Joseph Achron


" of the most underrated modern composers. The originality and profound elaboration of his ideas guarantee that his works will last." Arnold Schoenberg (1943)

"All of Achron's Judaically related music […] reflects both his and the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik's central thesis that creation of a genuine «Hebrew music» was possible... Achron insisted that it was still possible to ferret out and define at least some national characteristics of style, especially since some of the fundamentals of ancient Hebrew music could be traced through continuous usage (especially biblical cantillation and modal motifs), even allowing for transmutation and acculturation over time... Achron's artistic path as a composer was thus partly a lifelong search for a new language of musical expression..." Neil W. Levin

Biography (click to view...)

Child prodigy

Achron was born in Losdzey (Lozdzieje), in the Suwałky region of historic Lithuania (then part of Russian Poland; now Lazdijai, Lithuania), into a comfortable middle-class family. His father was an amateur violinist as well as a lay ba’al t’filla (amateur precentor or cantor). Joseph’s younger brother, Isidore, was an accomplished pianist who later became Jascha Heifetz’s accompanist for a time in America. Joseph began violin lessons at the age of five, when the family moved to Warsaw and soon emerged as a child prodigy. He made his debut at the age of nine and his first tour at thirteen, which took him to many European parts of the Russian Empire: Kiev, Odessa, Łódź, Białystok, Grodno, and to St. Petersburg, where he played at the Imperial Palace at a birthday celebration of the czar’s brother, Grand Duke Michael. On that occasion he was presented with a gold watch by the czar’s mother, Czarina Maria Fedorovna. In 1898 the family relocated to St. Petersburg, where Joseph entered the Conservatory with assistance from the Grand Duke and joined the class of the legendary violin teacher Leopold Auer, whose other students included Jascha Heiftez, Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, Nathan Milstein, and Tascha Seidl. After graduation he went to Germany for three years, where his concerts met with great success. His performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus, conducted by Arthur Nikisch, incorporated his own cadenza. His first known composition — a lullaby for violin (an unpublished manuscript which now in the British Museum) Joseph wrote when he was seven years old. In the Conservatory studied composition with Anatoly Lyadov. By the time of graduation in 1904, he had written a dozen compositions. On his return to St. Petersburg, he became increasingly interested in composition, and he studied orchestration with Maximillian Steinberg, Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law. Of all the Russian composers, Scriabin exerted the most influence on his work. On Scriabin’s death, in 1915, Achron wrote an Epitaph (op. 38) in his memory. Achron considered himself primarily a violinist and a composer, hopeful for inclusion in the general mainstream of Russian music.

Hebrew Melody and Gesellschaft

However, аround 1911 he became attracted to the work and mission of the Gesellschaft circle, intrigued by its reactions to the musical assimilation of many Russian-Jewish composers who demonstrated an obliviousness to Jewish roots. Achron demonstrated an affinity for Judaic themes well before his Gesellschaft association. His Variations on Kamarinskaya, op. 12, for example, has a theme and variations (no. 9) marked “Hebraique”. Solomon Rosowsky, president of the main St. Petersburg section of the Society, became friendly with Achron after hearing him play, introducing him to the Gesellschaft’s activities and its discovery of Jewish heritage and folklore as a source of artistic creativity. Achron joined the Gesellschaft that year and later became chairman of its music committee. Rosowsky was his mentor, a relationship that continued throughout their lives. The Gesellschaft experience turned out to be his guiding inspiration for much of his artistic life. Though a relative latecomer to the group, he was one of the leading musical personalities to come out of its milieu.

Achron’s first composition following his joining the Gesellschaft was his Hebrew Melody for violin and piano (op. 33, 1911) based on a theme he remembered hearing in a Warsaw synagogue in his youth. It remains his most famous piece, part of the standard repertoire of virtually all concert violinists and a frequent encore number. It has been played and/or recorded by Heifetz, Milstein, Elman, Henryk Szeryng, and Itzhak Perlman, and it usually provides the primary recognition of Achron’s name in the classical music world. It was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1912 at a ball-concert given by an adjutant to the czar, where Achron played it as an encore after a program of classical works. The immediate success of Hebrew Melody actually changed the course of Achron’s musical life, since from that point on, he devoted a significant part of his energies and gifts to music with Jewish connections. After a ballad on Hebrew themes for cello and piano (op. 34), a number of pieces related to Jewish themes followed. Achron became preoccupied with developing a “Jewish” harmonic and contrapuntal idiom that would be more appropriate to Jewish melodies than typical Western techniques, but he opposed the notion of an artificially superimposed “Jewish style.” He was convinced that any possible stylistic development of a Jewish national art music required an evolutionary course, just as Western music had evolved over centuries.


