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[Page 547]

The Jewish Opera Studio

by Leib Nadel

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Something that did not exist in any of the Baltic nations, that looked to many as a beautiful dream, was a fact and became a breath of life through the great devotion and daring of the Jewish cultural workers in Lithuania and they were frightened at how much money and work for such a truly colossal cultural undertaking was required. On one day on a wintry morning, the Kovno Jewish newspaper announced that a Jewish opera studio had been founded by the Jewish Education Society. The then active worker at the Education Society, Dr. Mendel Sudarksi and his wife, Alte, particularly worked energetically to accomplish this dream.

The Jewish Opera Studio was created by them and other devoted cultural workers and they established it at the desired level. The musician Zeidman, professor at the Kovno State Conservatory, was invited as the director; as lecturer of theater art – the director of the Kovno State Opera, Oleka; as vocal teacher – the well-known Italian professor Marini. The best young singers in the city responded on the first day, among them several who had graduated from conservatories in Europe. They went to work with such enthusiasm and devotion. A symphonic orchestra of Jewish students at the Kovno Conservatory also was created at the Opera Studio. The street where the studio operated quickly began to ring with beautiful music and song. After three months, the studio appeared at its first performance for the public in the Kovno Volkshaus [Concert Hall]. The tickets were already sold out a few days before the performance. They had to place seats in the aisles of the theater because the crowd simply would not leave. They wanted to attend the great event of the opening of a Jewish opera company. They just stood one on top of the other. The first part of the program was the prologue of the opera, Faust, performed by a graduate of the Kovno

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State Conservatory, Glezer, who had a rare, beautiful basso profundo. Yakov Zaks, also a graduate of the Kovno State Conservatory, possessed a rare, beautiful lyrical tenor and had been promised a great future by the professors. The choir of the Studio performed Handel's Rhapsody and songs from the operas Carmen and Tosca during the second part. The second act of the opera, Yevgény Onégin [Eugene Onegin], was performed during the third part by the well-known female singers: Sheinzon and Zeidman. It was an extraordinary success; the audience kept applauding and the choir had to perform several numbers again. Encouraged by their great success, the teachers and students took to their work even more energetically. They studied solfeggio [educational method to teach pitch and sight reading of music], vocal education, music history, mimicry and rhythm and movement. Rehearsals began for the full opera, Faust. Several concerts took place during this time with great success, but the Studio had colossal expenditures and the financial situation was difficult. More than once, during difficult moments, the managing committee ran to the father of the Studio, to the esteemed Dr. Sudarski, for money to pay Prof. Manini because the latter did not get involved with such matters. If he were not paid first, he would not sit at the piano and did not start his work. Yet they saw what it was to overcome [a difficulty]. They prepared for a great undertaking. Alas, the Studio was forced to close because of the personal family inconveniences of Prof. Dr. Zeidman and because no other such devoted person and great musician could be obtained. A great deal had been expected of the Studio.

Later, another attempt was made at creating a Jewish opera [company] and several arias from several operas were performed.

The initiator was the singer, well-known today, Mikhail Aleksandrovich.


The Engel Choir in Kovno

One of the most active organizations that helped spread the culture of song in Lithuania was

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the choir in Kovno named for Yoel Engel. Few organizations were as loved by Lithuanian Jewry as the choir. As I remember now: it was the beginning of winter when the well-known and beloved singer of Yiddish folksongs, Mrs. Ana Warszawski, telephoned me and invited me to her house at eight o'clock in the evening. When I arrived at the designated time, I found a pale young man sitting with a dreamy look, whom she presented as Blechorowicz the conductor, one of the capable young directors of Poland who had been transformed into a refugee in Lithuania. Later several others arrived: such as Alperovich (then the assistant to the well-known doctor, Benyamin Berger), Yitzhak Ratner (after the Second World War he worked as director of Keren-Kaymet [Jewish National Fund] in Germany in the camps of the Jewish refugees), Professor Beliackin (famous connoisseur, perished in the Kovno ghetto), Doctor Levitan (a well-known gynecologist) and Leon, the husband of Ana Warszawski (he was the director of Lombard and Jewish representative in the city council).

