Israel Jacques Olman
(17 August 1883, Amsterdam - 8 May 1968, The Hague)

Dutch composer and choirmaster. He studied music in Amsterdam and became choirmaster of the Santo Servicio choir of the Sephardi synagogue there. His composi-tions include Jigdal, Populus Sion, Jerusalem for performance in the synagogue, as well as liturgical works for Jewish choirs.
Israël Jacques Olman dans la période 1905-1940 un compositeur très respecté et acclamé et chef de chœur. Depuis de nombreuses années il a dirigé la chorale Saint-célèbre "Servico" de l'Eglise israélite portugaise à Amsterdam et aussi un grand nombre de chœurs d'hommes et mixtes. Il a composé la musique synagogale, la musique chorale pour toutes les professions - dont un grand nombre de chorales, chants socialistes, des oratorios, des opéras et symphonies. Il a également été arbitre lors de compétitions fréquentes chorales. La vie Olmans actif couvre plus de la moitié d'un siècle.Une période mouvementée de l'histoire, qui se reflète inévitablement dans sa vie.

Israel J. Olman
1883 - 1968
Componist en koordirigent
Pauline Micheels

Bekking & Blitz (2011)
ISBN-13: 978-9061093473

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.'

Diet Scholte

Israel Olman

Up until World War II, Israel J. Olman had been a celebrated choral conductor and composer. He wrote synagogal music and also music for socialist choirs, to be performed at major singing competitions. His fame, in addition to the fact that he was married to a Catholic woman, offered him some protection during the war. In the post-war years his reputation as a composer diminished rapidly, creating financial difficulties. The world had changed and his musical idiom had become outdated.

by Pauline Micheels

Composer and distinguished choral director

It must have been memorable evening, on October 5, 1924 in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, when composer, conductor and music teacher Israel Olman was honored by the Union of Workers' Choral Societies on his 25th anniversary as a music professional. His works were performed by five choirs, and together, under the composer's direction, they premiered his new work Sullima. The program book outlined the significance of Olman's musicianship. In past 25 years he had matured as a composer, especially affecting those who loved and promoted singing with a good melody close to their heart.

A young conductor

Now, almost fifty years after his death, Israel Jacques Olman (usually known as Ies), whose reputation in the course of time faded into oblivion, deserves a renewed introduction. He was born on August 17, 1883, in the St. Anthoniebreestraat, in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. His parents were part of the Jewish proletariat identifying more with the growing socialist movement of the late 19th century, than adhering to Orthodox Judaism. His mother came from a musical family (Hamel); his father was an amateur singer and a diamond worker. Later he worked his way up to “broker in pearls and diamonds.”

Ies Olman was a talented child. At six, he started violin lessons, and at twelve he enrolled at the music school. His father was in favor of a wide ranging musical as well as a solid general education. At the music school he studied violin and piano. His teachers were Bernard Zweers for music theory, and the renowned choirmaster Fred. Roeske for composition and choral singing. At the same time he had piano lessons with Evert Cornelis.

At the turn of the century he played as a violinist in the Dutch Opera orchestra, but the company went bankrupt. In 1899, just sixteen years old, Ies conducted his first choir: the male double quartet Molto Crescendo. A few years later he was already conductor of six choirs and had published his work Zomermorgen by Alsbach & Co.;  the first of many compositions. Choral music was popular at that time, triggering expansion of choral societies, at first especially male choirs and so-called “liedertafels”, and after 1870, also mixed, and trade union choirs. The Ashkenazi Jews in Amsterdam - especially the opera and operetta-loving diamond workers – established choirs as well. And all those choristers met at popular festivals and singing competitions.