Before World War I Achron toured a lot and wrote a sonata in 4 parts, violin cycles "Mood" and "Pastel Colors", "Epitaph in Memory of Scriabin", opus 38, for orchestra "(1915). He was mobilized into the Russian army, first sent to the front, but then then joined the music corps and was headquartered in Petrograd. During the years following the October Revolution in 1917, Gesellschaft was disbanded. Russian violinist Vladimir Budnikov in the inroduction to The Russian-Japanese project with Japanese violinist Jun Tanimoto, that "brought back the mystical music of Joseph Achron to the audience" wrote: "Second Violin Sonata, Op. 45 captured in sounds a breathtaking image of the Russian revolution of 1917. In the words of the symbolist poet Andrei Bely, "the closest parallel is drawn between revolution and art precisely through music." Neither politicians, nor historians, nor Bolsheviks will tell us the spiritual truth about the secret of the revolutionary coup. And the music of Achron makes this secret open. The sonata was composed in revolutionary Petrograd in the summer of 1918, during a time of social chaos, the anticipation of the Civil War and the general rise in apocalyptic sentiments. N. Berdyaev in his book "The Origins and Meaning of Russian Communism" writes that during this period "the Russian person felt imbued with the mystical influences of the coming end, foresaw the inevitable domination of the Antichrist, he was in a state of expectation, the future caused terror in him." Achron, as a composer with a fine artistic and historical instinct, understood what a threat was hanging over Russia and what a heavy cross Russia was destined to bear in the 20th century. Sonata op. 45 for violin and piano is one of the heights of the musical art of Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. She has a powerful and persuasive tone of apocalyptic utterance and is a significant eschatological7 experience in musical expressionism."

In 1918 Achron resigned from the Conservatory and continued as a virtuoso-performer. Within four years gave almost a thousand concerts! In 1919, the director A. Granovsky organized in Petrograd the Jewish School of Performing Arts and the Theater Studio, which became the basis of the Moscow Jewish Chamber Theater (since 1925 - GOSET). Achron wrote music first for the play "The Blind" after Maeterlinck (1919), for "The Evening of Sholem Aleichem" (three one-act plays) and "The Witch" (1922) after A. Goldfaden. Achron composes piano accompaniments for 11 caprices by Paganini, two miniatures - "Fairy Tale" and "Dedication to Love". The Vienna publishing house "Universal" publishes two of his works on the theory of violin playing and five other works ("Children's Suite", "Concerto for Violin and Orchestra", "Aphorism L. Auer", etc.). The famous music critic V. Karatygin wrote in 1922: "In Petrograd there is a rare phenomenon: there is an excellent violinist who is able to compose real chamber music."

Emigré: Berlin, Palestine

In 1922 Achron decided to leave Russia. On October 14, he performed for the last time in front of friends at the Society of Jewish Folk Music. His wife, singer Maria Raphof, sings in Hebrew one of the parts of Opus 52, entitled Dreamy Lights, which the author later reworked into Canzonetta. In 1922 Achron arrived to Berlin, where, with a few other émigré colleagues, he tried to replant the Gesellschaft. He meets Yoel Engel, publishes his works at the Juwal Publishing House, created by Engel, corresponds with Rozovsky in Riga, settles misunderstandings between Moshe Gopenko and Engel related to his move to Palestine. Achron, fond of the French impressionists, gave musical expression to their works in his twenty miniatures for piano, which were included in the "Children's Suite". Among his major works of that period is Children’s Suite, based on motives of biblical cantillations. Achron became increasingly attracted to both biblical cantillation and secular Jewish folksong as sources for compositions, but unlike many of his colleagues, he grew less interested in Hassidic music as a mine from which to draw. While in Berlin, Achron became interested in the work of the Habima (Hebrew) theatrical studio, which inspired his original score for Belshazzar.

