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Frank Pelleg (Harpsichord)

Born: September 24, 1910 - Prague, Austria-Hungary (now Prague, Czech Republic)
Died: September 20, 1968 - Haifa, Israel

The Czech-born Israeli harpsichordist, pianist, conductor, composer and pedagogue, Frank Pelleg [Peleg; born Pollak], studied music in Prague at National Academy of Music (piano, composition, conducting) and musicology at the Prague University. He was a student of Vítčzslav Novak and Alexander Zemlinsky, among others.

Frank Pelleg began appearing in recitals when still very young, performing mostly pre-classical music on the harpsichord and contemporary repertoire on the piano. One of his own early compositions, The Sailor's Ballad for choir and orchestra (to a text by Jiří Wolker) had been performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Václav Talich. During that period he also wrote Three Songs (texts by Horace, Nietzsche, Tagore), Piano Concerto, String Quartet and Piano Quartet.

In 1936 Frank Pelleg immigrated to Eretz-Israel (Palestine). When he came to Israel he changed his name from Pollak to Pelleg, the Hebrew word for Bach, to specify his deep appreciation for the German composer. He won 1st prize at the International Contest of Performing Musicians in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1939. Soon after, his professional life took a wholly new direction. He became extremely active in every aspect of music life in Israel. He travelled and performed all over the country: in provincial towns, rural settlements (kibbutzim) and he carried his harpsichord with him wherever he went. Pelleg appeared with the then Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, with the Radio Orchestra and with the Haifa Symphony Orchestra both in Israel and on their tours abroad. As a soloist he gained quite a reputation as interpreter of Bach's music.

Harpsichord Player

Frank Pelleg deeply admired Wanda Landowska and the affinity he felt with her approach determined his own attitude to the harpsichord. He was optimistic as to the future of the instrument and believed that its uniqueness as a plucking instrument in the keyboard family will stand it in good stead. In his opinion the harpsichord would eventually attain an independent role and will not remain merely an early stage in the development of the piano. However, the so-called "authentic approach" to pre-classical music was utterly foreign to him. I doubt - he wrote - if we could ever come near the ideal of the virginalists if we reverted to non-tempered instrument just as I do not think we shall do justice to Couperin if we cease to use the little finger and the thumb. Moreover, Pelleg was an enthusiastic believer in honest exploitation of all inherent technical possibilities of the instrument, including the latest innovations, to the full extent of its limitations which held good at a certain period. Pelleg considered the timbre and tone-muting the focal point of interpretation by a harpsichordist and called to exploit every potential of the modern harpsichord so as to satisfy today's aesthetic standards. His views found strong expression in his playing. A.U. Boskovich the composer who was music critic for Ha'aretz daily wrote of Pelleg's performance:
Pelleg's interpretation of Bach was remarkable for his total mastery of the instrument, i.e. in letting both keyboards sound to the full and in the perfect dynamics of the instrument [...) as well the rich "orchestration" [...] Frank Pelleg's art is both great and truly genuine as indeed was his well deserved success.

The aspect of registration in Pelleg's playing may appear somewhat over demonstrative today. However, listening to his playing shows clearly that the excessive use of the registers was invariably put at the service of clarifying the musical structure. He did not use them to express moods but to present the musical idea behind the piece. This shows most clearly in his registration for the harpsichord part in Sergiu Natra's Music for harpsichord and six instruments (1964) which Pelleg annotated in preparation for the premiere. In his Concerto for harpsichord and electronics (1964) Josef Tal did not indicate any registers and in his explanatory notes to the piece, he says:
The player's perception and imagination must guide his choice of registers which he deems capable of maintaining and enriching the dialogue with the electronic music. Tal also notes: I knew in advance that I can rely on Pelleg's talent, the quickness of his reactions and on his willingness to identify fully with the content of the composition and its technical demands, in short - on the ideal qualities he possessed.

In the recordings of Pelleg's performance of pieces from the Baroque repertoire one often finds original ornamentation, untrammelled and witty. In general his performances show a bubbling temperament which causes the music to flow yet never draws the rhythmic or articulative features along at the cost of clarity of these latter. Quite to the contrary: the flow builds upon them, as on an occasional dam, which Pelleg executes with a precision rare among harpsichordists, and thus they make the flow possible.

