Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Joseph Achron

Born on 1 May 1886 in Lozdzieje (now Lazdijai-ed.), Lithuania. When he was five, the family moved to Warsaw where he took to learning to play the violin seriously. When he was eight he also performed in a charity concert organized by the Polish Countesses Radzivil and Tyszkiewicz. They were so enthused about A., that they organized a concert tour for him in Russia. When he was twelve, he entered into the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, where he excelled under such famous violin instructors as Leopold Auer and Maximilian Sheynberg.

A. graduated from the music conservatory in 1904 with the gold medal. On Russian composer Glazunov’s advice, A. began to write musical compositions. In 1911 he joined the ”Society for Jewish Folk Music” which had been founded in St. Petersburg in 1908. From 1913-16 he became the head of the violin and chamber music department at the Kharkov conservatory and soon became famous as one of the best violin instructors in Russia. He stopped his career, though, when he enlisted in the Russian army for two years. In 1918 he returned to his musical profession and toured Russia, European countries and the Land of Israel.

In 1925 he settled in America. At first he had a hard time adjusting to the different lifestyle, the alienation of the environment, the different language, culture and the harsh materialism of the “golden land”. which was all too much for the sensitive and delicate artist. However, even under the most difficult conditions that he happened to live in, his spirit never broke.


Here in America, Maurice Schwartz had the idea to draw A. to the Yiddish theatre, giving him the opportunity to compose music for some of his productions. Thus, A. composed the music for (a free adaptation of Goldfaden’s)  “The Tenth Commandment” (18 November 1926), for Asch’s “Kidush hashem” (15 September 1928) and Sholem Aleichem’s "Stempenyu" (6 March 1929).

One of A.’s first and most famous compositions was "Hebrew Melody” for violin and piano, as well as for violin and orchestra (with a text in Yiddish recorded by Seymour Rechtzeit). It was performed by the greatest violin virtuosos such as Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman, and the most distinguished symphony orchestras. In this short composition, one can strongly hear as remarked by Sholem Rau: ”The [eygnartiker] version, style, special Yiddish rhythm and also the expression of the composer’s individual musical character.... The sources of wonderful composition came from a melody Achron had once heard in a Chasidic synagogue in Warsaw. It took him less than half an hour to compose it.

A. composed music for Peretz’s “After the Funeral”, and “Stempenyu Suite” which was also performed by virtuoso violinist Joseph Szigeti. A. composed “The Tsadikim Dance”, “The Golem Suite", "sonatas" for violin and choir, three concertos for violin and orchestra, a few piano compositions, an elegy in the style of composer Joel Engel, a symphonic variation on the melody “El yivneh haglalil” [ God will build Galilee?]. However, “Kabalat Shabbat [Evening Service of the Sabbath]" is considered the highlight of his creation, and an extremely significant contribution to Jewish music. This is perhaps the greatest composition that he left behind. In “Kabalat Shabbat” he revealed himself as a true great Jewish composer, a master of Yiddish sounds and tone.

A. passed away in California on 29 April, 1943.

Herman Swet wrote:
Joseph Achron is today the greatest master of form and the most refined Yiddish composer of local Jewish themes. A few years ago, we heard his music for “Balthasar”(?) and fragments of Weiter’s “Fortag” (?). These are rarities antiken(?) of great artistic and national Jewish accomplishment”.

M. Yardeini wrote:
"The crown of Achron’s works is his “Kabalat Shabbat” (“Evening Service of the Sabbath”) with its pure Jewish style which is very …… ???? contribution to Jewish music. This is his greatest achievement, his greatest work that has remained after him. In this composition, he has revealed himself to be a great Jewish musician, a master of Jewish sounds and tone. In this work, Achron expressed fine harmony that has been interwoven with mystical tener(?), a legacy of generations of Jewish life, Jewish suffering, Jewish hope, Jewish longing, deep Jewish emotions, Golus [Diaspora] experiences, the Jewish spirit, Jewish qualities merging into an exceptional mosaic with the text(?)."

Joseph Achron had a deep Jewish national belief, old Jewish optimism and confidence. He did not ponder about the long years he lived away from home in a non-Jewish environment. This was the basic trait of all his creation and musical motifs”.

Sholem Rav characterized him as follows:
“Unlike others, he did not hide his Judaism, but constantly searched to present his musical works to the world, which he produced in the course of a few scores of years. Through Joseph Achron, the Jewish character  receives a musical tikun. Achron was filled with Jewish spirit, mood and feeling. In his works, his deep national spirit was clearly expressed[. A. not only loved Jewish music, he was also deeply convinced that Jewish music could be equaled to the national creations of other nations and that he was capable of proving it.

Joseph Achron firmly believed in our trope [musical accents used in cantillating the Torah]; the trope as a basic element and the basis of Jewish vocal music. He constantly spoke about the subject , took every opportunity (batonen?), that the rich tonality of our trope has not yet been sufficiently explained and appreciated.

Joseph Achron’s compositions stand out in form(?) and (?). He successfully presented us with the Yiddish melody in a harmonious attire; not just the ”obershlack” but the ”untershlack" as well. He shaped it, gave it a “face”, teeth, eyes, heart, soul, and life. Every competition of his achieved results has left its “mark” on the process and development of Jewish music in all its branches. He was positively…. in his creation(?).……He did not have a precursor ….He took a few tones from “Akdamus” (Akdamut is an Aramaic liturgical poem for Shavuot) for his music for Sholem Asch’s “Kidush Hashem” and through various variations built up a composition.

Joseph Achron was one of the most unobtrusive and finest Jewish musicians and composers I have ever met. He did not pursue honor, nor material comforts. Throughout his whole life, Achron was most truly a true artist and creator.”

  • Yoachim Stushewsky -- Josef Achron, “Menorah”, Vienna, No. 9-10, 1928.

  • Herman Swet – The music in the Yiddish Moscow Royal Theatre, "Literarishe bleter", Warsaw, G. [No.??] 46, 1928.

  • Herman Swet – Joseph Achron, "Literarishe bleter", Warsaw, G.[, No.??], 23,1936.

  • M. Yardeini – World famous Yiddish artist, “The American”, N.Y., 19 September, 1947.

  • Gdal Saleski -- Famous Musicians of Jewish Origin, New York, 1949, pp. 3-6.

  • Sholem Rav – Joseph Achron the Jewish composer, “Morgen freyheyt”, N.Y., 18 September 1963.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 6, page 4878.

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