Tablet Magazine today publishes my essay on Israel’s improbable pre-eminence in classical music. There is something special—if you pardon the expression, inspired—about the way Israel’s musicians perform (and recreate) the great classical repertoire of the West. The essay contains numerous links to musical performances and interviews with the musicians. My conclusion:

Israel’s contribution to classical music, that most distinctly Western of art forms, has never been more visible. And Israelis take to classical music—the art form that most clearly creates a sense of the future—like no other people on earth, to the point that music has become part of Israel’s character, an embodiment of the national genius for balancing hope and fear.

First Things eaders may recall my essay ” Sacred Music, Sacred Time ” in the October 2009 issue of the magazine (sorry, the article is behind the subscriber firewall). My argument was that because music transforms our perception of time, and because our sense of mortality is bound up with temporality, music has a unique capacity to invoke a sense of the sacred. Along the lines of this analysis, I try in the present essay to explain what about the Israeli character produces so many extraordinary musicians:

For most of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s seven-decade history, U.S. donors paid for scholarships, instruments, and foreign travel for Israeli students, who seem to include every one of the stars I interviewed. Israeli entrepreneurs now comprise an important part of the AICF’s support. The Jerusalem Music Center, founded in 1973 by Isaac Stern and now headed by the great American pianist Murray Perahia, was another AICF offshoot. The most analytical of keyboard virtuosos, Perahia knows the method of the great Viennese-Jewish theorist Heinrich Schenker and brings his background and contacts to bear on the Center’s teaching methods.

Schenker showed how the tonal music of the West creates a sense of the future, in a way that no other kind of music can. Even the simplest eight-bar phrase evokes a musical future. The four bars that set “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream” leave the listener on the fifth step of the scale, the “dominant” to music theorists, and we expect that the next four bars will take us back to the home note, or “tonic.” Great composers spin this contrast of departure and return into extended pieces, in which time itself becomes a variable dimension. Musical time can be distended into suspense or compressed into surprise. The methods by which the great composers achieve such effects are subtle and require faithful attention to the score and knowledge of the composers’ teaching tradition in order to represent them in performance.

A simple way to think of the problem is this: The sense of a future in Western classical music evokes the basic emotions with which human beings regard the future, namely hope and fear. When Israeli musicians speak of performing with a sense of risk, they mean the capacity to sustain hope in the presence of fear. It takes a certain kind of personality to do this on the concert stage, with all the attendant artistic and technical demands. Israel, whose existential premise is the triumph of hope over fear, incubates a disproportionately large number of musicians with this sort of personality.

Western conservatories, by contrast, tend to penalize risk-taking. Their graduates are taught to launch careers by winning competitions, and the default strategy for taking a competition prize is to make the fewest mistakes. The conservatory-and-competition circuit tends to manufacture risk-averse savants who play with the spiritual equivalent of surgical gloves.

For what it’s worth, this is a new thought. Ultimately it is the religious character of the Jews that comes through in Israeli music, as an existential stance. That, I think is what Tomer Lev, the head of the piano department at the Tel Aviv conservatory, was saying in the quoted interview:
Given today’s antipathy toward Israel among so many Europeans, Lev’s account of how the Zionists of the late 1930s set out to preserve Western high culture sounds positively chivalresque. Tomer Lev brushes this aside: He finds the events not just improbable but miraculous.

“This country, its existence, its continuity cannot be measured by realistic and rational gauges,” he says. “Everything that happens here has a component of a miracle. The way people think here is not completely rational. It’s a very interesting blend of rational modern thinking and quasi-religious mystical thinking. People here take the risk of trying a musical career even if they know on a rational basis that there’s little money and security. Taking risks in Israel is part of life. You are taking a risk simply to live here.”

Lev pauses, and adds: “Life in Israel is perhaps too intense. Art creates an outlet to this intensity. For sensitive people, the artistic outlet is a necessity; you need it or you go crazy. And we are a society of individualists, perhaps the most individualistic in the world, perhaps to an extreme. In such an atmosphere, the individual spirit has a great deal of freedom to be unique, to be special, not to be suppressed.”

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