The always-happy Ana Warszawski invited us to the table and while eating she said: – “My esteemed gentlemen, why do you think I invited you, you should help to eat the cakes? No. My dear ones, I can do this alone, but if it would have been difficult for me, I have a husband and children, may they be healthy, and they would help me. I have very important news for you; we have here a very well-known director. I have created a plan. We should organize a choir and let it be joyful in the city.” Not waiting for anyone's answer, she immediately explained how this could be carried out. Doctor Levitan would provide the premises; he would obtain the permission for rehearsals to be carried out in the premises of the Zionist organization at Lukszia [Street], which was unused in the evening. Professor Beliackin would create passive members among the intelligentsia and among those interested in Jewish folksongs and would shake their rich clients a little [for contributions]. Alperovich and Ratner would as leaders bring their comrades who have [good] voices from their student groups. And I had the task of gathering the singers who sang in the Jewish Opera Studio, which had been closed for certain reasons. “None of you, my gentlemen” – said Mrs. Warszawski – “can refuse these tasks because we are going to create a thing of great cultural significance and my husband, may he live, will be so good

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as to permit me to support the director until the choir has its own [financial] means. And now, LeChaim [to life], and we should live to have pleasure from our newly born child!”

The choir began its rehearsals in the building of the Zionist organization, thanks to Doctor Levitan's intervention. The premises were located on Lukszia Street, on the second floor. The 2nd Police District was located on the first floor. When at first each voice studied separately, things went normally, but after a few months, when the choir began to have rehearsals together, singing entire songs, trouble began with the police. Those who had been arrested for drinking too much, who were confined in the police jail, would just listen to the choir beginning to sing and their appetite for singing would flare up (the inebriated had a particular habit of singing). They would begin shouting with the highest tones, break doors, tables and chairs and they could not be silenced by any means. It occurred often that the police came up to us in the middle of a rehearsal and told us to stop singing because they could not quiet the inebriated. After working in the building for more than a year, we were forced to move out of there and go to the more intellectual Gar kitchen on Mapu Street. Here the work was very intensive. At the first appearance of the choir in the Kovno city hall, it received the recognition of the Kovno audience. Many songs had to be performed again several times. For the most part, the choir was able to cultivate and spread the Jewish folksong even more.

It happened many times that the hearty Jewish and Hebrew folksongs that the choir would sing at their concerts and appearances at various cultural undertakings would be heard when passing a Jewish workshop. In general the choir was non-political. The managers of the choir were Gefen, a fervid Revisionist, and Kunigas[1], a leader of the youth group, Di Wander Faygl [the migratory bird]. Among others things, I will mention: the choir appeared at concerts when the famous poets, Bistricki, Leib Yaffe, of blessed memory, and Chaim Nachman Bialik, of blessed memory, came to Lithuania. It is worthwhile here to relate an episode. In honor of Ch. N. Bialik's coming, the choir learned his well-known song Sham B'eretz Hatzvi [There, in the Land of Beauty]. When the choir

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began to sing this, Bialik called out: “Beloved and dear children, I thank you for making an improvement to my song. Now I sense the essence that lies in a touchingly sung song. If only I can have the merit to hear it sung in our own land. Part of his wish came true. But alas, the great Bialik as well as almost all of the members of the choir are no longer among the living. The Lithuanian bandits along with the Germans annihilated them.

