|I. How tiresome, what could I do now?||01:16|
|II. Jumping with Tongue Out||01:31|
|III. A Castle of Blocks||01:47|
|IV. Mama, tell a fairy-tale||01:27|
|V. On the Hobby Horse||01:19|
|VI. The Tot Puts on Airs||01:35|
|VII. The Little Horse is Tired||01:17|
|IX. A Carriage of Chairs||01:18|
|X. March of Toys||01:40|
|XI. Sleep, my Puppy!||01:01|
|XIV. Over a Broken Toy||01:30|
|XVIII. The Caravan||01:19|
By 1923, when Achron wrote his original solo piano version of Children’s Suite during his sojourn in Berlin, prior to his immigration to America via Palestine, he was becoming increasingly absorbed with biblical cantillation motifs as a collective source for cultivated secular composition. As the perceived oldest layer of aggregate Judaic musical continuity, the constituent motifs (ta’amei hamikra) of the variant regional cantillation systems, traditions, and rites provided an inherently Jewish thematic framework and a means of rooting particular works in an authentic oral tradition—in this case, an aspect of virtually canonized sacred musical folklore that need not be limited to or reserved for its primary synagogal function. Thus, in much of Achron’s Judaically related music from that point on, the materials of biblical cantillation—as well as other, more recent liturgical motifs and even secular Near Eastern Jewish dance tunes—would come to overshadow, if not replace, the echoes of Hassidic and other eastern European Jewish folk melos that had informed a number of his earlier pieces. In his subsequent years in America, this interest in biblical cantillation and its further artistic development would manifest itself in such works as his Violin Concerto No. 1 and his Wind Sextet: Cantillations (previous in this volume).
Children’s Suite also reflects the impact of French Impressionism that—as his biographer Philip Moddel has observed—had attracted Achron in Berlin and offered an alternative to, or expansion upon, some of the Russian stylistic influences in which he had been steeped from childhood. In this work, a set of twenty miniature pieces tantamount in scope and spirit to preludes, some of the colorations and timbres typical of impressionistic schools are intertwined with and propelled by liberally manipulated motifs derived from biblical cantillation and supplemented and augmented by many other derivative or stylistically similar motifs invented by the composer.
In 1925, shortly after his arrival in America, Achron reworked Children’s Suite as a sextet for the Stringwood Ensemble, which gave the new version its premiere that same year at Aeolian Hall in New York. Heard in the Milken Archive is the chamber music version for clarinet, two violins, viola, cello, and piano—the same instrumental combination Sergei Prokofiev employed for his now well-known Overture on Hebrew Themes, which he had written for the Zimro Ensemble (a.k.a. the Palestine Zimro Ensemble). Zimro’s premiere and succeeding performance of Prokofiev’s work in New York in 1920 had been well received, and—although it would come to join the so-called standard classical repertoire only later, when Prokofiev’s name and stature were more widely recognized in America—the Overture might well have served as Achron’s model in terms of his choice of instrumentation.
The Zimro Ensemble was a group of six fervently Zionist Russian Jewish émigré musicians who had been associated with the Gesellschaft für jüdische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music) in St. Petersburg and its related New National School in Jewish music. They were also former fellow students of Prokofiev at the Petersburg Conservatory. The group had been formed following the Bolshevik Revolution in order to expose and promote the Gesellschaft repertoire and its cultural-nationalist principles—viz., Jewish-themed, cultivated art music comprising both sophisticated arrangements and original compositions drawn upon elements of Jewish musical folklore and literature. To that end—for concerts in Russia, and then for the concert tour sponsored by local and regional Zionist organizations that brought it to America in 1919 via Siberia, China, Singapore, and Dutch Indonesia—Zimro had initiated new arrangements of Gesellschaft or Gesellschaft-related repertoire for its specific instrumentation. It had thus in effect established an untried and unexplored combination of clarinet, string quartet, and piano, which amounted to a “new sound” in chamber music generally and in Jewish folk-derived music in particular.
The Zimro Ensemble ceased to function in 1921 when its members dispersed among various avenues of American musical life—thereby aborting the group’s planned continuation of its tour to Palestine, where they had intended to settle permanently and establish a “Temple of Jewish Art.” But in 1924 its generally acknowledged organizer and leader, Moscow-born clarinetist Simeon Bellison—soon to become an internationally recognized virtuoso—founded (or cofounded) the Stringwood Ensemble, whose mission was in part to perpetuate Zimro’s repertoire and the cultural-national aesthetics of the New Jewish School from which it had sprung. In including such repertoire among its other offerings of chamber music of the Western classical canon (which Zimro had done as well), the Stringwood Ensemble may be considered, in some respects at least, Zimro’s successor.
As pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov has aptly observed, Zimro’s particular (and, for its time, innovative) instrumental combination and Stringwood’s continuation spawned a number of new Jewish-related compositions and even inspired “a sort of ‘Jewish instrumentation,’ ” which prevailed as a typical medium for a time among composers who sought to express Jewish folk themes in cultivated artistic works. Achron’s sextet version of Children’s Suite may thus be considered one of many works inspired by Zimro and Stringwood concerts.
Although David Tamkin subsequently orchestrated Children’s Suite in Los Angeles in 1942 for larger orchestral forces, and notwithstanding the pianistic merits of the original solo format, this sextet version remains the most accepted guise of the work.
Like a number of works in the classical realm, the word children in the title can be misleading. This is hardly children’s music; nor was it intended primarily for children’s audiences or for children as performers. Rather, like Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood, to cite one example from the standard piano repertoire—one with which Achron was obviously familiar), Children’s Suite expresses a kind of noble simplicity, charm, and wit, requiring mature interpreters and listeners. As the individual movement titles suggest, it explores with subtle sophistication the innocent world of typical childlike reveries, fantasies, humor, desires, disappointments, pleasures, games, and other vignettes of childhood, all of which can be intensely serious to young children. Students and scholars of Achron’s music such as Albert Weisser and Philip Moddel have adjudged Children’s Suite to be one of his finest works—even considered alongside his many larger compositions, including his three violin concertos and his other symphonic as well as choral opera.
In a retrospective article about Achron published in 1986, Moddel, who was personally acquainted with Achron and his Los Angeles circle, described a touching incident in connection with this piece. In mid-April 1943, while Achron was critically ill and his spirits at a low point, two friends—Bronislaw and Jakob Gimpel—secretly organized a broadcast of his music with the aim of surprising him and bringing him a measure of comfort. Among the works included in that broadcast was Children’s Suite—along with his A-major sonata for violin and piano and, of course, his most famous piece (to this day): Hebrew Melody. Moddel related that when Achron’s wife, Marie, tuned in to the radio broadcast at the appointed time and Achron recognized his compositions, he “sat up with animation and listened with a deep sense of fulfillment.” He passed away before the month was out—two days before what would have been his fifty-seventh birthday—so that Children’s Suite was one of the last three pieces of his music that he ever heard.
Publisher: European American Music/Universal Editions