ACHRON: Violin Concerto No. 1 / The Golem / Two Tableaux

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Violin Concerto no.1, op. 60

Violin Concerto no.1, op. 60 waswritten mostly in 1925 and completed and orchestrated the following year. It isthe 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 basedentirely upon the actual musical substance of authentic biblical cantillation(as opposed to programmatic or pictorial biblical depictions).

The concerto is divided into twomovements: I. Allegro Moderato and II. Improvisations sur deux themesyemeniques (Improvisations on Two Yemenite Themes). The first movement isconstructed and derived directly from fifteen individual motives of traditionalbiblical cantillation systems--or trops--known as ta'amei hamikra

(lit., the meaning or sense of the verse recitation), the musical punctuationpatterns indicated by signs or accents above or below words or syllables. Thesesymbols denote the established intonations and vocal accentuations for communalreading of specific sections of the Holy Scriptures. The formulaic systemscomprise series of specific motives of unmetered pitches whose rhythms merelycorrespond to the natural rhythm of the words and are repeated throughout abiblical 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 generallypresumed that some form of quasi- singing always accompanied public biblicalreading even in the first millennium, if not before. These accentuation patternsevolved into motives of a chant-like vocal rendition based on the natural riseand fall of the voice in accordance with the prescribed punctuation. Theaesthetic product is a logogenic chant somewhere between cadenced speech andnonmetrical singing.

Together with ancient psalmody,biblical cantillation forms the oldest historical layer of all Hebrewliturgical music, possibly with some roots in Jewish antiquity. The versions ofthe Ashkenazi realm, which Achron has utilized in this concerto, probably dateat least to the Middle Ages, with subsequent evolution and variation, leadingto specific eastern and western European variants intact to this day. Many ofthe Gesellschaft composers were particularly intrigued by biblical cantillationas one of the chief potential sources of Judaic melos for a new modern nationalmusic, and Achron turned to its wellsprings for many of his instrumentalcompositions,

The cantillation systems vary incontent among the principal established geographical traditions: Ashkenazi,Sephardi, Persian, Yemenite, Bokharan, etc. In each of those rites, with someexceptions, there is a distinct cantillation pattern of motives for each of thecommunally read biblical books: the Torah for Sabbaths, other holy days, roshhodesh (the new month), and certain weekday services; the Haftara (propheticportions of the Bible) for Sabbaths and other holy days; M'gillat enter (thescroll of the Book of Esther) for Purim; Shir hashirim (Song of Songs)for Passover; Ruth for Shavuot; Kohelet (Ecclesiastes); and Eikha (theBook of Lamentations). Eikha is chanted in its entirety on Tisha b'Av, the fastday on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, which commemorates and mourns thedestruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (as well as thefall of Bar Kokhba's fortress, Bethar, in his stand against the Romans, and theSpanish Expulsion in 1492). According to tradition, both Temples mere destroyedon the same date, nearly sin centuries apart.

Of the fifteen cantillationmotives used by Achron in this first movement, the most prominently featuredones are from Eikha, which, despite other various cantillation motivesinterspersed throughout, gives the movement an overall spirit of connection toLamentations and Tisha b'Av. When audiences first heard Leonard Bernstein's useof Eikha motives sung in his Jeremiah Symphony, they mere often fascinated withhis discovery of their potential value for classical composition. Most peopledid not realize that Achron had seized upon the same cantillation for a similarpurpose decades earlier, albeit for instrumental rather than vocal rendition.

One of the most recognizablemotives of other cantillations here, apart from Eikha, is the final sofpasuk (end of the passage), the cadential formula for concluding each portionof the Torah according to the eastern European (Lithuanian) variant, Thisrecurs at various points in the orchestra and in solo violin passages. Alsoconspicuous is an entire phrase more commonly associated with the traditionalAshkenazi rendition of the kiddush for the Three Festivals, but whichitself is derived from cantillation. This is particularly emphasized in elegaicsolo violin passages. Yet another transparent motive that is associated withone of those Festivals, Shuvuot, and also derived from cantillation--the incipitof the so-culled akdamut tune in its eastern European version--is giventriumphant expression in orchestral passages, sometimes in combination withother unrelated motives.


The concerto opens with astrident, almost hoarse brass statement of the most ubiquitous Eikha

association, the identifying initial motives for the first words of the Book ofLamentations. That motive is immediately taken up by strings with highwoodwinds, and then by the full orchestra. This immediately conveys a sense ofdesolation and conjures up the image of the national and religious calamitythat was the destruction of the Temples and of Jerusalem. Those who recite Eikha

annually will hear in their minds its unsung opening text, which accompaniesthose 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 motivesthat follow are often interwoven with each other; elongated and abbreviated;stated, modulated, and restated; augmented and reduced; developed andfragmented. But they are nearly always recognizable and employed in such a waythat practically each passage somehow relates to the others. There is little ifany extraneous or secondary material, so that everything, including thecounterpoint, appears to grow out of the original cantillation. Althoughcantillation motives are by definition both brief and small cells of only a fewpitches each, Achron broadens and embellishes some as a develop mental device.

This is especially effective in the extended, florid cadenza-like virtuosoviolin passages. Toward the end of the movement, three principal motives--by nowfamiliar--are heard contrapuntally and almost simultaneously among the soloviolin, the low strings, and the full orchestra.

The second movement is based ontwo secular or quasi- secular Yemenite Jewish folksongs, which Achronundoubtedly heard for the first time during his sojourn in Palestine. Their usehere represents another of the Jewish musical sources typically wined byGesellschaft-associated com posers: authentic indigenous Jewish folksongs fromthe various lands of the Diaspora where Jewish communities had resided for longperiods.

The first of the two folksongs,stated unharmonized and in full by the orchestra at the outset, is known as Eshalaelohim (I Will Ask God) and is typical of the Yemenite folk- tune genre in itslean, crisp phrases, narrow range, and decisive rhythm. The song also reflectsthe Gesellschaft's basic Zionist orientation in its perception of a Jewishnational art music with its lyrics: \
Disc: 1
Two Tableaux from the Theatre Music to Belshazzar
1 Allegro Moderato
2 Improvisations sur deux themes yemeniques
3 Creation of the Golem
4 The Golem's Rampage
5 The Fatigued Wanderer (Lullaby)
6 Dance of the Phantom Spirits
7 Petrifying of the Golem
8 Allegro Energico
9 Belshazzar's Feast
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