Israeli Mediterranean Style, The


*The following is a summary of an article by Ronit Seter, to read the full article.

The term Mediterranean style, as it has been used in Israel, originally referred to selected versions of European Mediterranean styles in art music that Jewish composers—the founders of Israeli music, among them the Israeli Five: Paul (Frankenburger) Ben-Haim (1897-1984), Oedoen Partos (1907-1977), Alexander U. Boskovich (1907-1964), Mordecai (Starominsky) Seter (1916-1994), and Josef (Grünthal) Tal (1910-2008)—developed first in British Palestine in the late 1930s throughout the 1940s, then in Israel mostly until the early 1950s, denoting an emerging national identity through local color in music.

It was also qualified as signon Mizrahi (Eastern or oriental style, i.e., of the Middle East, the cradle of Judaism, rather than East Asia) or signon Mizrah-yam tikhoni (Eastern-Mediterranean style), referring to the preferred ethnic sources: often derived from the liturgical and para-liturgical musical traditions of Yemenite, Persian, and Moroccan Israeli Jews (i.e., the musics of local and regional Arab and Persian Jews) and other Mizrahi and local, Palestinian musical heritage.

These traditions inspired the founders who, following Bartók in particular, and other European and East-European national schools, wished to create a national style based on local traditions, some of which presumably had remote resemblance to the music of the Temple or ancient Israel. The Mediterranean style embodied, first and foremost, a collection of styles imagined and constructed to convey nationalism in music during the pre-statehood decade.

During the last few decades, the term has acquired additional meanings, relating to popular Israeli musics influenced by regional musical elements, which have transformed and redefined the original meaning. As we will limit our discussion to Israeli art music composed through the early 1950s, this entry will focus on the original concept.

Originally—and often today—presented as uniquely local and even un-European, the Israeli Mediterranean style was simply modeled after European composers who conveyed Mediterranean styles, most obviously the style of Spanish-influenced compositions by Debussy and Ravel; it also integrated the techniques that Bartók created to incorporate Eastern-European folk tunes and their melodic, rhythmic, and structural elements in his music. Leading Jewish composers of the time, almost all raised and educated in Central Europe, Eastern Europe, or Russia, developed the Mediterranean style in their music mainly during the 1940s in Palestine: Paul Ben-Haim (originally, Frankenburger), whose music has been considered emblematic and best representative of this style; Alexander Uriyah (Uria, Uriya) Boskovich (Boscovitch, Boskowitch), one of the first Mediterranean composers who most likely coined the term locally, and who not only expressed it in his music but also theorized it in his writings; Oedoen Partos, the first Israel Prize laureate in composition, best known at the time as an equally superb violist, musician, and composer; Marc Lavry, whose light-classical Mediterranean style captured audiences; and Menahem Avidom, the only Mediterranean composer whose oriental style was shaped by his studies and teaching in Arab countries, Lebanon and Egypt. Finally, Josef Tal and Mordecai Seter were the two composers of the Israeli Five whose early style during the 1940s and early 1950s had not been considered as part of this style until the 1980s, but recent reception and scholarship have shifted. Tal, known as the pioneer of electronic music in Israel in the early 1960s, downplayed the integration of local and Mizrahi tunes in his music of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which was an attempt to contribute to the creation of national music. Seter, the youngest among the founders, used his selection of Mizrahi religious tropes within densely polyphonic, expressive settings, much unlike the pastoral, impressionistic Mediterranean vogue of the time. His highly influential music was especially appreciated by his peers Boskovich, Partos and composers of the second generation who studied with the Five, notably Tzvi Avni, Ben-Zion Orgad, and Noam Sheriff.