Just as the population of Israel is made up of many ethnic groups, its music too is plural.
Music in Israel comes from the most varied sources, from the Middle East, Central and Western Europe, North and South America, India to Africa. No continent escapes the creativity and inventiveness of Israeli musicians and composers. Classical and contemporary music sit alongside folk and religious music, not to mention the Arab music that has lived on this land for centuries.
Classical Music Musical Groups
The first amateur orchestra in Yishuv was formed in Rishon-Le-Tsiyon in 1895 performing a repertoire that included primarily light music and arrangements of folk songs. In 1910, following the foundation of Tel Aviv, singer Selma Ruppin created the first music school in the country. In 1923, orchestra director Mark Golinkine (1875-1963) first set foot in the Palestine Opera, where the works of Verdi, Rossini and Meyerbeer, amongst others, were all performed in Hebrew translation. Due to lack of financial means, however, the opera was forced to close in 1927. The Jerusalem Music Society, founded in 1921 by the Yellin sisters created the first professional string quartet in the country and light classical music was replaced by the classical and romantic European repertoire.
On the other hand, musical composition concentrated on folk song (see below: Israeli Song). In 1924 Yaakov Weinberg composed Ha-Chalutzim, (The Pioneers), the first folk opera in Hebrew.
The most significant event of the next decade was the foundation of the philharmonic Orchestra of Palestine by Polish violinist, Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947). This entirely new orchestra was primarily a rescue operation for Jewish musicians who had lost their jobs in the greatest orchestras of Central Europe. They gave their first concert together in Tel Aviv in December 1936, directed by Arturo Toscanini; orchestra members subsequently created chamber music groups that perpetuated the European chamber music tradition. That same year Akum, the Society for the Rights of Authors and Composers, was created. In 1948, the Palestine Orchestra became the Philharmonic Orchestra of Israel and toured in Europe and the United States. The government subsidized international events such as the International Harp Competition, the Israel Festival and the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition. In 1972, thanks to the arrival of musicians from the Soviet Union, the small orchestra Kol Israel, Israeli radio, adopted the name Symphonic Orchestra of Jerusalem. The Israel Opera, founded in 1948 by American singer Addis de Philip, managed to survive for thirty years. In 1985, the New Opera of Israel reassumed its role: this time, the works were performed in their original language with Hebrew sub-titles and the Opera House reopened its doors in 1994.
In the 1990s musical life in Israel underwent a dramatic transformation with the massive arrival of nearly a million Jews from the ex-Soviet Union. This wave of immigration brought the country a large number of professional musicians, singers and music teachers whose impact was immediately felt with the creation of new symphonic orchestras, chamber music groups and small musical ensembles, and more generally by a dynamic injection of talent and musical vitality into educational settings.
Musical Creativity The roots of contemporary classical music in Israel go back to the arrival of Central and Eastern European communities between the two world wars. The pioneers from Eastern Europe immigrated to Palestine in the 1920s along with their musical baggage, Biblical incantation, the popular melodies of the shtetl and Slavic folklore, all skillfully combined in a specifically Jewish style. With the arrival of German speaking immigrants in the 1930s, classical music returned to the fore.
Like the expressions “Jewish music” and “Jewish composer,” the terms “Israeli music” and “Israeli composer” were now associated with many definitions. In the 1930s composer Mordekhai Sandberg claimed that “Hebrew music can only be composed in the land of Israel.” On the other hand, in 1938 the journal Musica Hebraica sought to “bring together a forum in which all forms of Jewish music can be presented and discussed.” Would Israeli music thus be situated at various crossroads, between East and West, where music meets and fuses?
The First Generation of Composers Born in Europe and emigrating to Palestine in the 1930s, the first generation of Israeli, or Hebrew, composers sought to invent a new musical language in the land of Israel. They were all. The nationalism of the era encouraged the creation of a characteristic musical language which, like Hebrew, aimed to unify and represent the young nation. Many of the works that were created were thus associated with the “Eastern Mediterranean” emerging at that point. Sources of inspiration thus included Jewish history, Biblical characters and elements linked to local geography.