The Engel Choir also was invited as the official representative of Jewish song to the singing festival that was arranged at that time by the Lithuanian government in which hundreds of choirs all over Lithuanian took part. All of the choir members received medals with diplomas from the Lithuanian Singing Committee. The choir also would appear at concerts in the State Radio broadcasts. Hundreds of letters of thanks for the great spiritual pleasure that the choir had given would arrive from the most isolated Jewish shtetlekh in Lithuania. It is worthwhile mentioning such a case: the choir once went to a concert in Shavl [Šiauliai] where, because of this, the large “Kapital” theater was rented and they had to pay 1,000 Lit for the hall in addition to expenses for travel and for the pianist. This was a great sum then. Thanks to the fact that the choir was beloved and known to everyone, the Shavl Jewish Educational Society organized it and, when we arrived [in Shavl], artists from the Lithuanian State Opera had arrived to give a concert on the same night. Naturally, we had not known this before because we certainly would have postponed the evening. But we already had come. The organizers were very dejected. A trifle, try to compete against the State Opera. However, everyone was amazed: when we had just opened the doors to the theater and began to sell tickets, lines of people who were pushing toward the box office immediately began to form in order to buy a ticket more quickly. The theater was packed with people at the designated time. When I asked someone why the audience would come here rather than go to the opera, they answered how could one not use the opportunity to hear such a good choir?

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We will be able to hear the Gentiles another time.

It really is difficult to describe the friendship and sincerity with which we were received when we visited the Lithuanian provincial cities. I remember once, after a concert in the small shtetl of Zhezmir [Žiežmariai], the rabbi of the shtetl came to us and sincerely thanked us for our beautiful singing and immediately after him a delegation from the working class invited us to a banquet. Arriving there we found the entire shtetl, from Zanwel the Bundist to the pious members of the clergy. Everyone sat at the tables together and had a sincerely good time. The usual hate that reigned among them was forgotten. There was no large city or shtetl in Lithuania to which the choir did not travel. It went to Shavl, to Vilkomir [Ukmerge], Tovrik [Taurage] several times, not to mention Kovno where the choir would appear on the radio almost every week or at other cultural undertakings. There was no star who came to Lithuania, who did not come to visit the choir and appear together. Thus, the famous American artists Hymie Jacobson and Miriam Kressyn appeared at a music festival in memory of [Abraham] Goldfaden. Moshe Koussevitzky, the famous cantor, also was a guest of the choir during his visit to Lithuania. The choir appeared at a concert at the Lithuanian State Opera with the famous singer Sholem Blechorowicz (a brother of the director) in arias and songs from the operas Carmen and Di Yidin [The Jews].

At the end of the concert, the director of the choir of the Lithuanian State Opera, Sztarko, and the famous singer, Kipras Metrauskas, sincerely shook the hand of Blechorowicz, the director, and congratulated him on the great success that the choir had had, telling him that the Jews can be truly proud that they could create such a beautiful, good musical choir. Until the end, before the beginning of the Second World War, as long as there remained a free cultural life in Lithuania, the choir existed and helped to add ring after ring in the great chain of cultural work with which Lithuania was so rich and blessed.

Translator's Footnote

  1. The former died in Vilna, the latter in Crimea. Return

[Page 555]

Jascha Heifetz

by D. F.

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

A large number of the famous pianists of the past years and the largest number of violin virtuosos were Jews. In various encyclopedias and books about music, the Jewish artists are recorded according to the nation in which they were born. If a Jewish musician was born in a city like Vilna, that during the past belonged to various states, we find in the lexicons that the Jewish artist is considered as having one “nationality” in one encyclopedia and another in a second dictionary. There is no lack of curiosities here, too. So, for example, the pianist Leopold Godowsky, born in Vilna, is called a Polish piano virtuoso and Jascha Heifetz, who was born in the same Vilna, is recorded as a Russian violinist and in another dictionary – Lithuanian. But about the great ethnic-Jewish composer, Ernst Bloch, who was born in Switzerland, it is said that he is a Jewish composer.

A considerable number of famous violin artists in the 19th century came from Hungary and the majority of them are Jewish – from the great Joseph Joachim to other now almost completely forgotten wonderful virtuosos, Miska Pauser, Eduard [Ede] Reményi, Tivadar Nachéz to Bandor Barsash, Joseph Sziget and others. The violin virtuoso and famous pedagogue, Leopold Auer, also came from Hungary. [He] also was a Jew who carried on his career in the Petersburg Conservatory and spent his final years in America, where he died.

