Meet My Father, Julius Chajes

The upcoming world premiere of a new arrangement of my father’s “Hebrew Suite” by Pro Musica Hebraica calls to mind and heart a number of reflections. My father is present in this music. Listen, and you will hear him: his convivial romanticism, his clarity of mind, his loving soul. He was a very loving and lovable person, though his passion was greatest for three things: his music, his Jewish identity, and his family.

My father was born into a family indelibly Jewish, but entirely estranged from traditional Judaism. Antisemitism was probably largely responsible for the persistence of their Jewish identities over the decades and generations since the family underwent secularization. My grandfather was a physician and director of the Jewish hospital in Lvov; my grandmother, a pianist who was my father’s first teacher. As my father told it, when not playing the piano, grandmother (“oma”) read Heine in bed.

By the age of 10, my grandfather felt that Lvov’s musical resources might be insufficient to meet the needs of his gifted son, and took my father to audition for Richard Robert in Vienna. Robert had a studio at the time with a few full-time students, including a young Rudolf Serkin. He was reluctant to audition the child, but after hearing my father’s playing and improvisation, Robert refused to allow my grandfather to take his son back to Lvov. My grandfather resisted: They had not planned on staying, and had only brought clothing for a day. Robert told him that clothing could be bought in Vienna, and to check him in at a nearby pension. There, when he was not at the music studio, the elderly woman who ran the place would care for him. Within a year, my grandparents and uncle joined my father in Vienna. After his studies with Robert, my father studied with Moritz Rosenthal, his wife, Hedwig Kanner-Rosenthal, and Hugo Kauder. Rosenthal and Kauder were his revered teachers; as long as Kauder lived, my father sent him his finished compositions for critical evaluation.

With the rise of Nazism, the immediate family was prescient enough to flee from Vienna to Palestine. My father, who had been one of Vienna’s finest young pianists and composers, was utterly transformed by the exposure to the Jewish cultural and political renaissance of the 1930s “Yishuv,” the Jewish community in Palestine. Hasidic nigunim (wordless melodies) and Yemenite silsulim (melismatic chants) were everywhere to be heard, along with the inspiring songs of the chalutzim (“pioneers”), the builders of the Jewish community in Palestine. My father’s compositions would never again sound the same. His late Romantic Viennese melodic works gave way to compositions that integrated the fruits of his ethnomusicological journeys through the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He chose, very deliberately, to become a “Jewish composer”–and not merely to remain a “composer who was Jewish.” Henryk Szeryng in 1978 wrote about him: “His music is for Israel, what is Chopin’s for Poland, de Falla’s for Spain, or Bartók’s for Hungary.”

Nevertheless, my father wasn’t really an Israeli composer, as he left over a decade before the establishment of the State of Israel. This, along with our unpronounceable (at least outside of German-speaking countries) family name (sounds like guttural Chai-yes), certainly contributed to his relative obscurity. He refused to change the family name because he was so proud of his rabbinic lineage. I imagine that he would have been more conventionally successful had he stayed in the Holy Land; hearing works by the stylistically similar composer Paul Ben Haim on Israeli radio, as I often do, I can’t help but think that such recognition would have come easier in Israel. As it was, my father ended up writing Israeli music–even pioneer songs–in Detroit, where he valiantly strove to elevate cultural life for over 40 years. (Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t a Motown fan.)

In Detroit, my father wore many musical hats: he was a premier private piano teacher for the city’s most gifted students (and some of the less gifted students as well); founding director and conductor for over 40 years of the semi-professional “Center Symphony Orchestra” based at the city’s once culturally ambitious Jewish Community Center; adjunct professor of piano and composition at Wayne State University; and a composer. Late in life, he also began taking adult beginner students, which he found surprisingly enjoyable. I remember many such adults arriving at our home, sitting down on the piano bench, and spending an hour talking to my father without so much as playing a note–before making their cheerful departure. I envy them for those conversations.

Books in our house were either about music or Jewish history, as little else fascinated him. Shortly before passing away, he expressed his concern for me this way: “I have only ever been interested in music, and could never imagine devoting my life to anything else; you, however, are interested in so many things that you will struggle trying to figure out what to do with your life.” (He was right, though it seems that my career has been in some ways only a reshuffling of his own–I am a professional Jewish historian and an active amateur musician.)

My father was as obsessed with Israeli news as (I now know) is any Israeli, and was filled with pride and worry for the fledgling State. He spoke of return, but in 1985 at the age of 74, he died in exile.

The warmth and love you may hear in his music was enjoyed by his friends, his many piano students, by my recently deceased mother Annette, and especially by me. I was his firstborn and only child, born to him in his 56th year. He called me his “greatest composition”–which was also his joking consolation for my having put a stop to his composing. (Apparently my incessant humming was to blame.)

He took great pride in compositional craftsmanship, and felt certain that his corpus of works, albeit small (some 70 published compositions) would stand the test of time. It was my hope that the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2010 would bring performances of his works, and in particular some of his greatest compositions that are seldom, if ever, performed: his sonatas and concerto for piano, his symphonic poem “Eros,” his choral work “The 142nd Psalm.” If 2010 didn’t witness a great Chajes revival, it was gratifying to hear of performances of his Trio, of his Cello Concerto, and of the Vogler Quartet’s performances and recording of his Hebrew Suite. In addition, the discography is growing steadily and his music is being increasing studied; a Ph.D. thesis will soon be submitted on his life and work at the University of Florida.

Although he was by every estimation one of the finest pianists of his generation, my father chose to concentrate on composition because he felt it carried the promise of immortality. When I recognize my father in the Hebrew Suite, I know he was right. I hope you enjoy meeting him.

J. H. (Yossi) Chajes is a professor at the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa.