Marc Lavry – Profile of the Man and His Musical Legacy

Michael-WolpeBy: Prof. Michael Wolpe
July 27, 2009

I did not have the good fortune to meet Marc Lavry.

All that I know of him is derived from what I learned about him from my teachers and from musicians who were privileged to work with him, from what I read in the sparse literature discussing the music of his period and, of course, mainly from studying the scores he left behind and from listening to recordings of his works which I have heard on many occasions – both on my own initiative, when I searched for them in archives, and by chance when they were broadcasted on the radio.

It was the very long list of his compositions that made a strong initial impression on me.

Marc Lavry left behind him a vast amount of music. He wrote in many different genres, applied himself to a wide variaty of styles and in each and every field of activity, and composed a prodigious number of works.

On a perusal of his manuscripts, two striking characteristics impressed me:

  • Marc Lavry’s writing is marked by clarity and orderliness resulting, in my opinion, from an excellent inner sense of sound. His musical intentions are written so that they are easily comprehensible – not only as regards to the pitch of the notes and the rhythm, but also the force, the pauses and other expressive resources – all these are very clearly intelligible to the reader.
  • The second characteristic is the professionalism. This is perhaps what makes a particular impact on me when studying his scores. Lavry feels so very much at home with the instruments of the orchestra, has learned the secrets of orchestration, of singers’ voices, he exploits to the full each and every medium and ensemble which he fashions to perfection with the hand of a master craftsman.

I would add a third, very clear characteristic – naiveté. Lavry writes music with the surge and exuberance of a young man. He allows the melodies to lead the large form, adding harmonies and flowing lines to these melodies, together forging an optimistic and moving acoustic fabric. His music is particularly communicative and somewhat emotional; even the dramatic climaxes are marked by consummate delicacy – which I find is not always fully realized by performers of his works.

Even though I did not know him personally, it seems to me that Marc Lavry was blessed with a number of characteristics that resulted in him being so very central to the establishment of Israeli music in its early years, but also caused him to become a controversial figure:

  • He was a charismatic, extremely hard-working figure who focused on music-making with great enthusiasm.
  • He was interested in many types of music-making. He loved and excelled at conducting choirs and orchestras, was very interested in the recording and documentation of music, he founded orchestras and choirs successfully and organized and directed musical institutions he had established in his early years.
  • Lavry was attracted to a variety of styles. He enjoyed making arrangements of popular songs, was interested in folk music which he often incorporated into his own works; to the same extent, he loved symphonic music and Baroque oratorio. As one who was accustomed to working with instruments and deeply involved with symphony orchestras and choirs and the quality of the human voice, he was the first to include in his projects vocalists from the field of popular music, such as Yaffa Yarkoni, as well as opera singers.

Marc Lavry’s versatility, both from the point of view of his many activities as a musician – a composer of symphonic as well as of popular music, arranger, conductor, initiator and organizer – and also stylistically, as one who writes music – in a neo-Romantic style, in a Mediterranean style influenced by Impressionism and by the Russian music of his day, and arrangements in the style of American musicals as well as those with a clearly oriental flavor; someone who feels comfortable on the concert stage as well as on that of the light theatre and song festivals – through this versatility he made a name for himself among Israeli musicians, resulting in their having both positive and negative images of him. On the one hand, it was impossible not to wonder at his ability and productivity. On the other hand, there were those who saw his involvement in so many different activities and styles as a type of superficiality.

To all these should be added Marc Lavry’s legendary speed of writing. He wrote a great deal of music. This is a central fact to his heritage, since we are speaking of an output of unprecedented scope among the Israeli composers of the first generation.

From this point of view Marc Lavry had a strong influence both on symphonic music and on popular music in Israel. He was one of the style-setters of choral arrangements and one of the forerunners of the symphonic arrangement of Hebrew Song. He introduced simple modality to Hebrew Song and to symphonic works. While other musicians were occupied in writing and delivering learned treatises on ‘Mediterranean style’, Lavry succeeded in crystallizing his own personal voice, very strongly identified with symphonic Mediterranean music.

To the ears of his generation, Lavry’s music sounded Israeli. Today it still sounds Israeli. It’s not only the hora to be found as the conclusion of many of his works, or the many quotations from Jewish folksongs and hymns of all the different communities; not only the blending of seemingly oriental embellishments with modal harmonies. It is difficult to describe the essence of his music adequately. It is mainly a kind of overwhelming exuberance, illuminating the stormy, vital period in which he worked and created.

As for myself and in my lectures on Israeli music at the Academy of Music in Jerusalem, I tend to describe Lavry’s style as ‘naïve Mediterranean’. By this I do not only mean to indicate the naiveté pervading the lovely music he wrote, but rather the fact that his style sounds Mediterranean, even though he himself did not actually approach it theoretically, but simply composed intuitively in this manner.

Marc Lavry was well acquainted with the Hebrew language; he internalized the music of the people in his vicinity, breathed in the spirit of the desert as well as the ambience of the sea, looked up into the sun of the State of Israel, and created from a deep love of the land to which he immigrated and which he adopted as his homeland.

His two piano concertos, the concertos for violin, for harp, for viola, the symphonic poems ‘Negev’, ‘By the Waters of Babylon’, ‘Daliat El Carmel’, the symphonies, the oratorios ‘Song of Songs’, ‘Sacred Service’, ‘Queen Esther’ and, of course, the operas ‘Dan the Guard’ and ‘Tamar’ – all these works are important and well worth a renewed performance in Israel and abroad. Lavry’s music speaks to the audience as directly today as when it was composed. It flows with fascinating freshness and beauty.

During the past years I have been privileged to be involved in a number of new performances of his works. Audience reaction to ‘Song of Songs’ and ‘Daliat El Carmel’ was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

I can only hope that we will soon be fortunate enough to hear more and yet more compositions by one of the important creators of the first generation of Israeli music.

Michael Wolpe, Ph.D.
Sde Boker
July 27, 2009

About Michael Wolpe, Prof.
Dean, Department of Music Theory, Composition & Conducting
The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance

Prof. Michael Wolpe heads the Composition and Conducting Department at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He is also the Musical Director of three festivals, which are dedicated to original Israeli music: “Sounds in the Desert”, “Israeli Music Celebration” and “Musical Dialogues” in London.

Prof. Wolpe studied composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and Cambridge University, England. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem about Twentieth Century symphonic music in the United Kingdom.

Wolpe is also an acclaimed composer whose compositions encompass a wide variety of genres: symphonic, vocal, chamber, and dramatic. He has been awarded several prizes, including The Composers Union Prize, the Prime Minister’s Prize and the ACUM (artists union) Honorary Prize.

In 2012 Wolpe became a Professor at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.