One of the most admired composers in Israel in the early twenty-first century, Betty Olivero has become known for her exquisite expressions of Jewish and Israeli cultural and national identity in her music. Her career developed largely in Europe during her eighteen-year residence in Florence, Italy between 1983 and 2001. Although her return to Israel was initially marred by an academic scandal, this did not prevent her from becoming a force in Israeli music. In 2002, at Bar-Ilan University, she became the first woman composer in Israel to assume the post of a professor of composition. In 2004, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra selected her as the first woman in Israel to assume the post of composer in residence. Above and beyond her professional successes, the quality of her music, and especially its emotional impact, established her as a leading composer of her generation in Israel. Noam Ben-Zeev, a major music critic in Israel, has regularly showered her with praise of a kind that he rarely extended to other local composers—both anticipating and echoing similar superlatives that Olivero gained abroad in European and American reviews.
Olivero was born in Tel Aviv on May 16, 1954 to Dora Kapon (Thessaloníki, Greece, 1922–Tel Aviv, 1995) and Eli Olivero (Comotini, Greece, 1916–Tel Aviv, 1989). Eli Olivero emigrated to Palestine in 1931 and Dora Kapon in 1946.
In 1978 Betty Olivero obtained her B.Mus. at the Rubin Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University, where she studied piano under Ilona Vincze-Kraus and composition under Yizhak Sadai and Leon Schidlowsky. Composers André Hajdu and Abel Ehrlich, Israel Prize laureates, also taught Olivero during this time. She received her M.M. at Yale University under Jacob Druckman, Bernard Rands and Gilbert Amy (1981). In 1982 Olivero was awarded a Leonard Bernstein Scholarship, which enabled her to work at Tanglewood with Luciano Berio, who invited her to Italy the next year (and thus curtailed an initial plan to pursue a Ph.D. in composition at the University of California at San Diego). During her studies with Berio (1983–1986), who became both her teacher and unwavering supporter, her career began to evolve rapidly. She married Raffaello Majoni and had two children, Shira (b. 1989) and Daniel (b. 1992).
During the last two decades, her compositions have been performed by leading orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Sinfonietta, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and the Israel Camerata, in addition to the Juilliard Ensemble and the Arditti Quartet. Her music has also been frequently played in a number of European and Israeli music festivals, such as the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the International Biennial for Contemporary Music at Tel Aviv Museum and the annual Israeli Music Celebration in Jerusalem. She has received the Fromm Music Foundation Award (U.S.A., 1986), the Koussevitzky Award of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation (USA, 2000), the Prime Minister’s Prize (Israel, 2001), the Rosenblum Award for the Performing Arts (Israel, 2003), the Landau Award for the Performing Arts (Israel, 2004) and the ACUM Prize for Life Achievement (Israel, 2004).
Perceiving herself as an Israeli throughout her residence in Italy, she nonetheless aspired to establish her name in Europe before her return to Israel. Once back home, her long-promised post as a professor of composition at Bar-Ilan University was jeopardized by an internal power struggle at the dean’s level concerning the recruitment of non-orthodox faculty (such as Olivero) to this Jewish religious university. A year passed before the scandal was resolved (in large measure due to media coverage that portrayed Bar-Ilan as a non-professional academic institution, see Lori), thus simultaneously resolving the uncertainty of her future in Israel and at Bar-Ilan in particular. She received a Ph.D. in composition from Bar-Ilan (2001) for her Hoshanot and for a thesis on Berio’s music. In 2002 Olivero became a lecturer in composition in the Music Department.
Luciano Berio said of her: “I think that [Betty Olivero] is one of the most authentic musical forces now, one of the most self-aware and deeply connected to today’s Jewish music. … As a composer, she is a most impressive voice in Jewish culture and an important presence from a worldwide perspective as well. Israel should be proud of her. …” (Haaretz Magazine, November 9, 2001, see Lori). He added: “What is great about her is that she does not use the tradition as an ideological tool or, worse, as a political tool. She uses the spiritual dimension” (ibid, English edition). While Berio’s well-chosen citations and their perceptive appreciation are indeed representative of her reception among connoisseurs, Olivero, however, does convey both a cultural and a political stance through her use of traditional Jewish and Arab materials. National identity is a significant ideational basis—or, more precisely, the significant ideational basis—of her music from her early works of the late 1980s through those of the early 2000s. Olivero’s stay in Florence for almost two decades sharpened rather than lessened her commitment to both her Jewish roots and her Israeli identity. Berio, understandably, attempted to position Olivero away from a political and manipulative interpretation of borrowed musical materials. There is nothing new in the declaration of total detachment from denigrated political interests by a contemporary composer. The entire avant-garde movement, of which Berio was a celebrated leader, was united, if at all, by the strong belief in its political freedom and freedom from politics. But that belief was a false one, as Richard Taruskin argued convincingly in his groundbreaking Oxford History of Western Music (2005; see, for instance, his discussion of Ligeti’s music in volume 5, 49–54).
