“…There is no linear creative process. By its very nature it moves adventurously in many directions. There is the big danger that this may mislead one to superficiality. But just the same it is the great privilege of the creative man that all the roads are open before him. It is up to him, whether he loses his way in that universe or whether he explores it.”  From: Self portrait of the composer Josef Tal – notes for a radio transmission, date unknown

Tal’s music is characterized by broad dramatic gestures and driving bursts of energy, generated by various types of ostinato, or sustained textural accumulations. Complex rhythmic patterning is typical of the widely performed 2nd Symphony and a number of notable dance scores. But Tal’s marked dramatic and philosophical propensities are only fully expressed in his operas, particularly in the large-scale, 12-note opera Ashmedai.

Tal’s early compositional style was controversial due to his departure from – and criticism of – the so-called ‘Mediterranean school’ favoured by many Israeli composers at the time. This approach, pioneered by Paul Ben-Haim and other composers, set traditional Middle Eastern Jewish melodies within a European, often Impressionist, harmonic vocabulary. Tal was the most distinctive among the first generation of composers who principally opposed the use of folklorism and orientalism.

“…From the moment of my arrival in Palestine, in 1934, I was considered to be an enfant terrible. I thought that it was a mistake to harmonize a Yemenite melody according to European songs.”  Gluck – A Conversation with Josef Tal (2003)

Tal’s style is not easy to characterize. On the one hand, like other members of the pioneer generation of composers who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s, Tal sought to create a new national style distinct from European (and particularly German) modernism. On the other hand, in an effort to distance himself from Ben-Haim’s ‘Mediterranean’ school, he adopted a distinctly modernist style. Furthermore, Tal’s music is far from being monolithic. It is dominantly atonal but it underwent changes and modifications which reflect the transformations in Israeli music over the years. Most of the works composed by Tal around 1950 are characterized by traditional components and frameworks, and are written using traditional techniques such as variations and atonal musical language. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the Mediterranean style peaked, Tal  frequently borrowed from Oriental-Jewish source material for his compositions. If we accept Ben-Zion Orgad’s definition as the most pertinent, it surely follows that Tal’s Piano Sonata1st symphony, 2nd Piano Concerto, and other works based on Oriental-Jewish melodies, are definitely not Mediterranean. 

Rehearsal with Vogler Quartet, Berlin (2003)

Reflections (1950) is neither tonal nor serial, and inhabits a world not unlike Bartok of the 3rd and 4th string quartets, tempered somewhat by a decidedly Stravinskian acidity, along with a Hindemithian contrapuntal propensity. This, however, should not be taken literally. Cast in three movements, with a performance time of approximately fifteen minutes, its procedures relate it more to the general neo-classic aesthetics of the late 1930s and 1940s. The use of solo strings played off against the ripieni of the string body points to the Baroque concerto grosso. As if to trump its neo-classical models, the final movement is a kind of fugue where Tal obliquely pays his respects to Hindemith without explicitly reverting  to Hindemith’s vocabulary.

“…After the War [WWII], again, I had to learn a new musical language, the serial technique, which became dominant in the 1950s in Europe. Other styles followed that one. Every fifteen years I learned, and composed in, a new musical style, and all of them interested me. This variety is [the story of] the 20th century, and it could happen only to one who lived through the whole century, someone stubborn like me.”  Tal in Ben-Zeev, 2004

Tal’s numerous works for traditional media defy classification as part of any particular school. Schoenberg undoubdtedly influenced the Berlin composition student in his younger years. But neither his widely played 1st Symphony (1952) nor his exceedingly well-wrought String Quartet in one movement, nor, for that matter, his subsequent Cello Concerto is dodecaphonically conceived, in any structural sense. While row materials are used freely, the 12-tone method of composing is not strictly applied anywhere, not even in as recent and completely atonal a piece as the Structure for solo harp. Similarly, oriental materials are employed sparingly and with the greatest caution. Whereas the 1st Symphony is actually based on a Persian-Jewish lament (as notated by A. Z. Idelsohn), the String Quartet no longer goes beyond the use of a few characteristic motifs. And while the 1st Symphony still features a dance section, as befits the then prevailing tenets of the Mediterranean School, such sacrifices to popular taste, however subtle, have been conspicuously missing in recent years.