During the very latter years, Russia occupied the premier place with its number of violin virtuosos, all Jews and almost all students of the same Leopold Auer at the Petersburg Conservatory. Auer became professor of violin at the conservatory of the former Russian capital in 1868, when he took the place of the great Jewish violin artist, Uri [Henryk] Wieniawski. Auer remained at the Petersburg Conservatory for 50 years, until the Revolution of 1918, when he left Russia. In 1920, he settled in New York.

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Auer's students were Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbelist, Toscha Seidel, the Piastro brothers [Mishel and Josef], Joseph Achron, Paul Staszewicz, Maks Rozen and other Jewish violin virtuosos, and analogous non-Jews such as Kathleen Parlow and Francis MacMillen. The most famous of them is Jascha Heifetz, the greatest violin virtuoso of our time.

Jascha Heifetz was born in Vilna on the 2ndThursday, January 07, 2021 of February 1901. His father was a violinist at a theater and he was his son's first teacher. At three years of age, he received a small violin from his father and began to learn music. When he was no older than six, he entered the Imperial Music School in Vilna where he studied with Ilya Malkin and he was not yet seven years old when he made his first appearance before an audience in Kovna where he played Mendelsohn's Concerto for Violin. He electrified the audiences everywhere as one of the greatest wunderkinder [child prodigies].

It was impossible for a young, brilliant violin artist in Russia at that time to avoid the then famous violin pedagogue, Leopold Auer. However, it was not easy to approach Auer. Despite the fact that such great violinists had gone through Auer's classes at the Petersburg Conservatory, Auer himself had a strong and completely sensible bias against wunderkinder. And as it happened, Auer arrived with the pianist [Anna] Yesipova for a concert in Vilna, and Malkin, Jascha Heifetz's teacher and Auer's former student, came to ask the master to listen to the small Jascha. At first, Auer did not want to listen to him. Malkin barely persuaded Auer, and Jascha Heifetz played for the famous professor and immediately drew his interest.

Jascha played the Capriccio by [Niccolò] Paganini and Mendelsohn's Concerto. Auer was astounded by the youth's playing and he immediately declared that he was taking Jascha into his class at the Petersburg Conservatory. This was the greatest good fortune that a young, talented

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violinist at that time could wish. Jascha's father immediately sold everything that he owned, relinquished his position in the theater and left for Petersburg with his son.

The entire Heifetz family settled in Petersburg with the help of Auer and A[lexander] K. Glazunov, the director of the conservatory. In his memoir, My Long Life in Music, Leopold Auer speaks about him as follows:

“Jascha Heifetz was then around 10 years old. He was accepted immediately into the conservatory because of his talent and the then tsarist laws permitted a Jewish student at the conservatory to live in Petersburg. However, what does one do with Jascha's family? Someone had the fortunate idea that I should take Jascha's father, a violinist of age 41, into my class. I did so. And Jascha's entire family could remain in the capital. However, each student had to visit the classes in solfeggio, piano and composition and as Jascha's father did not do this and also did not play for the examinations, I had problems and had always to fight with the administration. When Glazunov became director, the troubles ended and Jascha could peacefully remain with his parents until the summer of 1917, when the family immigrated to America.”
It never occurred to his parents to exploit their talented son, as parents of a wunderkind often do. They only thought about their son's future and attempted to give him a better, comprehensive education.

Before starting with Auer, Jascha Heifetz had many concerts and was welcomed everywhere as the future, great master of the violin.

Then Jascha Heifetz had many concert trips through Europe, mainly with his teacher, Leopold Auer. In 1914 Heifetz made his first appearance in Berlin with the Philharmonic Orchestra there under the direction of Arthur Nikisch. The great director declared that he had never heard such playing of a violin.

The [First] World War ended Jascha Heifetz's concert trips and he returned to study at the conservatory. But in 1916 he and Auer went to play in Christiania, Norway.

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In 1917, the Heifetz family came to America. His first appearance in New York [Carnegie] Hall on the 27th of October of that year was a great sensation. He gave six concerts in the winter season in New York and he prepared a different program for each. All of the New York music critics declared with one voice that he is a great musician, as great as the wonderful violin virtuosos of his generation.