Following in the footsteps of Bartók, in his use of Hungarian peasant music throughout his compositions, and Berio, in his imaginative Folk Songs (one might also add Krzysztof Penderecki, in his appeal to Polish audiences with his Catholic religious works, no less than in his superb orchestration skills), Olivero is an integral part of the national school of Israeli music as well as the European scene. She also belongs to a small but influential circle of Israeli composers who developed careers in the West, such as Shulamit Ran and Jan Radzynski in the United States. Ran and Radzynski have explicitly expressed Israeli identity in their music; Olivero’s idiom is closer to that of Radzynski.
At the same time, she also belongs to the relatively young and loosely defined Israeli national school even if her ideology (or, more so, her music) might seem distant and unrelated to that of the founders of Israeli music, such as Paul Ben-Haim, Mordecai Seter and Verdina Shlonsky. Put simply, like these founders, she aspires in her music to convey a distinct—and simultaneously broad—Israeli cultural identity, however diverse the ways in which she exhibits that identity in music. Her music may not seem related to any one of the first generation of Israeli music because her style is idiosyncratic in its orchestral expertise and its compelling syntheses of modal-tonal-atonal harmonic language. Less than a minute into most of her works, an attentive listener can tell: this is an Olivero work. Her ideology, the belief that a good Israeli composition can arise from the artistic use of the diverse local melos, is the umbilical cord between her music and the canon established by founders of Israeli music (such as Mordecai Seter in his Midnight Vigil), while her musical language, expressed chiefly through her beautifully painful harmonies, textures and timbres, defines her as both a follower of her teachers and as a composer with an original voice.
Many of Olivero’s significant works are inspired by Jewish (as well as Arab) musical traditions that she explored while she lived in Italy. Moreover, she opts to collaborate with performers who are equally at home in Jewish folk music and Western art (concert) music. Two such performers have been highly influential in her music: folk singer Esti Ofri-Kenan (deep alto), with whom Olivero created Juego de siempre and Makamat, and clarinetist Giora Feidman, whose virtuoso klezmer skills shaped works such as Der Golem (in its three versions) and Bakashot.
Her techniques, however, were initially shaped by Penderecki’s early writing for strings and by Berio’s style of orchestration (to mention only two of a wide range of mostly European great composers from whom she drew inspiration). Based on this springboard, she has developed her style, ranging freely between tonal and modal, medieval and contemporary idioms (as in her Makamat, Mizrach or Zimaar) with occasional clusters and other non-tonal excursions, and resulting in harmonies that are lush and heartfelt, often sorrowful, as in her haunting Hoshanot.
“There were many more beautiful moments in Merkavot by the Israeli composer Betty Olivero,” wrote Paul Griffiths in his review in The New York Times (February 1, 2000, “Critic’s Notebook: When Musical Brilliance Is Scarce”). Indeed, while Olivero’s sense of form has been tacitly questioned (perhaps because some of her works were formed as contemporary suites), she has often been praised for her enchanting moments, resulting from her sense for orchestration, and especially from her delicate-yet-forceful adaptations of folk songs. Interestingly, unlike many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century composers, Olivero does not “elevate” folklore to the realm of art music. Rather, like many other non-Western composers of her generation across the globe (Tania Leon, Chen Yi, Jiesun Lim), Olivero is fully respectful of non-Western art and folk music. She juxtaposes and synthesizes Western contemporary music with non-Western folklore and sees them as equally significant sources for her art.
Olivero’s approach to her borrowed materials is based on a premise, shared with other Israeli composers, which she regards as an axiom—seemingly a paradoxical one. In her presentations abroad (e.g., her lecture at the composers’ seminar at Peabody Conservatory, Johns Hopkins University, April 14, 2005), she cites the example of highly inspirational klezmer music at the Hassidic celebrations at Har Meron (Mount Meron in the Galilee). If a composer were simply to cite these common, banal tunes in a concert hall, they would instantly lose their aura and the excitement that are part of the original event. By changing the original material completely and adapting it to the medium of concert music and its idioms, argues Olivero, a composer can sometimes recreate the original ritual-spiritual essence far better than by simple preservation of the same material and its transplantation into a foreign arena.
