Israel Olman was born on 17 August 1883 in Amsterdam. Both his parents were musicians; it was not surprising therefore that Israel began learning the violin when he was only six, giving his musical talent an early boost. By 1895 he was studying violin, piano and composition at music school and he began to compose his own pieces around that date, tutored amongst others by Fred Roeske and Bernard Zweers. He developed an aptitude for the composition of choral works. His first published work – Zomermorgen (Summer Morning) – appeared in 1904. In 1906 he married his childhood sweetheart Marianne Bonn and they had two children. Marianne died in 1937.
Olman’s career as a choral conductor began at the turn of the century, when for several years he conducted the famous Portuguese Jewish choir Santo Servicio. He earned his living by giving piano and composition lessons. He composed a great deal of music for the synagogue and also, in the 20s and 30s, many works for socialist choirs. Because of his background – his father was a diamond cutter – he always sympathised with the labour movement. This can be seen in works with titles such as De strijders (The Struggle), Het Daagt! (The Day Has Come) and Verrijzenis (Resurrection).
In 1924 there were great celebrations for Olman’s 25th anniversary as a musician in the Concertgebouw with 700 singers performing his latest work Sulima. In 1927 Olman wrote an oratorio entitled Arbeids-Verrijzenis (Rise of the Workers) for a workers’ choral association called Bond van Arbeiders Zangverenigingen (BAZ). This was followed in 1932 by his Symphonie voor den Arbeid (Symphony for the Workers), which was broadcast several times on radio. In 1938 the Dutch government banned any further performances: the text was too revolutionary.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Olman was protected to some extent by his reputation and his marriage (1938) to the French Catholic Maria Lagroute. In 1943 he was transported via Westerbork to Camp Barneveld as a 'labour Jew'. Here Olman composed several pieces. When the camp was closed, return to Westerbork became inevitable. He was released in March 1944 due to the birth of his son Pierre in December 1943. The Nazis were much more lenient with couples in a mixed marriage and with children than with Jews who were childless. Of the children from Olman’s first marriage: his son and family did not survive the Nazi persecutions, his daughter and her family successfully came out of hiding.
The early postwar years were financially very difficult. Olman did however celebrate his 50th anniversary in 1949 in the Concertgebouw. He continued to compose but the war had taken the edge off his reputation. As he wrote to a friend, 'Modern times require modern composers. I have adapted, but perhaps I have not changed enough.' Israel Olman died on 8 May 1968 in The Hague.
Israel Olman left a considerable volume of works, many of which were specially written for societies where he himself was the conductor. Leo Samama writes that Olman was mainly a composer and conductor; his music was intended to be clear and not contain too many technical difficulties. His choice of material was dictated both melodically and harmonically by the practicalities of conducting. To quote Samama: 'For all his modesty, Olman had a profound understanding of music, which made him a significant figure of his time. He was a musician’s musician.'
Source: Israel J. Olman, componist en koordirigent. Pauline Micheels,with a contribution by Leo Samama. Bekking & Blitz, 2011.
Find out more about Israel Olman, find sheet music and listen to sound samples on www.forbiddenmusicregained.org
Pauline Micheels wrote a biography 'Israel J. Olman (1883-1968) - Composer and choir conductor' including a discussion of his music by Leo Samama. This booklet in Dutch, with many illustrations can be ordered from the publisher's website.