Lavry’s music can be divided into two distinct periods: The European Period that includes his earlier works (Opus 1 to 27), and the Israeli Period that started as soon as he immigrated to Israel in 1935 (Opus 28 to 352, and many composition to which no opus number was given.)
Marc Lavry was born as Marc Levin on December 22, 1903 in Riga, Latvia. At the age of three, upon returning with his nanny from a concert at the park, he attempted to carve a branch into a “magic stick that makes music”. Needless to say, the scar on his thumb became a reminder of his first encounter with music for the rest of his life.
His first piano compositions were written at the age of nine, and by twelve he was composing for the school orchestra he had founded. At the same time he studied Composition and Piano the Riga Conservatory of Music from which he graduated at the age of 15. After graduation Lavry continued his studies with Professor Joseph Wihtol (Jazeps Vitols).
After graduating high school Lavry’s parents felt that music was not a respectable profession and sent him to study architecture at the Technical College in Oldenburg, Germany. He then returned to his love – music. At the Leipzig Conservatory he studied piano with Prof. Robert Teichmuller, composition under Paul Graener, and conducting with Hermann Scherchen.
At that time he decided to change his last name to Lavry because there was another, older composer and conductor by the same name, Marc Levin.
(Opus 1-27 and 35)
Lavry started his conducting career when he was 21. After two years as conductor at the opera house in Saarbrücken (1926-27), he moved to Berlin, where he became Music Director and Conductor for Rudolf von Laban’s dance theater (1927-28). He wrote music for Max Reinhardt’s theatrical productions and for films of the European arm of the Universal Production Company. In Berlin, that was the global musical hub of the time, Lavry completed his musical education at the Stern Conservatory where he served as an assistant to Prof. Wilhelm Klatte. He studied conducting with Bruno Walter and composition with Alexander Glazunov, a composer who at the time resided in Berlin.
In 1928, at the age of 25, he assumed the post of Conductor of the Berliner Sinfonie Orchester (Berlin Symphony Orchestra) where he stayed until the orchestra was dismantled by the Nazi regime.
During his years in Germany, Lavry began to address Jewish subjects in some of his music. His Suite Juif (Jewish Suite) for String Orchestra or String Quartet (Op. 17) and orchestral piece – Hassidic Dance (Op. 22) were both premiered in Berlin in 1930 and 1931. He also evinced an interest at that stage in artistic conceptions of other folksong traditions, as demonstrated by his Variations on a Latvian Folksong (Op. 11), which was premiered by the Berliner Sinfonieorchester around the same time.
Lavry returned to Riga in 1933, two months after the National Socialist party assumed power in Germany. He became the resident conductor of the Riga Opera. The following year, he conducted the Riga Radio Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra performing his symphonic poem Ahasver, the Wandering Jew (Op. 23.)
Lavry continued writing for the movie industry mostly in Finland where in 1934 he collaborated with Otto Preminger. At the same year he married Helena Mazoh who was a successful journalist in the Sivodnia newspaper in Riga.
In the wake of the Fascist coup in Latvia he decided to leave the country. He had not yet become involved with Zionism, so Palestine represented only one of several options for him; he briefly considered both the United States and Russia. In 1935 Lavry and his wife, Helena, made an exploratory trip to Palestine. They were enchanted with the country and settled in Tel Aviv. While joining the Hagana movement (the Jewish underground army) he recorded the signal of the newly formed underground radio station as well as the first-ever recorded version of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva.
Becoming an Israeli Composer
In his autobiography Lavry wrote:
I immigrated to Israel in 1935 and immediately felt that I found my spiritual homeland…. 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.
By the time Lavry immigrated to Israel he was already an accomplished composer whose compositions were performed all over Europe. However, he saw moving to Israel as his rebirth and became involved with all aspects of life in the newly forming state. By 1937, only two years after his arrival in Israel, he created his new iconic sonority, rhythms and harmonies. He explored the local folklore and established a new musical style that became the foundation of Israeli music.
Lavry saw himself as an Isareli composer and never again performed any composition from his European period. For example: In 1946 he wrote a concerto for piano and orchestra and titled it Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1, Op. 201 disregarding the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra Op. 10 that he wrote in 1931 and was premiered by renowned pianist Fritz Hans Rehbold and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra on January 18, 1931.
Within his first year in Palestine, Lavry wrote a symphonic poem for string orchestra, Al Naharot Bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon, Op. 33), which depicts the story of the captivity in Babylon in Psalm 137. In 1936 he wrote his first song to Hebrew lyrics describing the Jezreel Valley in the north of Israel. Shir Ha-Emek (Song of the Valley, Op. 40)celebrated the pioneering spirit of the land reclamation and agricultural settlement in the valley. It was so widely played and sung that it gained a folk-song status.
