Ernest Bloch and the Prophetic Impulse: Music as Spiritual Protest

Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959), Swiss-born but American by naturalization, plays tag with the usual categories.  An inheritor and continuator of the European tradition in concert music, he nevertheless made common cause with his adoptive countryman-composers by attempting after 1916 to write music in an idiom that would reflect conditions in the New World to which he had sworn allegiance.  Bloch was also self-consciously a Jewish composer who understood that the vast majority of his potential audience belonged to the Christian-Protestant professions of a largely Anglo-Saxon nation – a challenging rhetorical situation.  Bloch’s Judaism, moreover, was the Judaism, not of the rabbinate, but of the Prophets.  When he “spoke” deliberately in his distinctive American dialect, he did so in the mode of a musical nabi, and like the nabi, he gave voice, as best he could, to the judgment of divinity on the existing offense of humanity’s disorderliness.  For it must be said that Bloch’s music, from his earliest mature compositions, functioned by intention as a protest against the modern world.  Is Bloch one of those “reactionary” composers, whose reputations traditionalists would like to revive?  In many ways, the answer is “yes,” even though during Bloch’s American years his musical style became increasingly less Romantic and noticeably more modern in its motivic terseness and harmonic astringency.  Yet the composer of the late Trombone Symphony (1954) is unmistakably the same as the composer of Schelomo (1916), the “Jewish Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra” that remains Bloch’s best-known and most-played score.

Bloch Photo Portrait 01 (With Pipe)

While Bloch’s music stands outside the mainstream of Twentieth Century repertory, rarely heard in the concert hall, it nevertheless enjoys good representation in the discography.  The recording enterprises over the years – and indeed in the last decade, taken separately – have documented nearly every work that Bloch wrote, including his opera (1906) after Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  A number of conductors, such as José Serebrier and Dalia Atlas Sternberg, have identified themselves with Bloch, lending special advocacy to his musical cause, as did illustrious others, not least Leopold Stokowski, in the past.  On record, Bloch has recovered from a doldrums in his reputation that stretched from the 1940s through the 1970s.  The history of that shifting image belongs, indeed, to the fascination inherent in Bloch’s creativity, as seen against the background of his era.

Colin Wilson notes, in his chapter on “Two Mystics” in Chords and Discords (1964), the other “mystic” being Scriabin, that Bloch “began as a ‘modernist’ with an immense and difficult First String Quartet, and his Second String Quartet was found so impressive by Ernest Newman that he compared it to the late Beethoven quartets.”  Wilson suggests that had Bloch “continued as a modernist, he undoubtedly would have become as fashionable as Schoenberg or Stravinsky.”  Instead, as Wilson writes, “Bloch not only ‘popularized’ after coming to America; he sometimes wrote music that sounds as if it was commissioned by Hollywood for an epic called ‘How the West Was Won.’”  Wilfrid Mellers, writing in Romanticism and the Twentieth Century (1962), describes Bloch as “the most passionately ego-centered of all Twentieth-Century composers” and as “the first Jewish composer whose music springs from his consciousness of alienated race.”  In Bloch’s music, as Mellers’ analysis puts it, “violent tonal and metrical tensions are combined with declamatory, prayer-like themes that also lend themselves to oriental melodic extension.”  Wilson and Mellers articulate the same perception in different ways.  Even at his prickliest, Bloch remained a Romantic; and beyond that, he remained a religious artist and a “seer.”  Neither of these profiles endeared Bloch to the post-1950 musical establishment in Europe or North America, whose critics saw him as out of step with the reigning abstract paradigm of serialism and therefore unworthy of serious consideration or even as an embarrassment.

More recently, in Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (2004), musicologist Walter Simmons has reiterated the older verdict, remarking that while Bloch, after 1916, “enjoyed nearly two decades of recognition as one of the most forceful creative voices in America,” by the late-1930s “his lack of interest in pursuing experimental techniques and his efforts to broaden his expressive range beyond matters of ethnicity left him open to charges of middle-brow conservatism.”  Schelomo maintained a hold in concert halls because cellists adored it, as they still do, but the other works, with the possible exception of the Violin Concerto (1938), vanished from view.  From 1940 to 1980, interested parties had to get to know Bloch through recordings, but only a few works made it to disc: Schelomo, of course; the Israel Symphony (1916); the first four string quartets (1916, 1942, 1952, and 1953); the Piano Quintet No. 1 (1923); America – an Epic Rhapsody (1927); the Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1925); the Concerto Symphonique (1948); and the Sinfonia Breve (1953).  Reconsideration began in the 1980s, when trumpeter-turned-conductor Gerard Schwarz began programming and recording Bloch’s music with the Seattle Symphony along with music by other “Neo-Romantics,” like Howard Hanson and Paul Creston.  [Note: Links appear at the end of the essay.]

