Bloch, Ernest

The legacy of Ernest Bloch strides the twin worlds of cultivated Jewish art or concert music and that of the modern extension of the Western classical tradition in general. A singular and in many ways sui generis force in the course of Western music of the first half of the 20th century, Bloch is usually viewed—notwithstanding his important works that predate his American immigration—as an American composer. (Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example, appropriately cites him as “an American composer and teacher of Swiss origin.”) He is also remembered for his profound influence as a teacher, especially with regard to composition.

Bloch was born in Geneva, where he began his musical life playing the violin as a pupil of Louis Rey [Louis Étienne-Reyer] and Albert Goss. Still at a young age, he also studied composition and solfège with Émile Jacques-Dalcroze. He furthered his violin studies in Brussels with the acclaimed Rumanian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe while studying composition with François Rasse.

Between 1899 and 1903 Bloch lived and worked in Germany—first in Frankfurt am Main and then in Munich. He studied for a while with Iwan Knorr and for a brief period with Ludwig Thuille. During those years in Germany he began his lifelong confrontation with issues of spirituality and religion, in a general sense and, in particular, in terms of his Judaic heritage and his search for ethnic-national identity vis-à-vis artistic purpose. His biographers have pointed to that period as one in which these spiritual and ethnic-national (or “racial,” in the jargon of that time) concerns became central to his worldview.

After spending a year in Paris, Bloch returned to Geneva in 1904, married, and, for purely practical reasons, entered his father’s business firm. He continued, however, to develop his musical gifts and to compose as well as conduct. In 1910 his opera (or lyric drama) Macbeth, which he had composed between 1904 and 1909, received its premiere in Paris, and he soon established a reputation as a conductor as well. He also lectured on aesthetics for a few years at the Geneva Conservatory.

It was during that time frame, in the years leading up to and roughly during the early years of the First World War, that Bloch wrote his first important Jewish-related works, which were part of what came to be known collectively as his “Jewish cycle.” These included his Trois poèmes juifs (1913); Israel, for five solo voices and orchestra (the Israel Symphony); and SchelomoHebrew Rhapsody, for violoncello and orchestra (1915–16), which is considered standard cello concerto repertory and is, by most estimations, probably his best-known and most commonly recognized work. His opera Jézabel, the sketches for which were begun in 1911 (and on which he continued to work in America) was never completed.

Bloch came to the United States in 1916 initially to be the conductor of Maud Allan’s dance troupe, although the tour was aborted after he arrived. He remained to take a teaching position at the recently founded David Mannes School of Music (now the Mannes College of Music) in New York, where he taught theory and composition. Over the next several years he witnessed premieres of some of his works, including those of the so-called Jewish cycle. And throughout the 1920s, although his music was by no means confined to overt Jewish expression (at least not consciously), he continued to solidify a perception of himself as a “Jewish composer” whose art was inspired by and infused with a contemporaneous idea of a Hebrew spirit of Jewish antiquity. From this period came such Jewishly related works as his Baal Shem Suite (1923), for violin and piano (later orchestrated); From Jewish Life (1924), for cello and piano; Méditation hébraïque (1924), for cello and piano; Avoda [Abodah] (1929), for violin and piano; and Psalm settings. In 1919 his Suite for Viola and Piano was awarded the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Prize and soon attracted considerable attention.

In 1920 Bloch became the first director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. Over the next five years there he taught composition, conducted the institute’s orchestra, presented and presided over master classes, and instituted extension courses and classes. In 1925 he became the director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, during which time his epic rhapsody in three parts, America, won first prize in a competition sponsored by Musical America. Meanwhile, through his association with Cantor Reuben Rinder of Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco’s prestigious Reform synagogue, Bloch received a commission from the congregation (underwritten by Gerald Warburg) to compose a complete Sabbath morning service for baritone cantor, chorus, and full symphony orchestra. Avodath Hakodesh: Sacred Service, completed in Europe (1930–1933) during his temporary return there—what turned out to be most of the decade—was to become one of his most celebrated and enduring works, not only from Jewish and liturgical perspectives, but also as a universal and transcendent artistic statement. In its use of a Jewish worship service and the liturgy as the basis for a sophisticated, full-length, almost oratorio-like work that could speak to non-Jewish and Jewish audiences alike—and would find equally appropriate expression in concert performance and in the context of classical Reform worship—Avodath Hakodesh was a watershed undertaking, a major contribution both to Jewish liturgical expression and to the genre of sacred music per se.

Apart from Avodath Hakodesh, Bloch returned only twice during the 1930s to specifically designated Jewish expression. His Voice in the Wilderness, for orchestra with violoncello obligato, and his Visions and Prophecies for piano were both composed in 1936. And in 1951 he wrote Suite hébraïque for viola and piano, three of the five movements of which he subsequently orchestrated—for which he also created a violin version.

