (including Montreal conductor Boris Brott) to have written the best new major work of Jewish music.

The foundation also awards the Azrieli Commission to a composer who proposes a work addressing the question, “What is Jewish Music?”

It is not an easy question to answer. During the course of 86 densely argued, two-column pages, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians points out that “Jewish music as a concept emerged among Jewish scholars and musicians only in the mid 19th century with the rise of modern national consciousness among European Jews, and since then all attempts to define it have faced many difficulties.”

The Azrieli Foundation obviously recognizes the challenge. As director and soprano Sharon Azrieli pointed out at the press conference, you don’t even have to be Jewish to compose this music. Indeed Kelly-Marie Murphy, winner of the 2018 commission, happens to be non-Jewish.

Murphy’s piece, “En el escuro es todo uno (In the Darkness All is One),” can be found on a new Analekta CD album titled “Azrieli Music Prizes Vol. 2,” along with music by Avner Dorman and the late Toronto composer Srul Irving Glick. One review of the album found “atmospheric wisps reminiscent of Mahler’s First Symphony” in its opening pages.

Mahler was, of course, a Jewish composer, who converted to Catholicism for the sake of his Viennese career. Felix Mendelssohn notwithstanding, being a recognized Jewish composer scarcely represented a career advantage in the years before Leonard Bernstein came along.

But to return to the question — “What is Jewish Music?” — Aron Marko Rothmuller in his comprehensive survey, “The Music of the Jews,” confesses to an avoidance of reference to “a specifically Jewish music” but asserts that it is always moulded by the circumstances of Jewish life, acquiring such typical characteristics as the predominance of the minor mode and the frequency of rhythmic syncopation, the latter related to the structural peculiarities of the Hebrew language.

All this reminds me of the confession by U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart that he couldn’t define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. The same might be said of Jewish music — its poignancy, its lyricism, its melancholy, its gaiety together pointing toward an identifiable sound.

“It’s about the integration of the East and West,” suggests Yitzhak Yedid, Australian-based winner of the 2020 Azrieli Prize. “It’s in my DNA.”

“Yet it isn’t one sound,” counters Yotam Haber, American-based 2020 winner of the Azrieli Commission for new Jewish music. “I wrote a piece based on Sardinian folk music and integrated it into a work that deals with Jewish themes.”

Haber nevertheless acknowledges that “there is something impressive about a tradition of more than two thousand years and I love the idea of passing it on. For years I was dead set against being labelled a Jewish composer. Yet it is the experience of being Jewish that makes me one. At the same time, I can choose just to be a composer.”

That, to be sure, is the automatic choice of non-Jewish Montreal-based Keiko Devaux, winner of the first Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music. “As a composer I don’t think of borders,” she insists. “Canada is multicultural, it is a tapestry.”

In line with this way of thinking perhaps Jewish and non-Jewish composers might agree to adapt Virgil Thomson’s dictum: First you be a composer. Then you write any kind of music you like.

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CONFRONTING DEVASTATION

Book launch presents an evening of reflection, listening to the voices of survivors of the Nazi occupation of Hungary

October 23rd, 2019 – For immediate release

“I feel someone has to speak for those who are dead. I think someone needs to remind those who try to forget. This is demanded by the cries of the dead echoing from their graves.” –  Author Peter Vas

Commemorating seventy-five years since Nazi Germany occupied Hungary, Confronting Devastation, an anthology of Canadian survivors’ memoirs, examines the diverse experiences and memories of the Holocaust in Hungary.

From the worsening exclusions that marked Jewish daily life before 1944 to forced labour battalions, ghettos and camps, and persecution and hiding in Budapest, the authors reflect on lives that were shattered, on the sorrows that came with liberation and, ultimately, on how they managed to persevere.

Editor Ferenc Laczó frames excerpts from twenty-two memoirs in historical and political contexts, analyzing the events that led to the horrific “last chapter” of the Holocaust — the genocide of approximately 550,000 Jews in Hungary between 1944 and 1945.

As antisemitism and intolerance of minorities increases worldwide, the Azrieli Foundation continues its commitment to publish Holocaust survivors’ memoirs in English and in French, distribute books free of charge to educational institutions and have authors speak about their experiences to students across Canada.

Naomi Azrieli, Chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation, says hearing survivors’ stories is an integral part of understanding the Holocaust. “It is the personal stories that brings history to life, allowing readers to grasp the enormity of what happened – one story at a time. The Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program encourages readers to engage thoughtfully and critically with the complexities of the Holocaust and to create meaningful connections with the lives of survivors.”

DETAILS:
Monday, October 28th, 7:30 – 9:00 p.m.
Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles St. West, Toronto
Open to the public but pre-registration is required; call 416-322-5928

ABOUT THE AZRIELI FOUNDATION
For 30 years, the Azrieli Foundation has funded institutions as well as operated programs in Canada and in Israel. It invests in eight priority areas, with the common thread of education running throughout its funding. The Foundation supports Holocaust education, scientific and medical research, higher education, youth empowerment and school perseverance, music and the arts, architecture and quality of life initiatives for people with developmental disabilities. www.azrielifoundation.org

For more information please contact Abby Robins at 416-322-5928 or abby@azrielifoundation.org

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“We are committed to these investigators who are in the early stages of their careers as they are in a unique position to advance innovative research projects. They often have difficulty securing their first grant through traditional funding, yet they approach their research with a high risk/high reward approach, and that is something that we want to support.”

Ometz receives transformational gift from The Azrieli Foundation

“This new Centre aligns perfectly with our belief that every individual should have the opportunity to participate fully in their community. Many of the youth and young adults who will use this Centre have previously fallen between the gaps,” says Naomi Azrieli, Chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation. “This Centre will foster a much-needed sense of belonging, while addressing their physical, emotional, social and intellectual needs.”

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