A comprehensive examination of Tal’s work suggests the following analysis: (adapted from Ron, 1990)

(A) First period (works written before 1959). These possess a three-part structure: The micro-structural idea is based on the relationship between notes; the beat and the melodic line occupy an important place among the sum of the musical components.
(B) Second period (1959–1967). Characterized by the use of dodecaphonic technique.
(C) Third period (from 1967 on). Characterized by all (instrumental) works being written in one condensed movement. The single note, with its potential implications, is the micro-structural idea. Time, the sound in its various aspects, the rhythmic figure, the color and the texture are the dominant components. The influence of electronic music is evident. Transition from one period to the next is gradual, with the language in all of them atonal and the compositions developed from a single basic idea.
(D) All Tal’s works contain a recapitulation, which he terms “closing the cycle”. Tal viewed his compositions as a metaphor for the geometric circle, the perfect form, the life cycle. Life begins with the note C (do) – a “center of gravity”. Tal employed innovative instrumental and orchestral techniques while retaining a predisposition for tradition, especially the Baroque. He divided the orchestra into sound and color groups, at times also attaching a special texture to each group. This technique is personal and could be viewed as Tal’s unique language. The orchestra as a whole is used sparingly, only at strategic points.

…Undoubtedly one can find a wealth of musical motifs in Israeli folklore, but it is the courageous composer that absorbs it for an extra-national goal, to create a universal work of art. A work related to temporal phenomena and values is bound to dilettantism. It will lack the origin of every work of art, which, similar to nature, is super-natural and eternal.” Tal in: Shiloach, 1953

“…Israeli music is not the outcome of tonality or modality, of atonality or dodecaphony, nor of serial technique or electronics. These are nothing more than the means to which the folkloristic quotation, the combination of Mediterranean fifths, the a la hora rhythm, also belong. The means itself is good as long as it serves a living content and a vital will. In every living language the dialect must necessarily undergo changes: so in music too.” Tal in: Bat Kol , 1961

“…As a born creator, Tal has thus enjoyed the inestimable advantage of isolation (for which, to pose an extreme case, Beethoven had to pay with his hearing); notwithstanding his straightforward, elemental love for the Jewish national home, he was too inventive a musician to be caught up in nationalist movements or submit to such Judaic or Jewish pressures… While the European composer, and especially the avant-gardist, has tended to worry about trends, unconfessed fashions… Tal has been evolving his natural post-tonal style in total detachment from Europe’s and indeed America’s much-publicized secret societies… The result has been a supra-factional as well as supra-national output which immediately attracts musical listeners who have not themselves been deafened by their theoretical and/or national allegiances…” Keller, 1979

 Composer–listener relationship


'Accompaniment without orchestra: Josef Tal and his loudspeakers'. Caricature by Meir Ronnen in the Jerusalem Post Musical Diary, following the World Premiere of Tal's Concerto No. 4 for Piano & Electronic Accompaniment (Aug, 1962)

Tal fully appreciated the importance of the relationship between composer and listener, and was aware of the difficulties posed by “modern music”.

“…Theoretically, if you had played to people of the third century the 9th Symphony of Beethoven, possibly they would have listened only to some white noise – because they were not educated to understand or analyze such a lot of different acoustical appearances…”  Tal in Beckwith, 1961

“Tal’s attitude towards his music and his audience was inspired by the uncompromising approach[es] of Beethoven and Arnold Schönberg, two composers whom Tal particularly admired. He places high demands upon his listeners: his works are intense, dissonant and densely eventful, and cannot be fully comprehended in one hearing…” Hirshberg, 2008