Heifetz is the wonder of the concert stage of our time. When one imagines playing on an instrument that is perfect, the name Jascha Heifetz immediately comes to mind. He plays without errors and this appears often as almost inhuman. There are music lovers who will complain that Heifetz is too cold, shows almost no passion when playing. This, it should be understood, is not true.

Heifetz is one of those true, great wonders among former wunderkinder, who over the course of their entire career keep getting richer and grow. The great technical perfection that one can imagine in him always goes together with a deep musical understanding and great erudition.

A New York music critic writes about him: “Technically, Jascha Heifetz cannot get much better from the time of his debut in New York in 1917 because of the simple fact that there was then not a thing he could not do on a violin. However, he changed immensely musically. His playing, for example, of Beethoven's Concerto in 1919 was completely different from playing the same Concerto in Paris in 1926 and again very different in New York in 1940. All three times, he played wonderfully beautiful. In 1918 [should be 1919] he was the well-schooled master of the violin, who apparently already was deeply affected by tradition. In 1926 he was the artist who found in the old, frequently played composition the expression of deeper tradition. In 1940 his playing revealed a clearer and completely aristocratic temperament.” (Harry A. Simon in the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia)

Heifetz created a series of fine arrangements of works by Debussy, Albéniz, [Mario] Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Godowsky and George Gershwin, which other violinists play often.

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Joseph Achron

by Leib Nadel

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Joseph Achron's name will always be connected with the movement to develop and spread music in the Jewish spirit. His most popular composition for the violin is the fine Yidishe Melodie [Jewish Melody]. He also wrote Jewish liturgical music, which is completely in the spirit of the Jewish music tradition that we have now among Jews in the western world.

The question of Jewish music is complicated, but when one wants to give an example of music that is European and modern, but in the Jewish spirit, one can mention a series of names of fine, modern musicians who are consciously Jewish and among these names the name of Joseph Achron is never omitted. He is perhaps the most conscious of being a Jew among all those musicians who have a Jewish consciousness, and the Yidishkeit [Jewishness, connoting an emotional connection to Judaism and/or to the Jewish people and their history, beliefs and customs] of his compositions on Jewish themes will be disputed by no one.

Joseph Achron was born on the 1st of May 1886 in the shtetl Lazdai, Kovna gubernia [province]. His father was a merchant in the shtetl, but [also] a great musician who possessed significant musical abilities. The writer, Pesakh Markus, himself from Lazdai, writes in his memoirs that Joseph Achron's father was “the most blissful reciter of the Haftorah [supplementary readings from the Prophets at Shabbos – Sabbath – services] and Neilah-davener [reciter of the closing prayer of Yom Kippur] in Lazdai. On the Shabbos nights, when he would play his violin, all of Lazdai would deeply inhale and celebrated when the violin reveled, when the violin cried.”

Israel Rabinovich, the music critic, mentions this in an article about Achron: “I believe this gives us a very close familiarity with the source from which Joseph Achron emerged. That his father was a blissful reciter of the Haftorah and Neilah-davener makes clear to us the deep-rooted character trait in Achron's Jewish compositions, which are full of reverberations and echoes of the all biblical musically cantillated melodies [with which the Torah is read] and synagogue styles.

“We need to understand,” Rabinovich further writes, “that here we are talking about only echoes and reverberations and not about adherence to traditional [melodies]. For example, his wonderful 'Children's Suite,' which is, according to Achron's own assertions, based on Hebrew cantillation; however, we should not get the idea that we have here a stereotypical reproduction of the reading of the weekly Torah portion

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or of reading the Haftorah, or from other Hebrew cantillations – not only the harmonic, but the melodic – is entirely Achron's individual creation. However, this, which is sung in his heart, when he wrote these very original compositions, was the ancient traditional song that he absorbed like a sponge from earlier generations.”

