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Zvi Rosen

I was born in Russia in 1916 and came to Palestine in 1927. I then left to study music in France with Ivan Galamian and Georges Enesco. I returned to Palestine in 1933 and began to work at the Habimah as a violinist. I continued to be concert master of the theater orchestra and later composed for the theater. Between 1965 and 1970 I wrote music for ten to fifteen plays. I worked for Vordhaus ben Zissy for 20 to 25 years. Vordhaus was Russian and had studied with [William] Steinberg. He wrote and directed the music for the Habimah productions and did about 100 plays. He composed most of the incidental music both before and after 1934. The Habimah was dominated by Russians. When they spoke Hebrew, it sounded like Russian. Their musical tastes were very conservative. They liked the Romantics--Tchaikovsky, Rimsky, Smetana. Dvorak was as far as they went. I performed the Glazounov Concerto, and even that was too modern. I had to write out the equivalents of the double sharps and double flats for the pianist.

And suddenly comes Stefan Wolpe, a German composer from another culture. When Vordhaus met Wolpe, he asked him to write incidental music for Moliére's La malade imaginaire. The music was very difficult for the band, but Vordhaus really liked it and fought for every measure. The musicians were not very good and were used to Russian conservative music. Vordhaus wanted me, but I wasn't yet a member of the union, so Vordhaus threatened to resign if I didn't play. I was the violinist of the theater band, and for me this music was an adventure. Wolpe asked for a trombone, but there was no trombone in the theater orchestra. A trombonist was found, and he came and looked at the music and said, "That's not music, it's farting" (in Yiddish). He then played the cello theme from Swan Lake to show what real music is like and left. They looked for another trombone and found a young fellow who had played in an orchestra in Poland. Since there is no trombone in the score, Wolpe must have substituted the contrabass. The clarinetist was a man of about sixty from Warsaw, where he played in vaudeville. He was not a bad musician. The flutist was terrible, and Wolpe told him to stop spitting into his flute and play. I don't remember who played double bass.

When the actors heard the music, it was another problem. They said it was too noisy and not beautiful. The main actor, Tzemerinsky, disapproved: "The music is crazy, I can't hear myself." He said, "It's not an opera." So Wolpe shortened the overture, but he was very upset. He didn't like the musicians. After a few rehearsals it went much better. In the end the music served the play wonderfully. It was the only really modern aspect of the production. The staging and set were very conventional, but the music stood up. It was the first time the music was so strong in the theater. Wolpe's music made a very great impression.

I remember both the characters Vordhaus and Wolpe because they were both a bit crazy, meschugge. It was an interesting episode in the Habimah Theater. The Habimah was run as a collective by three men chosen each year. Wolpe was not asked again to write because the actors had a lot to say about it.

Interview: AC, Tel Aviv, 16 April 1985.


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