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Classical Music

Celebrate Hanukkah With 8 Great Jewish Composers

To celebrate the eight days and nights of Hanukkah, take a look at these eight great Jewish composers.

Jewish Menorah.

Here we are in the midst of Hanukkah (began on December 6th this year), the Jewish "Festival of Lights" celebrating the successful rededication of their Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt of 167 BC. The holiday lasts for eight days, represented by the eight-branched menorah (with a ninth candle in the middle) that is said to have burned for eight days after retaking the temple, despite having only enough sacred oil for one. In honor of these eight days of Hanukkah, here is a list of eight famous Jewish composers!

Salamone Rossi

When it comes to early music, Catholicism was the word and Latin was the language for centuries, but Italian composer Salamone Rossi was able to break the mold and publish a large collection of Jewish liturgical music in Hebrew in 1623. As a transitional composer between the late Renaissance and early Baroque, Rossi's style is similar to that of Monteverdi, but the Hebrew text gives his music a little bit of a unique edge. Just as well, it is notable that he chose to compose in that style, as opposed to the more exotic-sounding (to Western Europeans) style of traditional Jewish music.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

Mendelssohn's heritage is a regular topic of scholarship on the composer, particularly because of Germany's long history with anti-Semitism. Felix was raised as a Christian by his father despite the family's Jewish background, and as a composer he wrote many works based on Biblical stories like the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah, as well as the historical Reformation Symphony. Still, some scholars suggest that though he outwardly practiced Lutheranism, he respected his own Jewish heritage as well. Indeed, his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn was a well-known Jewish philosopher, and Felix held him in high regard despite never having met the man.

Gustav Mahler

Mahler, like his predecessor Mendelssohn, also had to deal with Germany and Austria's anti-Semitic history. Born and raised Jewish, Gustav converted to Catholicism later in his life. Some consider this choice more rational than emotional, essentially a means to maintain his musical career without prejudice and scrutiny. Unlike Mendelssohn, however, Mahler seemed to embrace his heritage a little more openly. An oft-cited example of this is the third movement of the Symphony No. 1, which depicts a funeral march that includes a very distinct moment featuring a stylized "band" performing what sounds a bit like Klezmer music.

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland's name is pretty much synonymous with the distinctive "Americana" sound that developed in the twentieth century, and he comes from the broad, long-standing generation of Jewish Americans from New York City. Of his most famous works, many tend towards a decidedly American folk flavor as opposed to a Jewish one, with the Western-influenced Billy the Kid and Rodeo, or even the jazzy Piano Concerto and Clarinet Concerto. He did, however, write a piece based on a European Jewish melody for piano trio, in his distinct Copland-esque musical idiom: Vitebsk, Study on a Jewish Theme for Piano Trio.

Leonard Bernstein

Like Copland, Bernstein was a Jew who spent most of his life and career in New York City, and is probably most famous for conducting the New York Philharmonic for several years. There are two big works that come to mind when considering Bernstein's Jewish heritage: Chichester Psalms and the Symphony No. 3, subtitled "Kaddish." The former is a joyous Hebrew setting of Psalms 100, 108, 2, 23, 131, and 133 for orchestra, chorus, and boy treble or countertenor. The latter features similar forces with a soprano soloist, narrator, and boys' choir, and is a work of mourning for the dead.

Jerry Goldsmith

In a world where film composers seem to be more and more attached to certain directors (through no fault of their own), Jerry Goldsmith had one of the most prolific and diverse careers in film music. From the 1950s to the early 2000s, he wrote scores to horror classics like Alien and The Omen, thrilling adventures like The Mummy and Mulan, and of course the famous main theme to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was eventually adapted for Star Trek: The Next Generation. He also composed the music for The Boys from Brazil, based on the Ira Levin novel of the same name that presents a fictional story of Dr. Josef Mengele's attempt to revive the Third Reich.

Steve Reich

When considering musical postmodernism, the first couple of names that seem to come to musicians' minds are Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. Minimalism had such a strong influence on art music upon its inception and it remains significant for many composers today. Reich, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2009 is often regarded as one of the most important living American composers. His work Tehillim literally means "psalms" in Hebrew, and displays his characteristic rhythmic vitality as well as the expected use of repetition and small fragments of ideas.

John Zorn

Born in the generation following Reich, Zorn took a bit of a different musical path, engaging in all manner of music genres beyond classical like jazz, rock, metal, and of course, klezmer. Zorn is known for his experimental, eclectic style, and works as both a composer and performer. He also began his own record label, Tzadik, to maintain a sense of independence from the music industry at large. In 1995 he released his album Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night"), which refers to the events of November 9-10, 1938 when Jews were assaulted, incarcerated, and murdered by the Nazi regime in Germany and Austria.