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Marc Lavry

Marc LavryMARC LAVRY (1903 – 1967) was born as Marc Levin in Riga, Latvia. At the age of 3, 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 9, and by 12 he was composing for the school orchestra he had founded. Upon his graduation, the school principal handed Lavry a binder of his “orchestral compositions.” At the same time he attended the Riga Conservatory of Music from which he graduated at the age of 15.

After graduating high school, Lavry was sent by his parents to study architecture at the Technical College in Oldenburg, Germany. After graduating, he returned to his love — music. At the Leipzig Conservatory, he studied piano with Robert Teichmuller, composition under Paul Graener, and conducting with both Hermann Scherchen and Bruno Walter. At that time he decided to change his last name to Lavry because there was another, older composer and conductor by the same name.

Lavry started his conducting career when he was 21. After two years as conductor at the opera house in Saarbrücken, Germany, he moved to Berlin, where he became music director and conductor for Rudolf Von Laban’s dance theater. He wrote music for Max Reinhardt’s theatrical productions and for films, and in 1928 he assumed the post of conductor of the Berliner Sinfonieorchester (Berlin City Symphony Orchestra). During his years in Germany, Lavry began to address Jewish subjects in some of his music. His Jewish Suite for String Quartet (or String Orchestra, Op. 17) and orchestral piece — Hassidic Dance (Op. 22) were both premièred 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 premièred 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. 29).

Lavry continued writing for the movie industry mostly in Finland, where in 1934 he collaborated with Otto Preminger. That 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 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 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.

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 Haemek (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 premièred 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 première 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 later was 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 Theatre. He also, with Maestro George Singer, assumed the post of music director and conductor of the Palestine Folk Opera.

The opera Dan Hashomer (Dan the Guard, 1945, Op.158) was premièred by the Palestine Folk Opera. 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 33 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 to focus 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, are 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 relocate 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. Lavry’s brother, Phillip, his 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. Lavry 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 and improvisator; he also was 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. By incorporating the folk tunes and rhythms of the country, he is considered one of the national composers of Israeli music.

(Source: The Marc Lavry Heritage Foundation)

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