This Day in Jewish History

1965: Globe-trotting Mountain Jew, Ahead-of-his-time Classical Composer Dies

The compositions left behind by Aaron Avshalomov, who had lived in Siberia, Switzerland and China before ending up in the U.S., might be better suited for a globalized world that has a high regard for cultural fusion.

The Siberian town of Nikolayevsk, where Aaron Avshalomov was born, circa 1900.
Wikimedia Commons

On April 26, 1965, Aaron Avshalomov, a Siberian-born Mountain Jew, an autodidact musician and composer who spent much of his life in China, and whose compositions reflected the different cultures he lived in, died, at age 70.

Avshalomov led a peripatetic life, partly because of the vagaries of 20th-century history, and partly because of his own restless, unconventional nature. This, combined with the mixture of East and West that infused his music, almost guaranteed that he would not achieve conventional fame, certainly not during his lifetime, but he left behind a corpus of music – symphonies, operas, ballets – that may be better suited for a globalized world that has a high regard for cultural fusion.

Aaron Avshalomov was born on November 11, 1894, in Nikolayevsk, in eastern Siberia. His father’s family originated in Derbent, Dagestan (in the Caucasus), but his grandfather had been exiled to Siberia in the 1870s, according to family lore, after killing a Persian neighbor who crashed a family wedding. In Nikolayevsk, a trading town cut off from the world by ice for six months out of the year, he set up a profitable business; his son, Aaron’s father, owned a fishery.

Multicultural education

Because Nikolayevsk was a crossroads, it was inevitable that Aaron would grow up exposed to Russian, Jewish, Chinese and Japanese culture. On Sundays when he was a young boy, a family employee, Tung Fu, who was left to care for him, would dress up like a Han Dynasty warrior, and entertain him with a war dance with swords and spears: “He would strike the gong and beat the drum which he got from traveling acrobats,” according to a family memoir written by Aaron’s son Jacob; he “was enchanted, thrilled, and asked for more.”

At other times, Aaron would be cared for by a Japanese nursemaid, and all the while he was receiving Hebrew instruction from a rabbi in town.  

In 1907, the family moved inland to Khabarovsk, where Aaron attended high school. In 1913, he was dispatched to Zurich to study medicine. Aaron himself described that experience as “unbearable,” and he withdrew from his studies after six months. He organized a balalaika orchestra at the Jewish students’ club, and briefly attended a musical conservatory – the only formal musical training he ever had.

Aaron returned to Russia shortly before the start of World War I, and after a brief stint in the army, his parents sent him off again, this time to Tientsin, China. There, he earned enough money from playing music to buy a ticket to sail to San Francisco, where he arrived in early 1916. He married his landlady’s daughter, Esther Magidson, but the marriage didn’t last, if only because he was drawn back to China, and she wanted to remain in the United States. Their son, Jacob Avshalomov (1919-2013), was also a musician.

Money or passion?

All of Aaron’s life was a tug-of-war between a desire to write music and his need to make a living, which he did both through physical labor and for many years as a bookseller and librarian, and his moves back and forth between East and West. He wrote music for Western orchestras in which the instruments imitated the sounds of traditional Chinese ones. Into this blend, he also infused Russian chords.

China was Avshalomov’s principal home from 1917 to 1947, with the exception of a three-year interlude in the 1920s in Portland, which is also where he moved following World War II, after having spent the Japanese occupation of Shanghai under house arrest, together with his second wife, Tatiana.

He had reasonable success in pre-revolutionary China, working as a conductor, composer and teacher in Shanghai, and heard many of his works performed. These included, most notably, his 1944, six-act musical drama “The Great Wall,” which was based on a traditional story about the building of the Chinese security barrier.  During his final years in the city, he was conductor of the Shanghai City Symphony.

During his final two decades, in the United States, Avshalomov saw some of his work performed, but never had the breakthrough that would have led to regular commissions. He died in New York, of cancer.