Paul Ben-Chaim (Germany 1897 – Israel 1984) was a key figure in this trend. He was the first immigrant composer from Europe who sought to forge a uniquely Israeli musical style. Thanks to a long collaboration with Yeminite folk singer Bracha Zefira (1910-1990), he became familiar with the intonations of traditional Middle Eastern music, and introduced into them compositions such as The Sweet Psalmist of Israel, 1953. His music is essentially tonal and modal, although the dodecaphonic form was the basis for Vision of a Prophet (1959).
Alexandre Boskovitch (Hungary 1907 – Israel 1964) was also influenced by popular forms of expression as material for musical composition. He viewed the Israeli composer as the spokesperson of a collectivity that draws its inspiration from desert landscapes and the harsh light of the sun of the Orient; in short, a dynamic expressed simultaneously in language and music through Biblical and Modern Hebrew as well as Arabic. Even while still using Western instruments, it combines classical music with local elements, thereby creating, what it terms, a “Mediterranean music.” Some of Boskovitch’s most famous works include Semitic Suite, Shir ha-Maalot (Song of the Degrees), Concerto da camera, and Adaim (Ornaments).
However, the Israeli-Arab conflict and the constant threat of new unrest also sent the younger composers back to their cultural sources. This return was clear in the large number of Israeli compositions that were directly inspired by the country: the Mediterranean sky, the vegetation, language, poetry, mores and habits and, of course, the religious impulse. In parallel, an increasing individualism characterized artistic creation, so much so that today it is difficult to find a common denominator among Israeli composers.
Among the composers of this generation, I shall present briefly the careers of Ben Tziyon Orgad, born in 1926, Tzvi Avni, born in 1927 and Ami Maayani, born in 1936.
Orgad’s music draws its essential characteristics from his use of Hebrew roots. In the modal tonalities such as the maqam and in the chromatic scale we can identify models of intonation and the metrical values typical of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, as well as the presence of the melismas  that came out of the rich traditions of Eastern and Western cantillation .
Tzvi Avni’s first compositions included folkloric elements such as asymmetrical rhythms, while also incorporating classical sonata and rondo, where Bartok’s influence is clear. Avni would later evolve towards electronic music.
Ami Maayani, founder and director of the National Youth Orchestra of Israel, studied architecture and city planning as well as philosophy alongside music. While his compositions were inspired by Near Eastern elements (melisma, Biblical cantillation, traditional prayers, aspects of Arab tonal music), Maayani sought to combine them with symphonic music originating in France, drawing particular inspiration from Claude Debussy.
The Third Generation
Most of the composers of the third generation are sabras whose musical approach is both individualistic and international. Like their predecessors, they left to study in the United States, but this time the goal was a doctorate in musicology. They were therefore exposed for a longer period of time to contemporary music outside Israel. However, while this generation was characterized by its cosmopolitan outlook, it reintegrated musical languages linked to its origins. The syncopated and Eastern rhythms of the hora , that became the trademark of the 1930s, were abandoned over three decades by composers who sought to “cut the umbilical cord.” In the early 1960s they returned in the form of a “flavor associated with universal Jewish roots.”
1960 can be seen as a turning point with the creation of the Festival of Israel, the first intention of the organizers being to offer a new impetus to typically Israeli song. In fact, given the exhaustion of inspiration drawn from the model of Biblical, agricultural and military songs, it expressed the desire to create songs similar to those in vogue in Western consumer society. At the same time, this process was counterbalanced by the after effects of the Six Day War and the resulting replenishing of Jewishness experienced by many Israelis. Indeed, after June 1967, there was a burst of songwriting that gave rise to a new trend in Israeli music: “songs of the land of Israel.”