While waiting for USA entry visa in March 1924, Achron arrives on a concert tour in Palestine. That visit had a profound effect on his subsequent music, both spiritually and in terms of various melodies, modes, and cantillations he heard for the first time. For two and a half months, he gives fifteen concerts - in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa. He is greeted with great enthusiasm. Concerts in the "colonies" Achron gives almost free of charge, and due to the lack of a piano he has to improvise piano solos on the violin. Having received an invitation to participate in a concert in New York at Carnegie Hall in honor of the 80th birthday of Leopold Auer, Achron arrives in the United States on January 1, 1925.


He came to America in 1925 — first to Chicago, and then New York for nine years. Although he devoted himself ever more diligently to composition during those years, he still performed frequently. At an eightieth birthday tribute to Leopold Auer at Carnegie Hall, Heifetz, Zimbalist, and the honoree played Achron’s cadenza in their performance of a Vivaldi concerto for three violins (a concert that also included performances by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Joseph Hoffman, Ossip Gabrilowitch, and other supreme giants of the music world of the time). In 1927 Achron learns of Engel's untimely death and writes the "Elegy for string quartet" dedicated to Engel's memory.

In New York, Achron wrote several scores of incidental music for productions at Maurice Schwarz’s Yiddish Art Theater, building on his Berlin experiences with Habima and the Teatron Eretz Israeli. Among the plays for which he wrote music were Goldfaden’s The Tenth Commandment, Leivick’s The Golem, Sholom Asch’s The Witch of Castille, and two by Sholom Aleichem: Kiddush hashem and Stempenyu. The score for the last was later reworked into a piece for violin and piano with the same title, premiered by Joseph Szigeti, and later programmed by Jascha Heifetz. Also in New York, Achron wrote his one serious synagogue work, a complete Sabbath evening service according to the American Reform format. It was commissioned by Temple Emanu-El—where the music director, Lazare Saminksy, had also been part of the Gesellschaft circle in Russia—and it was published in 1932.

In 1934 Achron moved to Los Angeles, which was then playing host to a significant group of émigré composers, intellectuals, and performers, such as Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Schoenberg, Toch, Zeisl, Mann, Stravinsky, Rubinstein, Heifetz, and Piatigorsky. Achron became part of that circle, and like many fellow émigré composers, he took advantage of opportunities for involvement in film scoring (in his case, with minimal success) and playing in studios. He also became active in some of the intellectual organizations of Jewish musical life there.

Achron completed his second (1936) and third (1937) violin concertos in Los Angeles, the latter on a commission from Heifetz, and he played the premieres of both with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Otto Klemperer. Unlike the Concerto no. 1, written in New York in 1925, neither of those utilized any Jewish material or purported to be Judaic art works. Although the second concerto received favorable reviews, some saw in the third a loss of the charm and inspiration so evident in the first. Indeed, at that point in his life Achron was attempting to join the avant-garde, and he sometimes allowed a forced theoretical approach to crowd out his natural inclination toward emotional freshness.

Joseph Achron, "A Miracle of Virtuosity", prodigy performer and according to Schoenberg, one of the most underestimated contemporary composers, died on April 29, 1943 of kidney failure, two days before his 57th birthday.

Achron’s oeuvre is considerable, comprising chamber and orchestral works; solo piano pieces; violin pieces in addition to the concertos; songs and choral settings; eight cadenzas for Paganini, Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, and Haydn concertos; and at least thirty-three known violin and piano transcriptions of songs and piano miniatures by such composers as Grieg, Brahms, Liszt, Rameau, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. Found among his papers and other effects were sketches for a planned seven-movement symphonic work. According to Neil W. Levin: "All of Achron's Judaically related music […] reflects both his and the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik's central thesis that creation of a genuine «Hebrew music» was possible... Achron insisted that it was still possible to ferret out and define at least some national characteristics of style, especially since some of the fundamentals of ancient Hebrew music could be traced through continuous usage (especially biblical cantillation and modal motifs), even allowing for transmutation and acculturation over time... Achron's artistic path as a composer was thus partly a lifelong search for a new language of musical expression..." In the words of Albert Weisser, Achron's music was between two poles, a specifically Jewish and general musical audience, and could not be fully perceived by both audiences. There is now growing interest in rediscovering the music of Achron and his friends from the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusic