Violin Concerto no. 1, op. 60 was written mostly in 1925 and completed and orchestrated the following year. It is the first large-scale work following Achron’s immigration to the United States. It is also the first known concerto, for any instrument, with a movement based entirely upon the actual musical substance of authentic biblical cantillation (as opposed to programmatic or pictorial biblical depictions).
The concerto is divided into two movements: I. Allegro Moderato and II. Improvisations sur deux thèmes yéméniques (Improvisations on Two Yemenite Themes). The first movement is constructed and derived directly from fifteen individual motives of traditional biblical cantillation systems—or trops—known as ta’amei hamikra (lit., the meaning or sense of the verse recitation), the musical punctuation patterns indicated by signs or accents above or below words or syllables. These symbols denote the established intonations and vocal accentuations for communal reading of specific sections of the Holy Scriptures. The formulaic systems comprise series of specific motives of unmetered pitches whose rhythms merely correspond to the natural rhythm of the words and are repeated throughout a biblical passage or section in varying orders and combinations and sequences. Their original purpose pertained more to precision of grammatical punctuation, syntax, and accentuation than to musical rendition, although it is generally presumed that some form of quasi-singing always accompanied public biblical reading even in the first millenium, if not before. These accentuation patterns evolved into motives of a chantlike vocal rendition based on the natural rise and fall of the voice in accordance with the prescribed punctuation. The aesthetic product is a logogenic chant somewhere between cadenced speech and nonmetrical singing.
Together with ancient psalmody, biblical cantillation forms the oldest historical layer of all Hebrew liturgical music, possibly with some roots in Jewish antiquity. The versions of the Ashkenazi realm, which Achron has utilized in this concerto, probably date at least to the Middle Ages, with subsequent evolution and variation, leading to specific eastern and western European variants intact to this day. Many of the Gesellschaft für jüdische Volksmusik (Society for Jewish Folk Music) composers were particularly intrigued by biblical cantillation as one of the chief potential sources of Judaic melos for a new modern national music, and Achron turned to its wellsprings for many of his instrumental compositions.
The cantillation systems vary in content among the principal established geographical traditions: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Persian, Yemenite, Bokharan, etc. In each of those rites, with some exceptions, there is a distinct cantillation pattern of motives for each of the communally read biblical books: the Torah for Sabbaths, other holy days, rosh ḥodesh (the new month), and certain weekday services; the Haftara (prophetic portions of the Bible) for Sabbaths and other holy days; M’gillat ester (the scroll of the Book of Esther) for Purim; Shir hashirim (Song of Songs) for Passover; Ruth for Shavuot; Kohelet (Ecclesiastes); and Eikha (the Book of Lamentations). Eikha is chanted in its entirety on Tisha b’Av, the fast day on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, which commemorates and mourns the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (as well as the fall of Bar Kokhba’s fortress, Bethar, in his stand against the Romans, and the Spanish Expulsion in 1492). According to tradition, both Temples were destroyed on the same date, nearly six centuries apart.
Of the fifteen cantillation motives used by Achron in this first movement, the most prominently featured ones are from Eikha, which, despite other various cantillation motives interspersed throughout, gives the movement an overall spirit of connection to Lamentations and Tisha b’Av. When audiences first heard Leonard Bernstein’s use of Eikha motives sung in his Jeremiah Symphony, they were often fascinated with his discovery of their potential value for classical composition. Most people did not realize that Achron had seized upon the same cantillation for a similar purpose decades earlier, albeit for instrumental rather than vocal rendition.
One of the most recognizable motives of other cantillations here, apart from Eikha, is the final sof pasuk (end of the passage), the cadential formula for concluding each portion of the Torah according to the eastern European (Lithuanian) variant. This recurs at various points in the orchestra and in solo violin passages. Also conspicuous is an entire phrase more commonly associated with the traditional Ashkenazi rendition of the kiddush for the Three Festivals, but which itself is derived from cantillation. This is particularly emphasized in elegaic solo violin passages. Yet another transparent motive that is associated with one of those Festivals, Shavuot, and also derived from cantillation—the incipit of the so-called akdamut tune in its eastern European version—is given triumphant expression in orchestral passages, sometimes in combination with other unrelated motives.
The concerto opens with a strident, almost hoarse brass statement of the most ubiquitous Eikha association, the identifying initial motives for the first words of the Book of Lamentations. That motive is immediately taken up by strings with high woodwinds, and then by the full orchestra. This immediately conveys a sense of desolation and conjures up the image of the national and religious calamity that was the destruction of the Temples and of Jerusalem. Those who recite Eikha annually will hear in their minds its unsung opening text, which accompanies those motives: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was [once] full of people? How she has become as a widow! She, that was great among the nations!”