If one had to point (prematurely, arguably) at Olivero’s magnum opus, written with that same premise, it would not be her acclaimed Merkavot or her deeply impressive Hoshanot. Her most impressive work is the 1996 Bakashot (Supplications, 35 minutes) for clarinet, choir and orchestra, drawing on the legacy of liturgical and folk music of Jews from Spain, the Balkans (Sephardi Jews), Morocco and Yemen (Mizrahi Jews), in addition to allusions to Ashkenazi klezmer music. The text of Bakashot is in part based on the eighteen supplications recited daily by orthodox Jews, and the music is one of the most interesting, moving and formally coherent works that Olivero (or any other Israeli composer) has ever produced. In addition to the smooth transitions between both the divergent, heterophonically-interwoven tunes and between tonal, modal and atonal pivots of the different sections, Olivero also presents a rhythmic dichotomy, between slow-paced, rhythmically flexible cantabile sections and harshly syncopated, rhythmic intersecting phrases. Most importantly, the whole work is based on a solid, perhaps surprisingly traditional, background tonal plan (D as a general tonic, ending on the leading tone C#). A doctoral dissertation written by Nadav Ziv was dedicated to the analysis of the use of folk songs in Bakashot (see bibliography).
L’Ombra che porta il sogno (The shadow that brings dreams, 2005) is Olivero’s most recent work—a work which uses techniques of collage (klezmer tunes, spoken texts, children’s shouts, synagogue supplications with orchestral background, to mention just a few) and at the same time moves smoothly through the different scenes, as in an engrossing film. L’Ombra che porta il sogno commemorates the Holocaust, for which Olivero “drew upon the (children’s) writings found in the Theresienstadt ghetto, deliberately choosing the ones that spoke of hope or joy, or praised creation and its enchanting beauty … [these] represent the pure strength of the soul, the victory of thought and spirit …” (Composer’s program notes).
Throughout her work—from her early pieces such as Cantes Amargos, Makamat and Behind the Wall through later works like Juego de Siempre, Bakashot, Der Golem, Mizrach and even her most recent works such as Zimaar and Bashrav—Olivero draws upon folk songs that she listened to as a child (in Ladino) and continued to explore as an adult: mostly from the Sephardic and Mizrahi (Arabic Middle-Eastern Jewish) repertory of folklore. In the mid–1990s, however, she turned to Ashkenazi klezmer music as another source of inspiration and pitch content, a move which has gained her a yet wider audience, due to a general increase in interest in the klezmer tradition in Europe throughout the last decade. Olivero uses a wide gamut of techniques to present the quoted folk material, ranging from rich, sensitive and simple (but not simplistic) arrangements to non-tonal metamorphoses of basic melodic cells, often presented through dense heterophony and clusters. Her identifiable pitch content and orchestration, her delicate choice of timbres and simultaneous rhythmic complexities using very short, irregular note values—all contribute to a coherent, non-eclectic style, notwithstanding her combination of diverse elements such as European avant-garde techniques of the 1970s, Judeo-Spanish melos, Mizrahi (Jewish-Arab) melodies, klezmer niggunim (tunes) and Arab tunes.
During the last decade (circa 1995–2005), her choices of the borrowed tunes coupled with her techniques of their transformation have yielded a new, unexpected political-ideological implication. She has advanced the development of an amalgamation of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi sources in a single musical composition, a synthesis that can be interpreted as a nostalgic return to—and reaffirmation of—one of the most potent ideas in the history of Zionist ideology: the Israeli social melting pot (kur ha-hitukh), so often problematized and ridiculed in recent post-Zionist discourse. Could we possibly define her works as post-modern, or even post-Zionist? According to some definitions of these terms, many of her works can be considered as post-modern works (and, with some intellectual acrobatics, perhaps even post-Zionist). However, the old Israeli melting pot is vividly represented in the music by Olivero—a direct, faithful and deserving heir of the founding fathers of Israeli music.