The Jewish source remained powerful in Joseph Achron throughout his life. He possessed what the great national Jewish composer, Ernest Bloch, did not have: the closeness and intimate knowledge of Jewish traditional life, and Joseph Achron was one of those fortunate Jewish composers, for whom the Jewish and the European blended harmoniously and, in addition, the Jewish could be recognized immediately.

At two years of age, Joseph Achron exhibited extraordinary abilities for music. His father made him a violin and taught him the alef-beis [A,B,C's – basics] of music. At five years of age, the family moved to Warsaw and Joseph already was seriously studying violin-playing, at first with his father and then with the famous Slavonic musician, Edmund Michalowicz, the student of [Moritz] Hauptmann and of [Hans von] Bülow. At seven years of age, Achron had already written a violin composition. A year later, he appeared at a concert that had been arranged for a charitable event by the Counts Radziwill and Tyszkiewicz.

Then Achron studied at the Petersburg Conservatory. He studied violin with the famous Hungarian violin virtuoso and pedagogue, Leopold Auer, and graduated with a gold medal. His teacher of harmony here was [Anatoly] Liadov and of orchestration – Maximilian Sternberg.

At age 11, he had a series of concerts in various cities in Russia. In 1913-1916, he was the main professor of violin and chamber music at the Imperial Conservatory in Kharkov. Then he served a year and a half in the Tsarist Army during the First World War. In 1918, he produced a Sonata for Violin and Piano that became well-known. He later traveled around with concerts across Europe, visited Eretz-Yisroel, where the famous Russian-Jewish musician Yoel (Julius) Engel and others had

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settled at that time. Achron came to America in 1925 and settled in New York and for his last years he lived in Hollywood, where he died in 1943 at the age of 57.

Joseph Achron's connection with the movement to spread Jewish music began in 1911. Three years earlier, a Society to Spread Jewish Folk Music[1] was created in Petersburg. The society had good, talented musicians who were educated in the Petersburg or Leipzig Conservatories among its ranks and it developed considerable, very fruitful and very promising activities, which ceased with the [outbreak of the] First World War.

Among the members of the Petersburg society were such Jewish musicians as Yoel [Joel] Engel, [Mikhail Fabianovich] Gnessin, [Aleksandr Abramovich] Krein, [Moses] Milner, Lazare Maminsky [should be Saminsky], the later researcher of Jewish music, Professor Shlomo Rozowsky, who settled in Eretz-Yisroel, [Alexander] Zhitomirsky, Lev Tseitlin, [Pesakh] Lvov, [Moses] Shalit, [Susman] Kiselgof, [Zinoviy] Shulman, [Israel] Kaplan, [Hirsch] Kopit, [S.] Gurowitsch, [Moses] Shklar and others.

In 1922 members of the society renewed the work and founded the Jubel Press in Berlin. The publishing company existed for several years and published a series of Jewish folk songs and collections. In 1918 the Zimro chamber music ensemble was founded in Petersburg. The members of the ensemble were: [Jacob] Mestechkin – first violin; [Grigoriy] Bezrodnïy – second violin; [Kapel] Moldavan – viola; Iosif Chernyavsky – cello; Simelin Bellison – clarinet and [Lev] Berdichevsky – piano. The ensemble made long concert trips through Siberia, China, Japan and America, to New York.

Joseph Achron was with the movement to animate and cultivate Jewish music with his entire heart. In the endless discussions about what needed to be recognized as Jewish music, if it needed to be based completely on the old traditional emphasis, or on the Jewish folk song and Hasidic melody, or on both elements together, Achron was with those who believed in all three elements. In art, it is a fact that what we see as a successful work overcomes all theoretical objections and philosophies and Joseph Achron's work on purely Jewish themes is the best evidence that Jewish music can be wonderfully Jewish, having in it those parts of music elements that live in the Jewish people.

Joseph Achron left a considerable number of general compositions for orchestra, choir, quartets,

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sonatas, suites and smaller compositions for violin and piano, viola and songs. In Gdal Saleski's book about Jewish musicians, enthusiastic reviews are given about the compositions of Joseph Achron by the famous Russian music critics Igor Glebov, [Viacheslav] Karatygin, [Leonid] Sabaneyev and [Evgeny] Braudo.

