If you were fortunate enough to attend the concert this past Monday, in which the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival, along with Chamber Music Pittsburgh, Rodef Shalom, and the United Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, presented “Hebrew Melodies,” featuring Tehila Nini Goldstein, soprano, and various members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, you heard some seldom-heard music. And much of the music presented was by Joseph Achron. Samuel Zerin, who wrote a biography of Achron and who founded the Joseph Achron Society and has been curating some of Achron’s works, educated the crowd a bit, and gave us some history. (He also taught us about Doubly Chromatic Mediant Chord Progressions, such as G minor to E♭ minor, which Achron used, as has John Williams more recently.) Thanks to Mr. Zerin for much of this information. (The Jewish Encyclopedia supplemented, and says that brother Isidor played piano and composed, as well.)
When Mr. Achron, born in Lozdzieje, Suwalki, was two years old, he composed his first melody on a home-made violin.
By age 10 he was on concert tours of Russia, and performed at a birthday party for the Czar’s brother. In 1899 he enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and studied with Leopold Auer, whose students also included Jascha Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist, Nathan Milstein, and Misha Elman (almost the song by George Gershwin, “Mischa, Jascha, Toscha & Sascha”!). In 1911, Achron was approached by the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music (they advocated Jewish style in classical music), pursuant to which overture Achron wrote his most famous piece, “Hebrew Melody,” Op. 33, for violin and piano.
After WWI, in which he served as a performer for front-line Russian troops, Achron toured giving over 1,000 concerts through Russia, Europe, and the Middle East, wrote a treatise on playing chromatic scales, and attempted to settle in Palestine (1924), but ended up in New York, where he was hailed as a composer, but no one seemed to know he also performed. (In fact, the Jewish Encyclopedia does not even mention it.) So Achron wrote music for Yiddish plays and was commissioned to compose Evening Service for the Sabbath for Temple Emanu-El (1932) (where your correspondent’s cousin Benny Levite was a cantor around that time!). Achron became friendly with the Heifetz-Gershwin-Schoenberg crowd, and moved to Hollywood to compose for movies.
In the economic upheaval of the Russian Revolution and the World Wars, his publishers in Europe went out of business. In the 1930s Achron was blacklisted by the Nazis, thus killing anything published by Universal Edition. And American desire to assimilate seems to have turned American Jews away from Jewish notes in classical music, at least expressly.
The Joseph Achron Society is publishing his manuscripts now. And the bigger local news is that the musicians of Monday evening will be producing a recording, available for purchase, right here in Pittsburgh.