Choral music composer

It was impossible to make a living only from conducting and composing. For that reason Olman started, in 1905, teaching violin, piano and composition in the Amsterdam neighborhood Watergraafsmeer. He married Marianne Bonn, who also came from a diamond worker family. They had two children, a daughter and a son. Olman was also appointed  in that year as artistic director of the Religious Singing Society Santo Serviҫo (founded in 1886 as Santo Servicio), a male choir of the Portuguese-Jewish Congregation in Amsterdam with more than one hundred members (boys and men). Because Olman was neither a “Portuguese” nor an “orthodox” Jew, the synagogue was forbidden territory. During worship and Jewish celebrations a “Portuguese” conductor took over.

Olman was also expected to compose synagogical music. He was destined to be a worthy successor to cantor Isaac Heymann, who had left a large oeuvre in the tradition of famous German composer Louis Lewandovski. Olman didn’t disappoint them; his music fit in perfectly and he proved to be very prolific in those years. At the end of December 1910, the Utrechtsch Stedelijk Orchest premiered his First Symphony with Wouter Hutschenruyter conducting. In the Amsterdam Rembrandt Theatre, on New Year's Eve 1911, he conducted his first one-act opera, Rina, on a libretto by Joseph Cohen, soon followed by the ballad Hannibal. The reviews were so enthusiastic that he embarked on a much larger project: an opera in three acts about the Norse king, Fjalar, with a libretto by Thijs van Zanten.  Reviews following the premiere in November 1912 were not altogether favorable  and for a reprise the following year, there was little public interest.

World War I broke out in August of 1914. The Netherlands held a neutral position, but had to deal with a flow of Belgian refugees. To support these displaced people, the Association of the Amsterdam Choral Societies (BAZ) organized in early October a grand open air concert in a stadium with conductors Roeske and Olman. And in December, Olman conducted a charity concert at the Concertgebouw with Santo Serviҫo which made jubilant headlines: “Homage to Olman and his choir.” Olman was not only a skilled musician, he was an excellent conductor as well.

Nevertheless he gradually ended the management of his choirs, including Santo Serviҫo. He wanted to focus on composing and also founded a modern music school. In 1919, he met Antoon Krelage, secretary of the BAZ, and an active member of the Amsterdam choir Stem des Volks (Voice of the people). Krelage encouraged Olman to write music for the workers' choral societies, appointed him as a jury member for the singing competitions and commissioned him to compose the “compulsory pieces.” Within a short time Olman produced dozens of works for these workers choirs.

At the time of the grand celebration on his 25th anniversary as a musician in 1924, Olman was in a good financial position and regarded as one of the most prolific and respected composers of choral music. Hundreds of choristers performed an aubade at his home and adjoining music school in Watergraafsmeer. In the following months enthusiastic celebrations were organized all over the country. “Why all this fervor?” some critics wondered. Was it the spontaneous warmth of his melodic music, its simplicity and clarity, its universal quality that appealed to everyone?

The Buma years

Two years later composing shifted to the background. Olman started working at Buma, the Dutch institution for music copyrights. With the arrival of radio and cinema he may have feared that the end of his profession as a music teacher was near. It was a full-time job and he was only allowed free time to teach on Saturday mornings. However,  he completed Arbeids-Verrijzenis (Labour-Resurrection in 1928, a “symbolic work for soprano, baritone, mixed-choir, male choir and orchestra,” performed twice for the Handwerkers Vriendenkring, a representative organization for Jewish artisans. The Deutscher Arbeiter-Sängerbund purchased this composition for Germany and it premiered in June 1928, as Arbeits-Auferstehung (in German translation) to an enthousiastic audience. The critics however wrote that the composer seemed to struggle with too much complex material.

In that period he completed one last major composition: the full-length socialist oratorio Symphonie voor den Arbeid (Symphony for Labor), for soprano, tenor, bass, choir and orchestra on a dramatic text by C. de Dood. It was commissioned by the BAZ, performed several times starting in 1932, and broadcasted by VARA Radio. But at a certain point in time the Dutch government stated that the text was too "revolutionary.” Radio broadcasts were banned and the work ended up on the shelf.
The Buma years were tough. Problems at work and in his personal life led to setbacks. In 1934, driving in a company car in The Hague, he ran into a tree. A tragic accident in which his father lost his life and Olman himself was severely injured. Three years later, his wife, suffering from a serious heart condition, died.  After her death, he changed residence. He made acquaintance with a young French woman while on vacation in Vichy and they got married in December 1938. Her Catholic faith wasn't an objection, on the contrary, in 1951 Olman became a member of the Catholic Church.

