Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

A Miracle of Virtuosity: Joseph Achron as a Prodigy Performer-Composer
by Zerin, Samantha Elisheva, Ph.D., New York University, 2020, 206; 27668011
Abstract (Summary)

Over the course of nearly 100 years, Jewish music scholars have framed Joseph Achron (1886-1943) as a pioneering Jewish nationalist composer who, under the influence of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music (1908 - ca. 1922), gave up his cosmopolitan performance career as a virtuoso violinist in order to fully devote himself to the charge of composing modern Jewish art music. In turn, scholars have argued, Achron and his colleagues helped the Society transform from a small group of folklore enthusiasts into a monumental movement for the composition of Jewish art music. This heroic, nationalist narrative of young Jewish composers devoting their hearts and careers to the music of their people has gone almost entirely unchallenged by three generations of music scholars. It has been faithfully reproduced in textbooks, monographs, journal articles, university classes, public lectures, program notes, biographies, blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook groups, and anywhere else one might venture to discuss Jewish art music. Although certain components of this narrative have been challenged – such as its essentialism (Moricz, 2008) and the veracity of its founding myths (Nemtsov, 2004) – its overall plot has remained largely intact. Over the course of my graduate studies, however, I have become increasingly senstitive to the pitfalls of this narrative: its simplistic linearity; its erasure of conflicting information; its racial and ideological orientations; and the ways in which it has mischaracterized and even, in some cases, hindered the ambitions of Achron and his colleagues.

Therefore, one of my goals with this dissertation is to illustrate how Achron's involvement with the Society for Jewish Folk Music led – contrary to his own ambitions – to the sudden demise of his performance career in America. Certainly, this is a story that involves Achron's increasing interest in composing Jewish art music and his willingness to devote himself further to its craft. But it is also a story about the unexpected consequences of commercial recording technology. It is a story about the transplantation of Leopold Auer's studio of prodigy violinists from St. Petersburg to New York during a period of American anti-German jingoism. It is a story about shifting paradigms of childhood, prodigies, and musical professionalism, and it is a story about the pressures that critics placed on performer-composers. Above all, it is the story of how all of these myriad phenomena, previously unexplored by historians of the Society for Jewish Folk Music, were in fact intertwined with the Society's work and legacy. It short, the narrative I propose suggests that the Society's importance in the history of Western culture and its impact on the careers of its members extend far beyond the disciplinary confines of Jewish Music Studies, even though its study, until now, has not.

My second, related goal is to show how Achron's work with the Society for Jewish Folk Music, while driven in part by nationalist impulses, was just as importantly motivated by non-ethnographic phenomena that have been all but ignored by Jewish Music scholars. I argue that Achron's interest in ethnography was but one particular offshoot of his broader, claccisist interest in music of the past. I contend that Achron's fiery virtuosity in his folklore transcriptions stems primarily from his experiences as a child prodigy, and only secondarily from an ideology of ethnic realism. Achron's arrangements of Jewish folk melodies, like his coterminous arrangements of classical études, dances, and lieder, were part and parcel of a much larger project inspired by his studies with Leopold Auer, Fritz Kreisler's fabulous hoax, and the general zeitgeist of European classicism. In other words, just as the Society for Jewish Folk Music's significance extends far beyond the confines of Jewish musical nationalism, so, too, did Achron's motivations and achievements as a composer of Jewish music.

These two goals are intertwined, despite their differences in orientation. My first goal is designed to answer two pressing historical questions, which I introduce in Chapter 1. Why did Achron's performance career end in America, contrary to both his fame and his ambitions? And why did the Society for Jewish Folk Music become known exclusively as a compositional movement, despite its members' professional versatility? By contrast, my second goal is designed to complicate and validate these questions as being suitable for scholarly research. It discredits the standard answer provided by Jewish music scholars – that Achron, driven by nationalist impulses, chose to devote himself fully to the creation of new Jewish art music – by illustrating just how much of Achron's career has been erased or mischaracterized in order to support such a claim. In a sense, my dissertation is as much a disciplinary critique as it is a biography.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Beckerman, Michael
Commitee: Loeffler, James, Kawabata, Mai, Daughtry, Martin, Mahon, Maureen
School: New York University
Department: Music
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 81/10(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Music history, Music theory, Judaic studies
Keywords: Jewish art music, Nationalism, Performer-composers, Society for Jewish Folk Music, Transcription, Virtuosity
Publication Number: 27668011
ISBN: 9798607311599
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