As a harpsichord player Frank Pelleg was the first to bring to the Israeli public the marvels of music by Bach and by the Baroque composers who wrote for the instrument. Pelleg played the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) numerous times. In the canonic variations he preferred, at times, to illuminate the bass with all the contrapuntal wonders it contains (a typical Glenn Gould gimmick!); in variations in the minor key he elicited all the warmth and deep emotions by his use of rubato; in the rhythmic parts he succeeded in rendering perfectly their piquancy and humour. Another great event he had organised (rather typical for the early 1940's) was a premiere in Israel of the Musical Offering (BWV 1079) which he performed with Oedoen Partos, violin, Uri Toeplitz, flute, and Theo Salzman, violoncello. He also performed the two books of The Well Tempered Clavier in four concerts (another splendid undertaking which he repeated several times during his career), playing some of the preludes and fugues on the harpsichord and the others on the piano.


As a pianist Frank Pelleg was an extraordinary interpreter of Mozart. He succeeded in rendering the essential simplicity and purity of the music without surrendering any of the drama, the tragedy, or humour it contains. He often performed the concerti amongst which his interpretation of the Coronation and of the D minor Concerto K.466 was particularly brilliant as heard at a concert conducted by Otto Klemperer in 1950.

Pelleg loved Schubert and seemed to know and understand him as one does an old friend. Fifty years ago Schubert was not really fashionable and his sonatas were only rarely heard. Pelleg's masterly performance of his works, in particular of his two A major Sonatas, D.664 and D.959, contributed much to the revival of interest in his music both in the audiences and among performing artists.

Listening to Pelleg playing Ravel was rather like sipping vintage champagne - it combined the coquetishness of Couperin with that of Ravel (Le tombeau de Couperin) observed through Pelleg's own prism of elegance. He succeeded, in his performance of the Pavane pour une infante defunte, in achieving what best is expressed in his own words: ...a magical blend of charm and sweetness of motion with bitter despondency of the occasion (from his book Know the Music).

Another great composer indebted to Pelleg for promoting and interpreting his music is Prokofiev. Pelleg was the first to perform in Israel most of his piano sonatas. The most brilliant among them, Nos. 6. 7 and 8 written between 1939 and 1944, Pelleg performed only a short while after they had been composed. His interpretation of Prokofiev might lack, on the one hand, the steely power of tone and the motoric parts may not always be as fast as they should but, on the other hand, his stunningly profound reading of the dramatic message contaiin the sonatas of World War II, was superb.

Chamber Musician and Accompanist

Frank Pelleg was a chamber music performer par excellence and played with all possible combinations of instrumental ensembles. Many works he played were actually heard in Israel for the first time (such as the Trio and the Violin Sonata by Ravel; the Violoncello Sonata, Op.40 and the Piano Quintet, Op.57 by Dmitri Shostakovich).

As an accompanist Pelleg was in the class of Gerald Moore. The Lieder literature was for him the area where his inherent romanticism and his intellect met in splendid celebration.


Frank Pelleg's manifold activities also included conducting. In 1946-1947 a chamber orchestra, The Histadrut (General Federation of Labour) Orchestra, was quite popular. Most of its members were later with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Under Pelleg's baton and direction this chamber group fulfilled the function which the Israel Chamber Ensemble under Gary Bertini continued: that of making a particular point of performing 20th century and Israeli music. I can still remember a concert given by the Histadrut Orchestra conducted by Pelleg early in 1947 in which the group tackled with great success Benjamin Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, a most demanding piece of music.


Frank Pelleg also tried his hand at composition. In the early 1940's he published a concertino for piano which he never bothered to have performed or published. He was much better known for the music he had written for the stage in Israel.


From 1941 on Frank Pelleg taught at a studio in Tel Aviv. There were at least 20 students in his class and they met once a fortnight. At every session some pupils played their compositions while the others offered their criticism. Contrary to the manner in which master-classes are conducted today in which the master from his seat on the Olympus, passes his messages of eternal truths through the performing pupil to... the notebooks of the teachers in the audience - Pelleg preferred to let the students express themselves and reduced his part to that of a broker.

