Sunday, 19 August 2012

Hebrew Melodies

The Russian-Jewish composer Joseph Achron (1886-1943), born in Lithuania, died in Hollywood, sounds like another fascinating neglected figure. 

The summary of his career seems to run as follows: A pupil of Liadov, he became keen on writing "Jewish music" initially through applying his studies of folk music. After falling under the spell of Scriabin for a while, he left Russia after the Revolution and passed through Mandatory Palestine before emigrating to America in the mid 1920s. The short stay in Palestine resulted in a renewed determination to write in a new Jewish idiom, this time based on traditional Biblical cantillation. Late on, perhaps influenced by his friendship with Schoenberg, he began writing atonal music. 

I wish I knew some of his Scriabinesque music and I would love to hear some of his late radical music too; in fact, so neglected is Achron that I can only bring you three of his works.

His best-known piece is the Hebrew Melody of 1911 - a piece for violin and orchestra (more commonly heard arranged for violin and piano) which freely arranges a number of Jewish folk-tunes in a warmly Romantic fashion. It's a very easy piece to like.

The other two pieces both date from just after Achron's post-Middle Eastern arrival in America. They are both wonderful works and ought to be in the mainstream repertoire. 

The first movement of the two-movement First Violin Concerto (Pt2,Pt3) show Achron's attempts to write in a new Jewish idiom most clearly. The themes of the movement are all closely based on ritual chants used to recite Biblical passages in synagogues, where musical motifs are associated with specific signs. The result is rhapsodic and passionate music of a very attractive melodic character. The second movement reverts to folksong inspiration and is subtitled Improvisations on 2 themes Yemeniques. The two Yemenite Jewish folksongs are alternated and occasionally woven together polyphonically. Anyone who enjoys the concertos of Szymanowski should respond with enthusiasm to this beautiful piece - as will many others besides. 

The Children's Suite for clarinet, piano and string quartet is also inspired by Jewish melody but, in its twenty short movements, has a good-humoured character that is far removed from the serious mood of the First Violin Concerto. It is full of wonderful tunes and has a Prokofiev-like sense of colour and mischief allied to an un-Prokofiev-like warmth. Audiences would just love it - and hopefully you will too. 

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