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Author: Elaine Strauss. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January
26, 2000. All rights reserved.
A Composer’s Nurturing: Moshe Budmor
Ask composer Moshe Budmor if he comes from a musical
family, and he says, "My mother had an unrequited love for music.
She couldn’t sing a phrase in tune, and it was painful for me to hear
her. But she wanted to have a child who was musical, and for the nine
months of her pregnancy she went to every concert in Hamburg with
the firm belief that her child would hear music and become a
The paternal side of Budmor’s family was equally unmusical. "There
were no musicians on my father’s side of the family," he says,
"but perhaps my father had a nice voice." Despite this
lack of a musical heritage, Moshe was musically precocious.
"From the age of three or four I knew that I wanted to be a
says Budmor in an interview at his Princeton home. "I could read
music before I could read letters. My mother sent me to music class
when I was five. The others were 10, but I did as well as they
A concert of two of Budmor’s compositions initiate a year-long
of the 50th anniversary of the Jewish Center in Princeton on Sunday,
January 30, at 3 p.m. Making its premiere is Budmor’s
a setting of Psalm 148. The program also features Budmor’s "The
Parable of Jotham," written two years ago. Budmor conducts members
of Frances Slade’s Princeton Pro Musica Chamber Chorus, and a woodwind
quintet, supplemented by trumpets and percussion.
"I selected Psalm 148 because it’s such a celebratory text. It’s
so rich in images," Budmor explains. The laudatory psalm cites
the praise of the skies; of mountains, trees, and living creatures;
and of people of all sorts. The work is to be sung in Hebrew. Concert
programs will include an English translation of the text as well as
a transliteration of the Hebrew.
The parable of Jotham tells of the attempt of the trees to find a
king. Neither the venerable olive tree, the wise fig tree, nor the
fun-loving grape vine seeks the royal position. Only the arrogant
bramble wants to rule. Budmor sees a parallel between the parable
and the modern dilemma of creative people promoted to administrative
posts where their originality is not needed.
Budmor started studying piano at age seven in Hamburg, Germany. He
moved to Israel in 1932, when he was nine, shortly after his father
died. "My parents were ardent Zionists, and my mother took me
and my two sisters, who were younger, to Palestine. At that time you
could still take money out of Germany." The family settled in
Tel Aviv. When he was 10 Budmor began his violin studies. His mother
died at age 36, when Budmor was just 13. "The kids were farmed
out to friends," Budmor says, "but we kept in touch. I grew
up in Jerusalem."
After completing his studies in violin performance at
the Academy of Music in Jerusalem in the early 1940s, Budmor settled
on a kibbutz, where his music was of no consequence. "When I went
to the kibbutz," he says, "the demand was to build a new
and to forget about music. I became a fisherman, and then a
Unable to suppress his musical interests, Budmor organized a choir
on the kibbutz in his free hours. Later, when Israeli life left room
for more than the basics, he became a wandering music teacher who
circulated among several kibbutzim. "I taught kids and organized
choruses. Each school needed a teacher one day a week. Eventually,
I convinced my kibbutz that I needed to study more, and they gave
me a leave of absence to go to the United States."
"I actually came to the United States twice," Budmor says.
"In 1950 I came to Juilliard as an undergraduate to study choral
conducting and composing. After three and a half years I returned
to my kibbutz. Back in Israel I conducted the Haifa Orchestra and
formed the Haifa chamber chorus. At the end of 1958 I returned to
the United States. I spent a total of 12 years on the same
Budmor describes his second and final transition from Israel to the
United States as "difficult."
"When I came for the second time," he says. "I had had
a bit of a conducting career, and I thought that the New York
was waiting for me, but they weren’t. For any opening there were
of applicants. Finally I got a real break in Sarasota. I was chosen
to be one of two conductors."
Disappointingly, Budmor’s good fortune evaporated. "They needed
someone to teach in a local junior college," he says, "but
I had no academic degrees. At Juilliard I had only taken music
They told me that even if Beethoven came, he would not get the job.
So in 1961, at the age of 38, I started at Teachers College, Columbia.
I went there for a B.A., and then a doctorate."
He was only the second person to earn a degree in composition at
College, and the university was feeling its way towards defining its
requirements. "They were very fussy," Budmor remembers.
first requirement was to write a composition; the second was the
The dissertation was about the piece that I had written. I had to
justify every goddamn quarter note."