“…I hesitate to provide the listener with a verbal analysis that explains a musical theoretical system using professional terminologies. This domain belongs to the composer’s workshop and should not bother the listener. The listener brings his own musical experience to the concert, which was gained through lengthy exposure to classical and romantic music. This experience results in habits that help him navigate in classical music. The 20th century music listener is subject to a different system. Musical language changes constantly thus altering its aesthetic perception. Musical elements such as melody, harmony and rhythm are now manifested differently from the traditional music. Despite these changes, a phenomenon common to all musical eras shows itself constantly: the suggestive power that flows from the musical piece to the listener…” Tal’s foreword to 4th Symphony premiere, 1987

Electronic music

Tal produced some of the earlier examples of electricoacoustic music, and in this is joined by such as Edgard Varèse, Mario Davidovsky, and Luciano Berio. As might be expected from a man of his candor, Tal is completely undoctrinaire about electronic music and broaches its problems with the same healthy skepticism that marked his approach to the twelve-tone method and to “national” Israeli style. Thus, he declared:

“We can make a religion of the purity of the sine-tone, we can use white noise as a counterpart, but we cannot shut our ears to the fact that compared with conventional tone material, as the bearer of sound content, electronic tone material is inherently narrower and more rigid; indeed it has the characteristics of the synthetic…”

Imbued with the kind of realism found only in the true idealist, Tal was indeed a liberal in a realm of artistic endeavor where extremism often dominates. Combining a modicum of modesty with a strong sense of personal value, he impresses even those who find his music rather forbidding and exerts a far more powerful influence on the younger generation than some of his more “successful” colleagues who intoxicate a gullible public with their facile “Mediterranean” orientalism. The founding figure of the field in Israel, Josef Tal was first exposed to electronic music in the late 1920s in Germany. The founding of the Israel Center for Electronic Music was the result of a 1958 six-month UNESCO research fellowship  during which Tal toured major international electronic music studios. It was a meeting with Milton Babbitt at The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center that pointed Josef Tal to the technology he needed to found the first electronic music studio in Israel. He learned from Vladimir Ussachevsky, about a new invention by Canadian inventor Hugh Le Caine, called the Multi-track. First built in 1955, this device could replay six independent magnetic tapes, with the speed and direction of each tape separately controllable. Le Caine’s idea was to design an instrument to facilitate composition in the Parisian musique concrète tradition of Pierre Schaeffer. Following the successful fund-raising efforts of Shalheveth Freier, the Multi-track, built for Tal’s studio, was completed and delivered to Jerusalem in 1961. It required a trip by Le Caine to set it up correctly.

Icon comprising amplitude and pitch presentation

Tal strongly believed in the value of electronic instruments and their potential to transcend the limitations of traditional acoustic means of sound production. Tal regarded electronic music as a new music language, which he describes as unstable and lacking a crystallized definition. He viewed the computer as an instrument which compels the composer to disciplined thinking. In return, it stores the data it is fed with absolute faithfulness. Nevertheless, when the computer is ill-used, the composer’s incompetence will be revealed, as he is unable to unite computer with the realm of music. But according to Tal, composing electronic music has another aspect too: when the composer chooses the computer’s music-notation as his creative tool, he concomitantly annuls the performer’s role as an interpreter. From that point on, it is the composer’s mental capacity only that counts, and the performance is independent of the interpreter’s virtuosity.

Tal integrated electronic music in many of his works for “conventional” instruments, and was actually a world’ pioneer in this technique. His pieces for electronic music and harp, piano or harpsichord, and operas like Massada or Ashmedai are typical examples. Following the premiere of Concerto No.4 for Piano & Electronics (27/8/1962), Herzl Rosenblum, the daily Yediot Aharonot‘s editor and critic, used the terms “Terror!”, “Cacophony” and “Minority dictatorship”…

“[…Despite] Tal’s considerable interest in electronic music, and the time and creativity he devoted to it, he has composed very few electronic works, and these are not performed very often, partly because the composer himself did not particularly encourage their public presentation… Apparently, Tal could not quite adapt himself to the situation of sitting in a hall facing a set of two or four loudspeakers, and listening to the sounds emanating from them with no human performer in sight… Tal’s compositional involvement with electronic music therefore largely consisted of combining live performance with electronic sound” Hirshberg, 2008/1-2


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