As a female kibbutznik composer, Chaya Arbel embodies two under-appreciated minorities on the Israeli composition scene. Nonetheless, she has managed to overcome social obstacles and emerge, albeit late in life, as one of the country’s few second-generation female composers (born between 1920 and 1940). The first generation included only Verdina Shlonsky as the sole significant woman composer. In the second generation, only Yardena Alotin was acknowledged as the most noteworthy female composer of her time. For Arbel, living in Kibbutz Ha-Ma’pil since 1936, composition was not a viable option in a Zionist ideological environment that elevated agricultural labor over any bourgeois occupation such as that of classical music teacher or composer. Consequently, after twenty-five years working the land, she pursued serious composition studies only in her forties. She was active in music education for several decades and gained general recognition as a composer in her seventies.
Arbel was born on June 18, 1921 in Nuremberg, Germany and immigrated to Palestine with her parents in 1936. Chaya’s sister, painter Ruth Schloss, whose paintings decorate Arbel’s CDs, still lives in Nuremberg. Another sister, Malka Schmuckler, was born in 1927. Her father, Ludwig Schloss (1889–1957), born in Nuremberg, was a merchant. Her mother, Dina (née Elsass, 1896–1972), born in Ludwigsburg, an infant school teacher in Germany, worked as a farmer in Palestine, while Ludwig became the manager of an agricultural cooperative in Kefar Shemaryahu.
In 1943, Chaya married Shlomo Marcus (1920–1991), a librarian. They divorced in 1946 after the birth of a daughter, Esther, in 1944. In 1952 she married Daniel Arbel, a farmer and librarian, by whom she had three children: Avital (b. 1953), Naomi (b. 1955) and Itai (b. 1961).
It was Ilona Vince Kraus, then a leading piano teacher in Israel, who noticed Arbel’s talent and encouraged her to continue piano studies, which she had begun in Germany but had stopped upon immigrating to Israel. In the 1960s Arbel studied harmony with Mordecai Seter (1916–1994) and in the early 1970s it was her influential teacher Leon Schidlowsky (b. 1936) who encouraged or, more accurately, pushed her to embrace the atonal style. At first, she was reluctant to use what was at the time considered the only option for a serious classical music composer. However, she soon felt that tonal music had nothing new to offer and began writing serial music. Her music has been strongly influenced by the Second Viennese School (especially Berg) and she has used free serial techniques in most of her works. Her pieces of the 1970s and 1980s were more expressionistic and employed some avant-garde idioms; some of the pieces she wrote in the 1990s were more delicate, creating interesting moments in atonal style.
Arbel served as both founder in 1966 and director of the Music School of the Menashe region in Ein Shemer, which in 1990 awarded her a prize for music education achievement. Her list of works consists of thirty pieces for solo instruments and chamber ensembles; she also wrote five symphonic works. Among her recorded pieces are The Writing on the Wall (1979, string orchestra), Fantasy (1983, violin), Lament (1984, orchestra), Remembrance (1985, piano), Dialogue (1990, clarinet and orchestra), Das Tagebuch der Anne Frank (1992) and Sonata (viola, piano, 2002). In 1990 she was awarded the ACUM prize for Dialogue.