Joseph Achron: Three Songs, Op. 53
by Sovali & Paul Prenen
Sublime early 20th C. art songs to Hebrew poetry by David Frischmann, Jacob Cohen, and Yehuda Karni.
Achron’s “Three Songs, Opus 53” were composed in 1923 and published by Jibneh, Berlin / Jerusalem in the same year. They are dedicated to Achron’s wife, singer Marie Raphof.
The first song “Im Halomi” recounts a troubling dream about one’s own funeral. The second one “Al Panay Halfah Yonah” tells how a dove brings tidings of hope. The third one “At, Harhoqah” is an appeal to a distant friend to remember one’s name.
As he did in Opus 52, Achron used tropes (melodic motives) derived from Lithuanian Biblical cantillations as basic elements for the song settings of Opus 53 and developed them in contemporary counterpoint and harmony. The tropes were a never-ending source of inspiration for him.
Joseph Achron was born in Lozdzeije, Russia on 1 May 1886, and died in Hollywood, California on 29 April 1943. He was a musical prodigy who made his debut as a violinist at the age of seven and wrote his first composition that year. After initial lessons from his father, who was a cantor, Achron was thoroughly taught European classical music. He studied violin with professors Michalovich and Isidor Lotti in Warsaw and Leopold Auer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition with Anatoly Lyadov and Maximilian Steinberg. Achron was always open to new musical developments.
Achron performed and toured as a violin virtuoso, and also composed and taught his students. He joined the St. Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society in 1911 and devoted himself to creating “Jewish art music of a quality comparable to that of other nations” as he put it. He is best known for his “Hebrew Melody”, which was immortalized by Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman.
Achron wrote many more works on Jewish themes including three violin concertos and smaller pieces for violin and piano, pieces for orchestra, choir, chamber music, piano pieces, songs, liturgical music and incidental music for the Yiddish theatres of Alexander Granovsky (St. Petersburg) and Maurice Schwartz (New York). Some of his scores appeared in print, but many remain unpublished.
Achron immigrated to the United States in 1925 and chose New York as his base of operations. In 1934, he moved to Los Angeles, where he stayed until his death.
Arnold Schoenberg, who became a friend of Achron’s, held his music in high regard. He called Achron “one of the most under-estimated of modern composers; the originality and profound elaboration of Joseph Achron’s ideas guarantee that his work will last.” (Program notes for a concert at Wilshire-Bell Theatre, Los Angeles, March 1945, cited in Moddel, P., “Joseph Achron”, Israeli Music Publications, Tel Aviv, 1966, p. 46 / footnote 33, p. 62).
In the words of Sholem Rav, “Joseph Achron gave [Jewish art music] a face, teeth, eyes, heart, soul and life.” (“Joseph Achron the Jewish composer”, Morgen freyheyt, New York, 18 September 1963, cited in www.museumoffamilyhistory.com› lex › achron-joseph).
For anyone interested in learning more about Joseph Achron, I recommend Philip Moddel’s Achron biography published by Israeli Music Publications, Tel Aviv, 1966. It provides insightful information about his life and work and recounts how Achron’s musical legacy was almost lost, but miraculously saved from total destruction.
I was introduced to Achron’s music by Mascha Benya-Matz in New York in 1999. She gave me sheet music for some of his songs and songs by other composers in the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music. I loved the songs and wanted to sing them. I asked Paul Prenen to accompany me.
Our rendition of Achron’s songs was recorded at Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ in Amsterdam on 2 July 2008. They were first released in 2008 on the CD “Curtain Call for the St. Petersburg Jewish Music Society (1908) – 100th Anniversary” (JMP CD002) under the aegis of the Jewish Music Projects Foundation, Amsterdam.
In his review of this CD, Jan Waas wrote that “The Sovali-Prenen duo gave a magnificent performance, full of love for the music.” (NIW, 23 October 2009).
Since we wanted to release the songs again but separately as streams/downloads on the web, we asked Arjan van Asselt (AAAudio) to improve the editing. Artur Stawski (Sonic Science Lab) remastered them and created a beautiful ambience for the songs.
© ℗ 2020 Joodse Muziek Projecten
Recording: Dick Lucas, 2008
Revision: AAAudio, 2020
Remastering: Sonic Science Lab, 2020
Graphic design: Basia Knobloch, 2020
© All rights reserved
Tags: classical, art songs, early twentieth century, hebrew, jewish music, russia, amsterdam
“The Sovali-Prenen duo gave a magnificent performance, full of love for the music“.
Joseph Achron: Two Songs, Op. 52
Moshe Milner: Vocal Suite to Y.L. Peretz’s Ten Children’s Songs
Curtain Call for the St. Petersburg Jewish Music Society (1908) – 100th Anniversary
Sun and Rain – Jewish Songs and Chamber Music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, Veniamin Basner and Dmitri Shostakovich
Tribute to Mikhail Gnesin – Songs and Chamber Music