Karatygin wrote: “As a violinist and composer of model chamber music, Ludwig Shpar was a great exception (excluding, naturally, the old masters [Archangelo] Corelli and [Giovanni Battista] Martini). A second exception is now Joseph Achron. Achron, the violin artist, is a worthy competitor for Achron the composer.

The music historian, Evgeny Braudo, said about Achron: “Achron occupies a very special place in our musical life as a creator and an interpreter of music. His art is deep and concentrated.”

[Igor] Glebov says about Achron that he is a rarity among lyrical composers because he is emotionally dramatic. About Achron's Second Violin Sonata, Glebov says: he rarely encountered such great mastery as in this composition.

And L[eonid] Sabaneyev sums up Joseph Achron's composition work this way: “I see in Achron a ripe and significant musician in his artistic mastery. He travels on two paths at the same time: he works with Jewish folklore, enriching the Jewish musical repertoire with magnificent and individualistic compositions, and he also writes significant music that has nothing to do with Jewish tonality. The paths come together in the last period of his activity.”

(Image, heading: School Card of the Jewish Tekhnikum [special middle school] for the Jewish higher courses in Kovna


Signatures: Z. Kalmanovich – secretary:
(Prof.) Y. Grosman – chairman of the lecturers' council)

Translator's Footnote

  1. All references to this society refer to it as the Society for Jewish Folk Music. Return


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Leopold Godowsky

by Leib Nadel

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Among the great pianists of the 19th and 20th centuries, Leopold Godowsky occupies a very special place with his original career. He also is distinguished from other great musicians of his time by the original view he had of the art of piano playing and musical composition, in which he so strongly excelled.

Godowsky was born in Vilna on the 3rd of February 1870. When he was three years old, he had already shown extraordinary ability in music. At nine years of age, he appeared before an audience in concert for the first time.

At 13, he entered the Berliner Hochschule [German institution of higher learning] to study music. As young as he was, he realized that he had nothing to do there, that he would not hear anything new from the pedagogically conservative professors and he would learn nothing from them. He spent several months at the Hochschule and left it.

When he was 14 years old, he took a trip across America, as a wunderkind [child prodigy] pianist, along with the famous American sopranos, Clara Louise Kellogg and Emma Cecilia Thursby and with the Belgian violin virtuoso, Ovid Mizen. He also appeared several times in the Sunday concerts of the orchestra at the New York Casino.

At that time, Godowsky strongly desired to be a student of the great piano virtuoso Franz Liszt, who lived in Weimar, Germany then. With this hope, he arrived in Europe. However, his disappointment was immense when he learned that the great Liszt had just died.

A second bitter disappointment came later when he had to study with the famous composer Camille Saint-Saëns. He was presented to Saint-Saëns, who had already heard how Godowsky played his compositions. Saint-Saëns became enraptured by the young pianist and became very interest in his musical education. However, Saint-Saëns was very restless and he would unceasingly travel around abroad. Godowsky spent three years in Paris and during the three years had very few opportunities to study with Saint-Saëns.

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Godowsky's education ended with this. He relied upon himself in the future. He studied alone and he never ceased [studying].

1n 1890, Leopold Godowsky came to the United States for the second time for a concert trip. A year later, he married Frederika Saxe of New York. He and his wife traveled to Europe and returned after several months. Several appearances at orchestra concerts in New York at the Lenox Lyceum that he made afterward were directed by Theodore Thomas, were a very extraordinary success and various invitations were made to Godowsky from everywhere.

At around that time, he became a piano teacher at the Broad Street Conservatory in Philadelphia. This was the beginning of a long and splendid career. The work of a teacher for Leopold Godowsky always went together with concert trips. In 1894 he became the director of the piano division of the Chicago Conservatory, taking the place of the well-known American pianist, William H. Sherwood. Godowsky was then 24 years old and his reputation in America already was very great. He held the position at the Chicago Conservatory until 1900.