His authority as pedagogue depended not only on his high professionality as a musician but also on the excellent education and his wide cultural heritage. For his own pleasure and to our delight, Pelleg was familiar - not as an amateur but almost as an expert - with the civilisation of ancient Greece, with world theatre, with all plastic arts, with poetry and literature.

Pelleg was a born educator. Amongst his pupils were Yahli Wagman, Alexis Weissenberg, Arie Vardi, Israela Margalit and Naomi Shemer. He organised workshops; lectured both in Israel and in the US where he was offered guest professorship at the Brandeis University. His broadcast talks were extremely popular, as were the three books he published: Know the Music, Talks about Music and an illustrated Encyclopedia of musical instruments.

Contribution to the Music Life in Israel

In the field of promoting and performing music by Israeli composers Frank Pelleg had no equal. He deliberately put his enormous talent, his professional knowledge in the field of contemporary music as well as his phenomenal gift for learning new pieces, at the service of Israeli music. He did that both for the works which he believed to have true artistic quality and a potential for future success as well as for those about whose musical and artistic values he had serious doubts. He played the piano and the harpsichord - alone, in chamber ensembles, as soloist with orchestra - works that have been composed especially for him by Israeli composers (Artur Gelbrun, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Joseph Kaminski, Sergiu Natra, Yitzhak Sadai and Josef Tal) and by others from abroad (Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Luigi Dallapiccola, Roberto Gerhard, Goffredo Petrassi).

What is beyond all doubt is that Pelleg's contribution to the fostering of musical culture in Israel played a dominant role in its development and touched upon an extremely rich variety of subjects, notwithstanding the I objective and specific difficulties he may have encountered.

Pelleg was the first music director of the Israel Festival, Chairman of the Jury of the first International Harp Contest and Chairman of the Committee of the Pablo Casals Violoncello Competition. In the years 1949-1953 he served as Chairman (he was the first to hold the position) of the Department of Music in the Ministry of Education and Culture and following the appointment hebraized his name from Pollak to Pelleg. He retained this position under four different ministers (of one of them Pelleg told a rather amusing story: when the staff was presented to the minister the latter remarked: 'Ah, so you are the head of the music department. Tell me, do you by chance play any instrument...?') During his years of office he established the Central Library for Music and Dance in Tel Aviv and the Phonogramme Archives of Jewish Music in Jerusalem. Pelleg was also a member of several important public bodies such as the National Council for Culture and Art, the Israel Branch of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, the Council for Higher Education and of the Public Council of the Radio Orchestra. From 1951 he lived in Haifa and was music director of Haifa Symphony Orchestra. He was also music director of the Beit Rothschild Cultural Centre; lectured at the Technion (Haifa Technical College) and was music director of the Haifa Municipal Theatre for many of whose productions he wrote original scores as well as arrangements of some existing ones. He also wrote scores for radio plays and for films. His initiative and enthusiasm made it possible for Haifa to host the 28th World Music Days - a first event of this sort for Israel.

Why do I take upon myself so many duties? asked Pelleg in his autobiographical notes. His answer: Simply because all those councils and committees play an important role in our lives. Somebody must participate in them; and as long as I think that others might do worse than me, I have to offer everything I am capable of.


Profile photo [1]

Haifa 1952 [11]

Profile photo [18]

Jerusalem 1968 [15]

Age 9 [2]

As a child with brother Egon [3]

Student at Prague University [4]

Playing on his first harpsichord (Prague, 1932) [5]

With violinist Peter River after their first performance (Prague, 1932) [6]

Prague 1934 [7]

Prague 1935 [8]

Israel 1940 [9]

Trying the harpsichord before a concert [14]

Piano recital in Tel Aviv [10]

Playing in a kibbutz [16]

Playing and conducting on the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (1961) [12]

With the composer Igor Stravinsky and the violinist Zvi Zeitlin [13]

With the composer Aaron Copland [17]

Source: Frank Pelleg: Talks about Music (Culture and Education Center - Music Library, Tel Aviv, 1974); Obituaries in Frank Pelleg - 25th Memorial Day by Yahli Wagman and Yuval Shaked (1993)
Contributed by
Daniela Glass & Aryeh Oron (March 2007)

Frank Pelleg: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works

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