I was born in Riga on December 22, 1903. I became interested in music at a very early age. My family had musicians; my mother was a music school graduate and played the piano. My brother and two sisters also studied music. My younger sister graduated the conservatory of music and was a fine pianist.
I do not remember exactly when I started composing, it must have been at a very early age. Just before leaving for Israel the principal of the school where I studied, Mr. Inzinar Landau, who was one of the first victims of the Nazi regime in Riga, handed me a bundle containing my childhood compositions that were kept at school.
I started studying the piano and composing came later. My music instructor at the Riga Conservatory of Music, Mr. Hans Schmidt, had great hopes for me and demanded that I continue my studies in Leipzig, Germany. But my parents didn’t think that a musical career is practical enough for their first-born. My father therefore agreed to allow me to practice music as long as I graduate an Academic Institute first.
I chose architecture because I thought it was closest to art. I didn’t become an architect but I do not regret the years I spent at the Technical Academy in Oldenburg, Germany. Many topics, like art history, became useful and regardless, I didn’t waist any time, formed a student orchestra and became its conductor.
The diploma from the Academy opened the doors to the acclaimed Leipzig Conservatory. There, professor Teichmuller took a special interest in me and became my piano instructor. I also studied composition with professors Gravner and Paul Graener. I practiced conducting outside the conservatory with Hermann Scherchen.
Through an introduction by professor Teichmuller upon graduating the Leipzig Conservatory I got my first job as a conductor. It was at the opera house in Saarbrucken where Felix Lederer was the music director. There I conducted operas and ballets and traveled all over the Rhineland.
After two seasons at Saarbrucken I moved to Berlin. Rudolf von Laban asked me to become the music coach and conductor of his famous ballet company. I worked with Laban for nearly four years and together we performed in most cities of Germany as well as much of Europe. We traveled to Italy, France, Austria, Hungry, Switzerland, the Balkans, and even reached Egypt. However, my fate did not bring me to Israel then.
Living from 1925 to 1933 in Berlin, which, at that time, was the world’s music center, created important opportunities for me to complete my music education. I was able to study as well as teach music at the Stern Conservatory (with Professor Wilhelm Kalatte, whose assistant I became.) I studied conducting with Bruno Walter and composition with Alexander Glazunov, who resided in Berlin in those years.
In 1929 I was appointed the conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, a post I held until Hitler came to power and dismissed the orchestra in 1933.
My composing concentrated mostly on music for ballet, theater and movies. I wrote quite a few ballets, large and small, one of which, The Blockade of Brest, based on Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba, was performed in Berlin as a full evening event.
I worked for the theaters like the Reinhardt and Charles and wrote music to four movies by U.P.C (Universal Picture Corporation).
In April 1933, after living eight years in Germany and right after Hitler rose to power, I left Berlin and returned to Riga. During those years, I visited Riga as a guest conductor. I conducted symphonic concerts, usually in the summer. My hometown welcomed me and opened the doors of the National Latvian Opera, The Symphonic Orchestra, and both the Russian and Jewish theaters to me.
But Hitler’s shadow put a cloud on Europe and in 1934, the fascist party rose to power in Latvia. Shortly after marrying my wife we decided to leave Riga and immigrate to Israel. Once again I became the defiant son, leaving for Israel against their wishes.
I immigrated to Israel in 1935 and immediately felt that I found my spiritual homeland. In 1936, I composed Shir Ha-Emek.
Nowhere before did I encounter such mental and material difficulties as I faced in Israel, but nowhere until arriving to Israel, did I feel that grounded. I felt that I landed where I belong and that I found a place worth fighting for. I felt that the country inspired me as a composer and that here I wrote my best compositions.
My symphonic poem Emek became most popular and was performed by most Israeli conductors as well as international guests. The oratorio Song of Songs that I wrote was performed and broadcasted by the Palestinian Symphony Orchestra and the symphonic poem Stalingrad was performed both in Israel and abroad.
The opera Dan Hashomer (Dan the Guard) was performed fifty times in one year at the Israeli Folk Opera where I am the resident conductor.
The Israeli atmosphere is easily detectable in most of my compositions, and I believe that they express Israel too. I do not want to argue whether or not there is an Israeli style in music but I consider myself as an Israeli composer because I am part of the country. I wish to sing this young country, that is struggling, being built, the country that is also ancient, biblical and romantic land. It is so far yet so near. I wish to express the joy of labor and the struggles of the Kibbutz, the exotic romanticism and our glorious past.
But the events of recent years, the tragic fate that met my people and most likely didn’t skip my family either, had affected me to the point that I am conflicted. I cannot stop thinking of the horrors about which we hear and read. It pressures me like a nightmare seeking an outlet in my work. In the summer of 1945 I completed composing the Tragic Symphony that is dedicated to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto. The music burst out as a cry of the soul, it was an inevitable reaction. Only then, I was able to return to my usual path.
Theses days, I am working on a concerto for piano and orchestra based on Israeli themes. Soon, I am planning to write a new opera and more compositions.
It seems to me that the recent turmoil cannot be overlooked and will probably never be forgotten.