Joseph Achron was born in a small Lithuanian town called Lodzdzieje (now Lazdijai) on May 1/13, 1886. His father built him his first violin, and by the time he was two years old he had already composed his first simple tune. Realizing his toddler's potential, Achron's father moved the entire family to Warsaw so that the young prodigy could take formal violin lessons at the Warsaw Conservatory. Five years later, after completing a concert tour of the Russian Empire, the ten-year-old "Wonder Child" was invited to perform at a birthday party for the czar's brother, where he was presented with a gold watch and chain, a gift that he treasured his entire life. When Achron was 13, the family moved to St. Petersburg so that he could study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the renowned Leopold Auer, whose students numbered some of the most famous violinists of the twentieth century: Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Efrem Zimbalist, among others. After graduating from the Conservatory with the highest prize in violin performance, in 1904, Achron concertized abroad for several years before returning to St. Petersburg to further his studies in composition.
In 1911, Achron was invited to join the music committee of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, an organization which had been founded three years earlier by former students of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Achron was so inspired by this meeting, that he immediately went home and composed his first "Jewish" work, the "Hebrew Melody" for violin and piano, which remains to this day his most popular composition.
Two years after joining the Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg, Achron opened up a new branch of the Society in Kharkov, where he served as head of the violin and chamber music department at the Kharkov Conservatory. During World War I, he was drafted into the Russian military as a performer for front-line troops, and thereafter embarked on an extensive concert tour of Russia, performing over 1000 concerts between 1918 and 1922. In 1922, Achron and his wife, the singer Marie Raphof, moved to Berlin, where Achron continued to compose, teach, and perform while serving as music advisor of the prominent "Jibneh" publishing house.
On December 31, 1924, Joseph and Marie Achron arrived at Ellis Island from Cherbourg, France, thus marking the start of their busy ten-year stay in New York. There, Achron composed chamber works for the local Yiddish theater, taught privately and at the Westchester Conservatory of Music, performed as soloist at the premiere of his First Violin Concerto, and took an active administrative role in the music scene of New York City. In 1934, the Achrons moved to Los Angeles, where, again, Achron took a highly active role in the musical life of his community. Here, Achron began to explore the world of film music, performing and composing for the studios, and devoted a great deal of time to private teaching and to administrative activism in the field of modern American music.
Joseph Achron died from illness at the age of 56, on April 29, 1943. His close friend Arnold Schoenberg wrote in an obituary: "Joseph Achron was one of the most underrated modern composers. The originality and profound elaboration of Joseph Achron's ideas guarantee that his works will last."
- Sam Zerin; May 20, 2010