Instrumental: Pan, 5 flutes, 1984, revised, 1988; Batnun (Double bass), double bass and chamber orchestra, 1985; Presenze, 10 instruments, 1986; Ketarim (Crowns), violin, orchestra, 1989; Adagio, chamber orchestra, 1990; Tenuot, orchestra 1990, revised, 1999; Sofim (Endings), piano, 1991; Per Viola, viola, 1993; Mareot (Mirrors), flute, violin, 1994; Carosello, string orchestra, percussion, children’s chamber orchestra, 1994; Kavei-avir (A Volo d’Uccello, Air lines), 10 instruments, 1996; Der Golem (Suites no. 1 and 2), clarinet, string quartet, and clarinet, string orchestra (respectively) 1997–1998; Mizrach, clarinet, string orchestra, metal wind chimes, 1997; Kavei-or (Light lines), orchestra, 1999; Merkavot (Chariots) orchestra, 1999; Bashrav, flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion, piano/celeste, string quartet, 2004.
Vocal: Cantes Amargos, female voice and chamber orchestra, 1984; Makamat, 5 Middle-Eastern folk songs for female voice, 9 instruments, 1988; Behind the Wall, for puppet theatre, Mezzo, 8 instruments, 1989; Juego de Siempre, 12 folk songs in Ladino, Alto, chamber orchestra/ 7 instruments, 1991, revised 1994; Bakashot (Supplications), clarinet, choir, orchestra, 1996; Masken, Soprano, Mezzo, Bariton/narrator, violin, viola, cello, piano, percussion, 1999; Achot ketana (little sister), Soprano, 3 solo violins, string orchestra, clarinet, 2000; Hosha’anot, soprano, orchestra, 2000, rev. 2003; Serafim (Angles), Soprano, violin, clarinet, cello, piano, 2002; Zimaar, Soprano, 2 violins, cello, harpsichord, percussion, 2003; L’Ombra che porta il sogno (the shadow that brings dreams) 2005.
Principal publishers: Ricordi (Milan), Israel Music Institute (Tel Aviv).
Hebrew titles of Olivero’s works cited above are pronounced with an accented last syllable, e.g., Batnùn, Mizràch, Merkavòt, Bakashòt, etc.
Cantigas Sephardies, Folkways Records, 1985 (FTS 37466); Makamat, CD- Ricordi, 1989 (CRMCD 1009); Juego de Siempre, Beth Hatefutsoth Museum, Tel Aviv, 1991 (CD BTR 9201); Shtiler, Shtiler; Mode ani for Clarinet, Mezzo-Soprano and mixed choir, Pläne 1995 (LC 0972, 88784); Bakashot, Koch-Schwann, 1996 (LC 1083, 3–6470–2); Der Golem: Suite No. 1, and Der Golem: 6 Yidishe Lieder un Tantz for Clarinet and String Quartet, Pläne 1997 (LC 0972, 88808); Mizrach, Pläne, 1998 (LC 0972, 88814); Achot ketana, Angel, 2001 (7243 5 57179 2 4); Sofim, (Israeli Music Center, ACUM), 2003.
Ben-Zeev, Noam. “The [Israel] Philharmonic [Orchestra] Performs Olivero”
(Hebrew). Davar weekend magazine, December 21, 1990, 18–20.
Ben-Zeev also wrote numerous reviews of her music in Haaretz.
Elias, William Y. “Olivero, Betty.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers, edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel, 351–352. London: 1995.
Fleisher, Robert. Twenty Israeli Composers: Voices of a Culture. Detroit: 1997, 271–279.
Hirshberg, Jehoash. “Olivero, Betty.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 12. Kassel, Basel: 2004, 1358.
Lori, Aviva. “Not in Our School” and “Without a Fig Leaf” (Hebrew). Haaretz Magazine, August 31 and November 9, 2001, respectively.
About the academic scandal concerning Olivero’s hiring at Bar-Ilan University.
Mar-Haim, Joseph. “Success abroad, silence at home” (Hebrew). Musica 25 (1989): 16–19.
“Interview mit der Komponistin Betty Olivero.” Münchner Philharmoniker, Philharmonische Blätter (July 1994): 54–58.
Olivero, Betty. http://www.olivero.co.il, accessed February 3, 2005.
Seter, Ronit. “Yuvalim be-Israel: Nationalism in Jewish-Israeli Art Music 1940–2000.” Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 2004.
See especially chapter 2, a critique of the ideology of the founders of Israeli music, 67–160; see also 481–484, on Olivero and her generation.
Seter, Ronit. “Olivero, Betty.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. New York and London: 2001; See also Grove online.
This and the present entry are also based on several interviews I conducted with the composer, from 1996 to the present (2005; recorded and unrecorded interviews, telephone conversations as well as email and fax correspondence).
Ziv, Nadav. The Use of Ethnic Elements in Betty Olivero’s Work: Bakashot. Ph.D. diss. (Hebrew), Bar-Ilan University, 2001.