In his obituary Joseph Achron was described by his friend Arnold
Schoenberg as “one of the most underrated modern composers”. Indeed, in the
years following his early death, his music fell into obscurity. This was
occasioned by various unfortunate circumstances, not least because, in the
aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the First World War several of the
publishing houses that handled his works were forced out of business. Later
as a Jew his music was banned under Hitler and several works disappeared
from the catalogue. Finally on his emigration to the USA he discovered that
his predilection for writing ‘Jewish music’ with its strains reminiscent of
‘the old country’ were rejected by a population of Jewish immigrants from
Eastern Europe who, desperate to assimilate, turned their backs on these
musical memories of ‘home’.
Fortunately with the passage of time we can view his music with less
prejudice and simply evaluate it for what it is; beautifully melodic music
that deserves a hearing. There is no denying that his music is unashamedly
‘romantic’ but there has always been a place for that even if it doesn’t
float everyone’s boat.
Joseph Yulyevich Achron was born in what is today the town of Lazdijai,
Lithuania, in 1886 and was a child prodigy. His parents hoped he would
become a great violinist after he’d composed his first melody aged two on a
homemade violin. They moved the family to Warsaw to help his chances. Things
like that seemed to happen in those far-off days; either that or the
unfortunate child might be born to parents who forbade them entertaining
such frivolous ideas. As a ten year old he performed at the Tsar’s brother’s
birthday party for which he received a gold watch that he always cherished.
Aged 13 he enrolled at the St Petersburg Conservatory and studied violin
with Leopold Auer whose students included Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist, Nathan
Milstein and Mischa Elman, and harmony with Anatoly Liadov. Though he always
considered himself principally a performer he composed a considerable number
of works and Naxos deserves congratulation for lifting the veil that has
concealed the forgotten works on this disc.
It is no surprise that one of his most well known pieces is the first on
this disc, his Hebrew Melody
from 1911. It positively drips
nostalgia, a feature that would no doubt turn some people off. However it is
an extremely good and effective tune nevertheless. The booklet notes give
the background to how it came to be written. There are several of his
compositions that use the basic ‘Hebrew’ sound, so well known in Eastern
Europe, and the core of which is also found in many other musical cultures
of that region. Characterised by a sweetness of tone and a mixture of joy
and melancholy these tunes have always found a place among the peoples
living in those countries.
A day prior to his graduation from the Conservatory he showed Liadov a
Prelude, thought by some to be his Prelude, Op.13
from 1904 (the
date fits). Liadov was mightily impressed despite Achron’s daring departure
from the rules of counterpoint. The booklet notes describe it as “... a
remarkable, deeply passionate work, full of musical drama” and so it is,
packing a great deal into less than four minutes. The contrasting themes for
each instrument give the violin as hero a sense of isolation wandering
around in an anxiously distracted way. His Les Sylphides
is a total
contrast in mood to the Prelude and there is a school of thought that has it
that Achron may have witnessed a private performance of Glazunov’s ballet,
written for Diaghilev and put on by Michel Fokine. This may explain why he
managed to have his work published before the ballet had its official
The event that caused the Hebrew Melody, Op.33
to be written
reawakened in Achron an interest in Jewish folklore. He also peppered his
compositions with the essence of Jewish music as remembered from his youth.
His Dance Improvisation on a Hebrew Folk Theme
shows this ability
in spades and includes some fanciful markings such as “very flirtatious”,
“elegant” and “dreamy”.
For several years prior to this rediscovery of his musical roots his
compositions were more or less devoid of Jewish references as shown in his
Suite No.1 en style ancien
; his No.2 was in the modern style. As
the booklet notes explain, this ‘old style’ was still seen through the prism
of his ‘modern’ musical view but is, nevertheless, a convincing tribute to
the baroque. Another of his interests I learned from the well written and
comprehensive notes was that Achron very much enjoyed setting himself the
task of transcribing other composers’ works, some 30 by at least 15
composers varying widely from Rameau and Vivaldi to Liszt and Stephen
Foster. One such is his piece La Romanesca
century Spanish dance tune in which, after setting the tune
out in a straightforward enough way, he subjects it to a thorough reworking.
He demonstrates that transcription fully deserves being viewed as an art
form in its own right — as genuine a part of the creative process as any
There is intriguing speculation that his Stempenyu Suite
inspiration behind Marc Chagall’s famous painting of a fiddler on the roof.
Certainly it is a brilliant evocation of the klezmer violinist in Sholem
Aleichem’s story. The music was composed for a production of the story for a
Yiddish Theatre in New York.
Achron’s Second Berceuse
is a genuine lullaby with its gentle
rocking motion. It differs from many other composers’ versions that either
evoked lively and joyful babes or tragic ones.
When he arrived in the USA to live for the rest of his life he was
surprised to discover that he was thought of as a composer rather than a
violinist. This must have been a shock for someone who had only recently
toured Russia, Europe and the Middle East as a violinist performing in over
a thousand concerts in five years.
Having fallen into obscurity for so many years it is a pleasure to know
that his music is being rediscovered and programmed in concerts and
festivals and that a Joseph Achron
was founded in 2010 to help in that process. On the evidence of
this disc it is a process that should be successful and the release of his
First Violin Concerto (Naxos 8.559408
) will surely help it all along.
Both musicians here record deliver committed performances of some really
lovely tunefully melodic music of great charm.