In 1900, Leopold Godowsky decided to return to Europe and capture the music audience of the old world. He took it by storm.

On the 6th of December 1900, Godowsky gave his first concert in Berlin and overnight he became one of the most famous figures in European musical life. He was in Berlin until 1909 and during those years he traveled a great deal around the world with piano concerts. Everywhere Godowsky played, he won the highest recognition and admiration.

In 1909 he again became a pedagogue, settling this time in Vienna. There, he was designated as director of the Meisterschule [master school] of the Imperial Conservatory. The high position had been occupied before him by the great pianists, Emil [von] Sauer, a Jew, and Ferruccio Busoni, a half Jew. Both were born in Germany.[1] The Vilna Jew

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Leopold Godowsky did not dishonor his predecessors here.

Godowsky held the position until the year 1912. He led the upper classes in piano playing, where very talented piano artists perfected their art. Godowsky had his own original view of the work and art of teaching others and he had the full opportunity to forward his theories.

Later, Leopold Godowsky was never completely satisfied with the pedagogical work. Not because he did not think highly of it. On the contrary, he placed the work of a music teacher very high, but he set very rigorous requirements for the teacher. Godowsky was an artist, a thinker. As successful as he was, as a teacher of young talented musicians, he found great disappointments in his work.

In his book about Jewish musicians, the cellist, Gdal Saleski, conveys such later talk by the great piano artist: “I believe that the years that I dedicated to teaching others at the beginning of my career were a waste of time. Teaching others is, understand, a noble profession, but in my own experience I know that the results were nothing in comparison to the time and energy that was utilized. It was completely wasted work to teach someone who did not possess the pure gold – this is like preaching in the wilderness. Great geniuses, naturally, are very rare. I have not yet found any very great talent. The discouragement is truly very strong when one sees that today we do not have our own Chopin or Liszt, who could create a new art of piano playing.”

Because the majority of students in music schools of conservatories are mediocrities, Godowsky believed the best thing is to teach them together in one class. This is a great deal better for them. It saves a great deal of the teacher's time. In a group, the students will have competition from the other students and from their good example one will make greater efforts to grasp the matter that one is studying. Therefore, when Godowsky was director of the music school at the Imperial Conservatory in Vienna, he always taught students in classes. Godowsky wanted to make of his students

[Page 566]

not only good pianists, but also good musicians and artists.

It is, therefore, not a surprise that the great musician and artist and teacher of others had a deep influence on an entire generation of young piano virtuosos to whom he gave both his talent for penetrating deeply into a musical work being played and the great virtuosity of his hands and fingers.

From 1912 on, Leopold Godowsky mostly lived in America, but he traveled around unceasingly with concerts in the United States and abroad.

From then and until his death (1938), Godowsky was prominent in the music world as a teacher, as a concert pianist and as a composer.

Godowsky had few true competitors on the concert stage as a piano virtuoso. It is told that when one asked the famous Jewish pianist, Vladimir de Pachman, whom he believed was the greatest piano virtuoso of our time, he answered: After me, the greatest pianist of our time is Leopold Godowsky.

However, in his last years, Godowsky could not appear on the concert stage because of a light paralysis in his left hand.

Godowsky also was a magnificent composer, particularly for the piano. It was said about Godowsky that since Franz Liszt, no one had enlarged the possibilities of piano composition as he had done. He left many very original compositions that are in the repertoire of virtuosos. He created many magnificent arrangements and paraphrases of the works of the piano classics: Bach, Chopin, Weber, Shubert, Schuman, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Karl Böhm, Albeniz and others. Particularly well-known are his Chopin Etudes, a piano sonata, a toccata, a capriccio, Triakontameron – 30 voices of scenes for piano, a Java Suite, Renaissance – a free transcription of old music for piano. A complete series of “adaptations,” “phonograms,” “tone-poems,” “miniatures,” dance and many others. In all of his piano compositions he shows himself as one of the greatest masters of the piano and very great virtuosos endeavor to play them.

Translator's Footnote

  1. Busoni was born in Italy. Return


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