Budmor prides himself on writing a dissertation that pleased his
advisers. "I did it very cleverly," he says. "I talked
about the creative process, and said that some of it was unconscious
and that I could not explain everything. Hardly any revisions were
Although the dissertation was accepted, there was yet another
block. "Teachers College demanded a public performance of the
piece in order to tell how it sounded," Budmor says. "It was
a great experience," he adds, contrasting the performance of his
doctoral composition with the performance of pieces he had written
to be performed in Israel, where he worked with amateurs and had to
adapt his compositions to their capabilities.
"I decided to write the doctoral piece the way I wanted, whether
it was easy or difficult," Budmor says. "When the piece was
finished, it was clear that only professionals could perform it. We
were poor. I had just started teaching at Trenton State College, and
my wife [Katya Delakova] was working as a dancer. But we decided to
hire Town Hall, and to hire singers and instrumentalists."
The Town Hall event attracted the interest of the Internal Revenue
Service when Budmor filed his tax return for the year, and he was
audited. "When I submitted the bills to the IRS," he says,
"the IRS couldn’t believe why anybody would spend so much on an
event that brought no profit. But I pointed out to them that I was
just starting to teach and that for promotion I needed a doctorate.
I persuaded the IRS that the Town Hall performance was to further
my career, and it was all right."
With the doctoral degree secured, Budmor went on to study
at Connecticut Wesleyan University, where he and his wife taught once
a week. "They had a wonderful program in world music," he
says. "They were pioneers. Every year they had artists in
— musicians from north India and south India, shakuhachi [a flute]
and koto [a string instrument] players from Japan, African drummers,
and Native American musicians."
"I got hooked on shakuhachi," Budmor says, "and every
week I got a lesson. I played quite well, and I wrote three pieces
for my shakuhachi teacher and the concert choir at Trenton State.
My teacher didn’t know European musical notation, so I wrote the piece
in Japanese notation."
In addition to shakuhachi Budmor pursued other
musical interests. For years he spent his vacations in Navajo country,
in the American Southwest. When he spent a year as a visiting
at the University of Haifa, he studied Arabic flute and Arabic scales.
He persuaded Trenton State that he should offer a course in
music, but he never taught it. Budmor took early retirement in 1989
to care for his terminally ill wife.
His career at Trenton State had included organizing a performing group
that specialized in medieval, renaissance, and early baroque music.
He set aside the violin in favor of older instruments. "I learned
to play all these ancient instruments," he says, " —
and vielles. I dabbled in all of them and kept playing recorder, which
I knew since I was a kid. Now I play nothing except recorders."
"All my teaching life I tried to combine academic work with
work," Budmor says. "When I taught renaissance music, the
students learned renaissance counterpoint, and wrote renaissance
They didn’t just learn about the music."
"In the best pedagogical tradition," observes Lea Lerner,
a pianist, Dalcroze teacher, and Budmor’s present wife. Lerner was
the moving force behind a concert of Budmor’s music that celebrated
his 75th birthday at Westminster in 1998. She participated in the
program by playing a piece Budmor wrote for her.
"I never had children of own," Budmor says, "but I had
many students. Some of them were affected by what I taught them. I
feel that my legacy is more than just my compositions."
Composition, for Budmor is the product of joy, not obligation. "A
composition has to please me in some way," he says. "I never
had to make a living as a composer. I was never interested in a career
as a composer. I had a good life in terms of what I did in music.
Composing is something I love to do and feel I have to do. But I never
had to consider what was in vogue. At a certain time I couldn’t get
a hearing with this kind of music, but it didn’t concern me. I did
it because I feel most alive when I compose. I thought of myself as
Asked to characterize himself as composer, Budmor at first groans,
as if the task is difficult. "In certain ways I feel
he says. "The attention I give to the expressiveness and the
impact of words is straight from that tradition. And then, I steal
from everybody. I experimented a bit at a certain time with serial
music, like everybody else; but I really couldn’t write anything I
couldn’t really hear."
Budmor writes first on paper, and then transfers his score to the
computer. "I still need the act of writing," he says as he
makes a writing gesture. "On the computer you can never see the
whole thing at once. But the nice thing is that you have all the
on the synthesizer, and can hear what’s going on. On the synthesizer,
the instruments lack nuance, but it’s instant gratification."
"I float everything past Lea," Budmor says. "Sometimes
she offers helpful suggestions, sometimes suggestions that I ignore.
Even when it’s just a few measures I run it by her and find it helpful
and encouraging." As he speaks Lea attends, beaming with
It occurs to me that Budmor’s mother would have had a similar
on her face if she could have been present.
— Elaine Strauss
Nassau Street, 609-921-0100. Works by Moshe Budmor to honor the 50th
anniversary of the Jewish Center, performed by professional musicians
under the direction of the composer. $10 adults; $8 students.
January 30, 3 p.m.
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