The War Years

From 1940 onwards, many things changed. The Olmans moved to The Hague, and just before the outbreak of the war, he lost his job at the BUMA. The first two years of the war went by, in his own words, “reasonably calm,” but in August 1942, his son was summoned to transit camp Westerbork and in September, Olman, himself was summoned to a labor camp in Overijssel. Less than a week later, the camp was shut down and all captives were transported to Westerbork. Due to his mixed marriage, he escaped deportation to the east. In February 1943, his wife managed to get him on the list “Frederiks-Van Dam” so he was, as a Verdienstjude, for the time being safeguarded from deportation. In February, he was allowed to leave Westerbork for the castle (camp) de Schaffelaar in Barneveld; a month later he, as the spouse of an Aryan woman, was even permitted to go home for five days.

Olman was able to resume his musical activities in Barneveld, composing and organizing entertainment for the prisoners, some of whom were musicians. That spring it appeared that his wife was pregnant. On September 29, quite unexpectedly, all the residents of de Schaffelaar were transported to Westerbork. He now hoped to return home quickly, but the Westerbork camp was closed off for months because of a meningitis epidemic. In December, he learned that his wife gave birth to a healthy son. Finally on March 8, 1944, he was allowed to return to The Hague, on the condition that he would undergo a "voluntary" sterilization. He agreed, and from that moment on, he no longer had to wear a star.

Out of date

The postwar years were difficult, especially financially. His plan to emigrate to South Africa was not realized; interest in his choral work had diminished which meant a decline in copyrights. One bright moment was his 50th jubilee celebration in December 1949 in The Hague and in Amsterdam organized by Antoon Krelage. Colleagues like Nico van der Linden rediscovered his music. Five years later, his 70th birthday was also celebrated extensively, but his financial situation had sunk to an absolute low point. He received support from various organizations, but in fact this didn't deliver a satisfactory solution. Desperately Olman turned to Prime Minister Willem Drees, who was compassionate but could little do for him.

Things seemed to improve in the second half of the 1950's. On his 75th birthday in 1958, the press praised him for his merits. In the last ten years of his life, he worked steadily, even though his works were no longer published. He died on May 8, 1968, aware that he had become out of date and was no longer a part of the contemporary music scene.

Olman left an extensive oeuvre, largely consisting of choral compositions, but including more prestigious works as well. In his choral works he expressed himself to the fullest and for more than forty years, he was most successful. Perhaps this focus  on mainly Jewish and socialist choral music has been an important reason - with the almost complete elimination of Jewish life in the Netherlands and the demise of the union choirs - for Olman's music to lose its audience.


Micheels, Pauline, Israel J. Olman, componist en koordirigent (Amersfoort, 2011)
Olman, Isr. J., Mijn leven en werken. Een autobiografie 1883-1953 (not published)

Israel Olman - Trois Chansons d'Amour
Up until World War II, Israel J. Olman (1883-1968) had been a celebrated choral conductor and composer. He wrote synagogal music and also music for socialist choirs, to be performed at major singing competitions.
His fame, in addition to the fact that he was married to a Catholic woman, offered him some protection during the war. In the post-war years his reputation as a composer diminished rapidly, creating financial difficulties.
The world had changed and his musical idiom had become outdated.
Marcel Beekman (tenor) sings his Trois Chansons d'Amour, accompanied by Marianne Boer (piano). Live recording Uilenburg Concert 15 February 2010, Amsterdam. Broadcast by NTR Radio4.
1. Si tu m'amais!
2. Un Mendiant
3. Berceuse

Compositions by Israel Olman