Aaron Avshalomov : A Jew in China

Aaron Avshalomov1

Aaron Avshalomov (11/11/1894 – 4/26/1965) was a Russian-born Jewish composer.  Born into a Mountain Jewish family, he was sent for medical studies to Zürich, but chose to leave Europe in the wake of the Russian revolution. Mountain Jews or Caucasus Jews of the eastern and northern slopes of Caucasus, mainly Azerbaijan and Dagestan. They are the descendants of Persian Jews from Iran. It is believed that they had reached Persia from Ancient Israel as early as the 8th century BCE. They continued to migrate east, settling in mountainous areas of the Caucasus.

Avshalomoff spent nearly thirty years in China, lured there by the street music, the legends and the sounds and costumes of traditional Chinese opera that he first encountered in the Chinese quarter of Nikolayevsk, the city in Siberia where he was born. After the Revolution of 1917, he traveled through China on his way to America, where he married, settling in San Francisco. By 1918 he had resolved to return to China, but had already traveled widely. He abandoned medical school in order to study music, but was essentially self-taught.

In China between 1918 and 1947 Avshalomoff worked to create a synthesis of Chinese musical elements and Western techniques of orchestral composition. Making his living primarily as a bookseller, he composed and produced his first opera, Kuan Yin (‘Goddess of Mercy’), in 1924. During a period between 1925 and 1929 spent in the United States, he managed to have this staged at the Neighbourhood Playhouse in New York and a second work, The Soul of the Chin, was performed in Portland, Oregon. In China once more, he continued his former activities.

As early as 1924 Avshalomoff began to study ancient Chinese classical music, folk and temple music and street cries. His own melodies were based on the various pentatonic modes and on the whole-tone scale. Around 1940 he also began to experiment with Indian modes. His Chinese-style melodies were combined with secondary melodic lines, using simple duple or triple metres. At the same time he made full use of the range of Chinese percussion instruments and ornamentation, supporting his pentatonic melodies with interesting chordal harmonies. In orchestration he followed the example of Rimsky-Korsakov and in structure the traditional forms of Western music, although experimenting with remoter modulations in order to add interest to pentatonic melodies, thus creating a highly personal musical language. His secondary aim was to encourage younger Chinese composers to develop their own musical heritage, rather than allowing themselves to be diverted into various forms of Western commercial music. During his last three years in China he conducted the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

Shanghai, between 1933 and 1943, saw the presentation of Aaron Avshalomoff’s The Dream of Wei Lien, The Soul of the Chin, Buddha and the Five Planetary Deities, concertos for piano and for violin, his First Symphony and The Hutungs of Peking. The high point of his career in China was the elaborate performance of the music-drama The Great Wall, under the patronage of Mme Sun Yat Sen and Mme Chiang Kai Shek, sisters who ended on opposite sides in the Chinese Revolution.

During the Second World War Avshalomoff and his second wife, Tatiana, were kept under house arrest by the Japanese and in 1947 he emigrated to the United States, where his son, and his family had settled. While his music was performed and acclaimed in China, that reputation did not follow him to America. Although listed by Slonimsky and the subject of research at Cambridge, he lived in Los Angeles and New York largely unknown, expending his energies in the fruitless attempt to bring to America the ballet company which had staged his works in Shanghai and Nanking, or later vainly trying to create something of the same sort in the United States.

Aaron Avshalomov2Marco Polo Records has released three recordings of his orchestral music.

“As anyone following Marco Polo’s enterprising discs of Aaron Avshalomoff’s orchestral music knows, his style combines the colorful nationalism of the Russian school of Rimsky-Korsakov with the folk music of his adopted country, China. He’s at his absolute best in slow movements, where cool pentatonic melodies float on a bed of quiet strings and mysterious percussion. Both the Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony contain classical examples of this lovely sound world. The quicker movements, while more formally conventional, contain plenty of good tunes adroitly arranged, though the finale of the symphony may strike some listeners as too much of a good thing despite its outrageously vivid orchestration. Nevertheless, the Piano Concerto is at least as appealing as, say, Khachaturian’s, and the Symphony has more than enough appealing invention to sustain its modest half hour length. The composer’s son and grandson do yeoman work on behalf of their more famous progenitor, and David Avshalomov’s Elegy is a highly attractive and sensitive work in its own right. Do investigate this very rewarding and delightful series of recordings.” (David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com)

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