Josef Tal – A Courageous Israeli Composer

The Fellowship  |  September 16, 2020

Josef Tal, composer in 1939 with Palestine Conservatory of Music Orchestra
Josef Tal, composer in 1939 with Palestine Conservatory of Music Orchestra

This week’s Israeli You Should Know – composer Josef Tal – wrote music which earned him the title of one of Israel’s founding fathers of art music. But Tal’s music proved to be more than just art – it helped create a national music for the Jewish state and her people.

A Lifelong Love of Music

Born to a Jewish family in present-day Poland, Josef Tal first encountered music in during temple services. He loved the synagogue choir, and his grandfather served as cantor. Following his love of music, Tal took piano lessons and studied musical theory in Berlin. There, he married a dancer, and worked as an accompanist, playing piano for singers, dancers, and silent films.

At the same time, Hitler came to power in Germany and new anti-Semitic laws prevented Tal from working as a musician. Instead, the composer studied photography, an occupation which in the early days of the Nazi regime still allowed him to make aliyah (immigrate to the Holy Land).

Escaping Nazi Germany with His Life

Tal made aliyah with his wife and young son, where he worked as a photographer in pre-state Israel. But he never forgot his true love, music. In Jerusalem, Tal played piano, gave piano lessons, and even played harp for the newly founded Palestine Orchestra.

Tal’s reputation as a pianist earned him spots teaching at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, as well as at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also worked his entire life as a pianist and conductor.

A Universal Artwork

But the music Tal the composer wrote earned him a place in Israeli history. Like many composers who arrived in the Holy Land because of World War II, Tal helped create a new, modern Israeli music. Unlike many of his peers, Tal looked to create a new music – one separate from the European and German music he looked to escape. As Tal wrote:

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 artwork… which, similarly to nature, is super-natural and eternal.

As heard above, in the biblical requiem Tal composed, “The Death of Moses,” this composer and Israeli You Should Know surely created universal artwork.

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