In 1940 Bloch assumed a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught summer courses until his retirement, in 1952. But for the most part he lived and worked in Agate Beach, Oregon. He cannot be said to have established any particular compositional school; nor did he aspire to any avant-garde or radical departures. Yet he carved out an emblematic personal style, relying on a variety of proven techniques and approaches and exploiting these with intense individuality. A number of his chamber works have a decidedly neoclassical stamp; other pieces, including his so-called epic works, might be viewed under a neo-Romantic lens; and still other compositions reveal the imprint of expressionism. But regardless of style or technique, and even though he was not averse to some experimentation with atonality and twelve-tone thematic constructions, he always insisted on the central role of melody in his creative process. For him, as he proclaimed many times, music was a spiritual experience.

Two festivals were devoted to Bloch’s music in London, in 1934 and in 1937. The esteemed musicologist and music critic Ernest Newman, in his review of concerts of the latter, observed in the Times of London:

Bloch, I suppose, is the first truly Jewish composer the modern world has known. Bloch writes Jewish music; and an order of imagination, a range of perception, personal and racial, here come into play that have been submerged by centuries of European culture. It is not only that Bloch presents us with images and experiences hitherto strange to Western music; what especially attracts some of us to his work is the new freedom of his language—really a reversion to a freedom possessed by music centuries ago but long since lost.

Bloch himself had much to say about his art vis-à-vis Judaic expression. He differed sharply from the composers associated with the Russian-born New National School in Jewish music, who had sought to create a classically oriented music based on authentic secular as well as sacred Jewish folk music and folklore. “It is not my purpose, not my desire, to attempt a ‘reconstitution’ of Jewish music,” he once explained:

or to base my works on melodies more or less authentic. I am not an archaeologist. I hold it of first importance to write good, genuine music, my music. It is the Jewish soul that interests me, the complex glowing agitated soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible; the freshness and naïveté of the Patriarchs; the violence that is evident in the prophetic books, the Jew’s savage love of justice; the despair of the Preacher in Jerusalem; the sorrow and immensity of the Book of Job, the sensuality of the Song of Songs. All this is in us; all this is in me, and it is the better part of me. It is all that I endeavor to hear in myself and to transcribe in my music: the venerable emotion of the race that slumbers way down in our souls.

In 1938, the sole issue of Musica Hebraica—intended as the first of an ongoing journal ad seriatum—was published in Jerusalem. One of its articles, by Mary Tibaldi Chiesa, was prefaced by Bloch’s “manifesto” concerning his Jewish and Judaically related music:

In my work termed “Jewish”—my Psalms, Schelomo, Israel, Trois poemes juifs, Voice in the Wilderness—I have not approached the problem from without by employing melodies more or less authentic (frequently borrowed from or under the influence of other nations) or “Oriental” formulae, rhythms, or intervals more or less sacred!

NO! I have but listened to an inner voice, deep, secret, insistent, ardent—an instinct much more than cold and dry reason, a voice which seemed to come from far beyond myself, far beyond my parents … a voice which surged up in me upon reading certain passages in the Bible, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, The Prophets….

This entire Jewish heritage moved me deeply; it was reborn in my music. To what extent it is Jewish or to what extent it is just Ernest Bloch, of that I know nothing. The future alone will decide.

The erudite Jewish music scholar Albert Weisser, at the time of his premature death, in 1982, was working on a study of Bloch’s significance as a contributor to serious Jewish music. He was particularly interested in addressing some of Bloch’s supposed ambivalence and some of the contradictions and complexities that had become the focus of critical attention by the beginning of the 1980s, even though the full range of Bloch’s letters—which now have been made public and which present even deeper problems to any objective historian—was not available to Weisser. Among Weisser’s papers is a tentative draft concerning Bloch, which, in the depth of its perceptions, is worth quoting:

For a long time now it has been both fashionable and fatuous to write of Bloch mainly as something of a schizoid musical personality that could be strictly divided between the “Jewish Bloch” and the “universal Bloch.” This is a vast simplification. In truth the Bloch that matters—and that will remain—is to be found in works that are explicitly Jewish and those abstract works in which the Jewish musical elements are not so easily recognizable, but are redefined, reordered, and brought to what are, for them, new formations.

…As much as he might have tried, Bloch could never totally lose his Jewish musical accent…. He undoubtedly wrote best, with individuality and pungency, when he drew from the true vein of his creative source, his Jewish heritage and its emotive experiences—whatever his contradictions, evasions, resentments, and estrangements. And it could very well be that his most cogent works derive their force and impress from the stress induced by his Jewishness and his ambivalent relationship to it.

…However retrogressive and démodé his example may appear in contemporary progressive music circles, it is in Jewish music, and particularly American Jewish music, that Bloch is still a major figure and is likely to remain so: to esteem, to praise, to emulate—but also to parody, to run at full tilt, to deflate, to topple, and to supercede. But ignore him at your risk. He is among the best Jewish music has ever had.

The depth of Bloch’s impact on American music can also be seen in the roster of his students. Among them were such eventually important and successful composers as Roger Sessions, Quincy Porter, Bernard Rogers, George Antheil, and Randall Thompson. His articles on music and music education include “Musical Education” (1927); “Man and Music” (1933); “Securing the Best Results from Piano Study” (1923); “The Pitfalls of Memorizing” (1923); and “Ernest Bloch Surveys the Problems of Music Education” (1921).

Photo Credit: Eric Johnson Collection of Ernest Bloch Photographs, Library of Congress

By: Neil W. Levin



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