The various cantillation motives that follow are often interwoven with each other; elongated and abbreviated; stated, modulated, and restated; augmented and reduced; developed and fragmented. But they are nearly always recognizable and employed in such a way that practically each passage somehow relates to the others. There is little if any extraneous or secondary material, so that everything, including the counterpoint, appears to grow out of the original cantillation. Although cantillation motives are by definition both brief and small cells of only a few pitches each, Achron broadens and embellishes some as a developmental device. This is especially effective in the extended, florid cadenza-like virtuoso violin passages. Toward the end of the movement, three principal motives—by now familiar—are heard contrapuntally and almost simultaneously among the solo violin, the low strings, and the full orchestra.
The second movement is based on two secular or quasi-secular Yemenite Jewish folksongs, which Achron undoubtedly heard for the first time during his sojourn in Palestine. Their use here represents another of the Jewish musical sources typically mined by Gesellschaft-associated composers: authentic indigenous Jewish folksongs from the various lands of the Diaspora where Jewish communities had resided for long periods.
The first of the two folksongs, stated unharmonized and in full by the orchestra at the outset, is known as Eshala elohim (I Will Ask God) and is typical of the Yemenite folktune genre in its lean, crisp phrases, narrow range, and decisive rhythm. The song also reflects the Gesellschaft’s basic Zionist orientation in its perception of a Jewish national art music, with its lyrics: “We shall go up to [settle] our land, with song and rejoicing.” The second tune has not been located in any notated collection and is not generally known today.
Achron himself described his manipulation of the two tunes as “jugglery”; they both interchange and sometimes work polyphonically together. Although nothing is actually left to improvisation, the overall character suggests a feeling of improvisatory flights of fancy, almost as if some passages had been left to the soloist. There are spontaneous bursts of emotion as the continuous variations unfold with an almost primitive flair.
Achron dedicated this concerto to Jascha Heifetz—his world-famous colleague, friend, and enthusiastic supporter. Even before orchestrating the work, Achron introduced it himself to Serge Koussevitsky, accompanied by Nicholas Slonimsky. It received its premiere performance in 1927 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Koussevitsky, played by the composer. Some of the Boston critics seemed befuddled by the very notion of basing a concerto on such patently Judaic material, and most glossed over it, as they felt unable to assess it. The significance of the cantillation-based structure eluded most of them, yet the critics for Novoye Russkoye Slovo, the newspaper of émigré Russian Jews, made an interesting observation in referring to its “Dionysian imbalanced exaltation” and its wide range of emotions—“from restless mysterious meditation of strongly religious character to dizzying Dervish-like ecstasy.”
The concerto received a few subsequent performances—in New York, Vienna (with Louis Krasner), Kraków, and Tel Aviv—but it then fell more or less into oblivion, although many violinists knew of it and expressed interest over the years in its revival. By the time the Milken Archive determined to record it, the full orchestral score was nowhere to be found, and the project came close to being abandoned. After much perseverance, the score was located, stuck away for decades in an old storage area of its Vienna publishers. Even then, not all the instrumental parts remained, and some had to be re-extracted.
This first concerto is clearly the most inspired of the three he wrote, as well as the most tightly constructed. It is both brilliantly scored for the orchestra and, though technically demanding for the soloist, full of opportunity for meaningful, even profound virtuoso display. Immediately following his conducting of the Berlin recording session in 1998, the renowned Joseph Silverstein, himself an internationally acclaimed violinist, offered an arresting if fanciful speculation: “Had Achron remained in Russia after the Revolution (as did some of his Gesellschaft colleagues) instead of emigrating, and had he still written the same concerto there in the 1920s (certainly the first movement would have been possible), this might well have been the modern Russian violin concerto introduced to the west by David Oistrakh on his first visit to the United States to open the Soviet–U.S. Cultural Exchange in the midst of the Cold War in 1956, instead of the Shostokovich concerto; and then this Achron concerto would have joined the standard repertoire.”
Apart from its obvious intrinsic musical merits, Achron’s first violin concerto also serves as an ideal illustration of the Gesellschaft’s national-cultural mission. From an artistic standpoint, it exemplifies composer Hugo Weisgall’s general assessment of Achron’s music: “In his best music he succeeds, like Janáček and Bartók, in making the idiom of the particular serve as the language of the universal.”
Achron’s juxtapositions of these two differently based movements within a single work may amount to a dialectical pairing of opposing ideas: the sacred against the secular; the older European melos against the “new” (for Europeans) and exotic discovery of the Jewish orient in the Yemenite tunes; gloom against joy; unmetered against metrical Jewish music traditions; and the perpetual acceptance of lamentation over Jerusalem’s destruction and exile against the new optimistic and assertive Zionist mission of return and rejuvenation. Whether these contradictions provide an intended subtext for the piece remains, of course, a matter for interpretation.
Publisher: European American Music/Universal-Edition
Co-production with DeutschlandRadio and the ROC Berlin-GmbH
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