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Pianist explores Hatikvah’s origins

Tags: Arts
Musicologist and concert pianist Astrith Baltsan  [Ariel Jerozolimski photo]

TORONTO — Pianist Astrith Baltsan spent eight years doing research on the history of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, which became the basis of a book and a musical performance.

Baltsan, who will be touring the United States with her Hatikvah performance, will stop in Toronto at the Glenn Gould Studio on May 6, in honour of Israel’s Independence Day.

Hosted by the Canadian Committee for the Haifa Foundation, the show will support the rebuilding of a park and playground near the Carmel forest in northern Israel, the site of a 2010 fire in which 44 people died and more than 12,000 acres of forest were destroyed.

Baltsan, 55, was born in Tel Aviv, where she studied piano and musicology at Tel Aviv University. She received a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the Julliard School in New York and completed her doctorate in piano performance at the Manhattan School of Music. She has been an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta.

In 1986, she returned to Israel. She became interested in the origin of Hatikvah when a scandal arose because many Israeli children did not know the words or origin of the Israeli national anthem. The Israeli Ministry of Culture and Education commissioned Baltsan to research the origin and meaning of Hatikvah. Her research surprised her. She discovered that the words of Hatikvah were written by Naftali Herz Imber in Romania in 1878, using some biblical expressions. In 1882, during the first wave of Israeli immigration, Imber came to Israel.

“He visited Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, Gedera, Yessod Hamaala – and sold them again and again that same one anthem. To this day, each settlement claims that the national anthem was written just for them,” said Baltsan.

When the poem reached Shmuel Cohen, a young immigrant from Romania, he adapted an ancient Sephardi melody to the first stanza and an Ashkenazi melody to the second stanza of the poem. The song then spread across the Jewish Diaspora. Baltsan discovered that the melody for Hatikvah was used throughout Europe in works by famous composers such as Gasparo Zannetti, Mozart and Bedjic Smetana. 

Hatikvah became the official Israeli anthem more than 120 years after it was first written. As a result of her research, Baltsan wrote a book called Hatikvah: A Hymn Is Born and presented it to the Israeli Ministry of Education.

“By the end of my presentation, everyone got up to sing Hatikvah and I saw the minister with tears in his eyes,” Baltsan said. “It made me understand that this is not only a book but a performance.”

Baltsan’s multimedia Hatikvah performance is a 90-minute presentation that explores the origins of Hatikvah and includes music by Mozart, Chopin, Smetana, Jewish and Israeli folk, pop and rock tunes and rare historical recordings and video clips.

“I’ve reached far more people than I ever thought I could reach because [the story of Hatikvah] is relevant to everybody – to every Jew in the world,” Baltsan said. “In a way, this Hatikvah was also my hope to reach out to a wider range of people who want to know more about their roots.”

She said that “it’s very important to know why this land, this people, this nation survived – which is expressed in our national anthem. I’m lucky enough to get to show these truths, through one tiny motif – a one-minute song.”

Lisa Gardner Plant, executive director of the Canadian Committee for the Haifa Foundation, said that the committee’s “assistant director in Haifa saw Astrith perform and called the next day to say that everyone in Israel is raving about her show, and that I had to bring her to Canada.

 “The whole concept of the concert is unique,” she said. “Hatikvah is a song that brings people to tears, but what do we really know about it? Do we know its history? It will be really interesting to learn where the anthem came from.”

For tickets to the Hatikvah performance, at Glenn Gould Studio, contact the Roy Thomson Hall box office at 416-872-4255 and online at

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