This Date In History: Israel’s First Orchestra Inaugurated In 1936
Over a decade before the State of Israel declared independence, it was inaugurated. On December 26th, 1936, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now called the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) played its first note, and with it, ushered in a new era for the Jewish people, and marked the start of their amazing impact on the world’s music stage.
Formed earlier that year by Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, the recruitment process for the Orchestra carried with it enormous consequences. During the rise of Nazi Germany, and throughout Europe, where Jewish musicians were being persecuted, Huberman made it his personal mission to form the Palestine Symphony Orchestra by rescuing Europe’s Jewry. “With Hitler firing the best musicians in Europe,” Huberman said, “it suddenly became clear to me that this was an extraordinary opportunity to give this wonderful audience in Palestine a first-class orchestra.” The Orchestra served not just to employ 75 musicians, but brought to the land of Israel almost 1000 members of their family, sparing them from the Holocaust, and saving countless future generations. For this reason, Huberman has been called the “Jewish Schindler.”
Huberman was an enormously talented violinist. A child prodigy, he performed at Carnegie Hall at just 12 years old in 1896. Following his first visit to Israel in 1929, where he was enthusiastically received, he later helped organize the American Association of Friends of the Palestine Orchestra, with none other than Albert Einstein as its chair.
On this date, in the city of Tel Aviv, itself only a few decades old, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra played it inaugural concert, led by famed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. It was fitting that Toscanini lead the orchestra of Jewish exiles, as he himself had left his native country in protest of the harsh of Mussolini.
In attendance on opening night were the “who’s who” of both the British mandate in Palestine and the founding fathers of Israel, including the British High Commissioner, Sir Arthur Wauchope, and Chaim Weizmann, then head of the Jewish Agency and would later become Israel’s first President. The Palestine Symphony Orchestra opened with the British national anthem before playing the Hatikvah, the unofficial national anthem for the Jewish state that was once banned from being publicly performed by the British government.
The inaugural performance included such classics as the opera “La Scala di seta” by Gioachino Rossini, and work from Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms and Carl Maria von Weber.
Wrote TIME magazine in the January 4th, 1937 issue, “Arturo Toscanini was proving again his art, and allaying the fears of those who had heard the orchestra rehearse. A week prior it had been ragged, particularly in winds & strings. But the great master made the Brahms Second come out so clear and controlled. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony sing with such freshness that the audience could forget the flocks of frightened sparrows which swooped and twittered above their heads. There was no raggedness when, partly as a taunt to Nazi Germany, he led them through a scherzo by Jewish Felix Mendelssohn.”
Following the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the orchestra was renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Over the last seven decades, it has been one of Israel’s greatest cultural exports, being led for much of its history by Indian-born composer Zubin Mehta, who was made Music Director for Life in 1981.
To learn more about the amazing story behind the founding of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, check out the new documentary Orchestra of Exiles, by Academy Award nominated director Josh Aronson (click here to find screenings near you).