In 1937 Lavry developed the song into a symphonic poem, simply titled Emek (Op.45). This composition was premiered by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, and was the first work by an Israeli composer to be programmed in a symphonic concert. A preview of the premiere of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz dubbed it the “first symphonic hora”—referring to the quintessential emblematic modern Israeli folk dance pattern that pervades the piece. Emek was later included in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s first world tour conducted by Leonard Bernstein and was received with standing ovations. Emek became Lavry’s best known and most frequently performed piece.
From 1941 to 1947 Lavry became the resident composer of the Ohel Theater. He also, together with Maestro George Singer, assumed the post of Music Director and conductor of the Palestine Folk Opera.
The opera Dan Hashomer (Dan the Guard, Op. 158) was premiered by the Palestine Folk Opera in 1945. Written to a libretto by Max Brod and based on Shin Shalom’s play Yeriot Al Hakibbutz (Shots on the Kibbutz), the opera was performed thirty-three times. Throughout the opera Lavry juxtaposed Eastern European musical clichés and motifs against Middle Eastern ones as a way of representing distinctions, almost as typological leitmotifs, between the older generation of European and the young generation of pioneers and kibbutz workers. It was the first Israeli opera and the only one to date that focused on events and challenges facing the newly forming Israeli state. Dan Hashomer and the social issues it deals with, like Israeli-Arab and the secular-religious conflicts in Israel, is still as relevant today as it was when it was written.
The opera had such an effect in Israel that Marc and Helena Lavry named their first two children after the lead characters — son Dan and daughter Efrat. They later named their third child Varda after Lavry’s sister Rosa who perished in the Holocaust. (Varda is a Hebrew equivalent to Rosa.)
In 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion requested Marc Lavry to relocated to Jerusalem, the state’s capital, and establish Kol Zion Lagola (The Broadcasting Service to the Diaspora), a short-wave radio network that broadcasted to Jewish communities outside Israel. His brother, Phillip, the only surviving relative, heard Lavry’s music on the radio while serving a political sentence in Siberia. Learning that his brother was alive in Israel allowed the two to reconnect. From 1950 to 1958 Lavry was Music Director of the Kol Zion Lagola radio station. He founded the first Israeli professional choir – the Kol Zion Lagola Choir, and served as its Music Director until he left Jerusalem.
In 1963 Haifa’s Mayor Abba Hushi invited Lavry to move to Haifa in order to develop and cultivate music in the city. He remained in Haifa until his sudden death in 1967, at the age of 63. The Variations for Piano (Op. 350) was the last score left on his piano.
Marc Lavry wrote extremely fast, hearing the music “in his head”. He would then sit at the piano and sketch an outline. His orchestration process was just as rigorous; he would sit at his desk, mentally playing the music, concentrating on the orchestration even while his children were playing in the room or practicing the piano.
Lavry, the conductor, led every orchestra in Israel. He was also a guest conductor with orchestras outside of Israel, usually incorporating his own compositions in the concert. He was a gifted pianist, an improvisator, and was also a phenomenal Jazz musician.
His legacy includes compositions from operas to popular music. He was also a prolific arranger and orchestrator of music by other composers in Israel.
Throughout his life, Lavry took upon himself to perform and perpetuate music by all Israeli and Jewish composers.
Marc Lavry’s musical style is lyrical and communicative. In incorporating the folk tunes and rhythms of the country he is considered one of the national composers of Israeli music. His philosophy on music can be best understood when reading his Motto written in his own words:
A Composer’s Motto
When I attempt to analyze the compositions of my fellow composers as well as my own, I conclude that only few of us could have avoided the influence of our country — its way of life, the landscape, the unique culture and folklore of the various sectors and sects, and most important is the influence of the language — the biblical as well as the modern Hebrew.
Each composer has his own style and writes according to his conception and talent, yet one can detect a common denominator in all the compositions: there is that special overtone that can only be found in the music of Israeli composers, that could not be found had they not lived in Israel <—> something we call “Israeli music”.
As for myself, I never attempted consciously to compose in the Israeli style. I didn’t try, upon arriving in Israel, to impose upon myself a specific conception. Yet, as soon as I became encompassed with the influence of the country, when I found myself to be an integral part of Israel, when I mastered the Hebrew language — in the most natural way — I began composing in that style which I write till today.
I write for the public and I want to be understood by it. I want my music to create the same feelings, ideas and impressions that inspired me to write the composition. Therefore, I usually choose a simple and understandable musical language.
I take an interest in all innovations and search for new techniques and idioms. But I do not accept the non-melodious systems; music must have a melody, and a melody can be a modern one.
– Marc Lavry, 1967