Bloch Symphony in C-Sharp Minor Album COVER

Bloch’s first major “public” score, composed when he was still in his early twenties, was his Symphony in C-Sharp Minor (1902), a work on the largest scale showing an awareness of the César Franck symphonic tradition in France and Belgium and of the Bruckner-Mahler style in Austria; Albéric Magnard’s Third Symphony, from a few years earlier, offered a likely pattern for the younger composer to follow.  Bloch would continue to cultivate the symphony and symphony-like forms throughout his career; in addition to the Symphony in C-Sharp Minor, Bloch issued four other scores called “symphony,” and this list excludes such items as America, Concerto Symphonique, or even the Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1919) and the Violin Concerto, whose processes are symphonic even though Bloch omitted to call them that.  In the standard four-movement plan, Symphony in C-Sharp Minor opens with a prolonged Introduction to the main Allegro; Bloch introduces a variety of motifs that not only recur elsewhere in the four-movement structure, but which generate the thematic material throughout.

As Simmons observes, the young Bloch follows the Franckian precept of “cyclic” composition, endowing unity on the separate movements through the use of germinal melodic mottoes. The somewhat saccharine hymn in the slow movement, for example, returns in the Finale as the chorale of an extended fugue.  The Symphony’s flaws are its ambitious scale (it lasts nearly an hour in performance) and its lack of melodic distinction in much of the thematic material.  Even so, the score contains impressive moments that foreshadow the mature Bloch.  The score has been committed to disc no less than four times.

Bloch’s next symphony, using that designation, belongs to the group of explicitly Jewish works that he wrote just before and just after his arrival in American in 1916 – the Israel Symphony for five voices and orchestra.  Requiring just under half the performance-time of the C-Sharp Minor score (around thirty minutes), Israel thereby solves the problem of overextending its material; in addition, the melodic profile in the new score is in much higher relief than in the previous score: The themes are distinguishable and memorable.  Israel disposes itself in three parts, each one bearing a subtitle: “Prayer in the Desert,” “Yom Kippur,” and “Succoth.”  The language of Israel resembles closely that of Schelomo.  Simmons describes Bloch’s “Jewish” melos as “the Franco-German language absorbed during his years of study, highlighted by… modal scales, open fifths in blatant parallelism, an emphasis on the tritone – used both harmonically and melodically – and tertian structures based on augmented triads.”  Like what, however, does it sound?  Simmons, remarking on Bloch’s personal, Christianizing brand of Judaism, quotes him as having once said, “I find more authentic Jewish music in a Gregorian Chant than in what is used in the Synagogue.”  The melodic lines in both Israel and Schelomo strongly resemble either plainsong or Jewish cantillation, including the tendency of melodies to orbit (as it were) around a particular tone.

Bloch Photo Portrait 03 Left Profile

A noteworthy parallel case to Bloch’s is the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936), whose Concerto Gregoriano (1921), also drawing on plainsong, often sounds like something that Bloch might have written, and whose Sinfonia Drammatica (1914) resembles in both sound and temperament Bloch’s vehement movements.  Respighi’s Concerto in Modo Misolidio (1925) for piano and orchestra would make a good pair with Bloch’s Concerto Symphonique; meanwhile Bloch’s Three Jewish Poems (1913) and Baal Shem Suite (1939) are cousinly relations of Respighi’s famous “Roman” tone-poems.

While Schelomo, with its powerful instrumental oratory and its focus on the solo cello, qualifies as Bloch’s most perfect and audience-friendly work, and while Israel also stands quite high in the hierarchy of Bloch’s compositions, the latter does invite some criticism.  Colin Wilson puts it succinctly: “Bloch frequently sets words in his symphonic music, and the result is thoroughly unhappy.”  As Wilson sees it, the words sung by the soloists in the “Succoth” movement, written by Bloch himself, “are not actually bad, but they are trite, and their evocative power is so far below that of the music that they cannot help being a ‘come down.’”  Wilson rightly applies the same criticism to the choral conclusion of America, another “come down” after forty-five minutes or so of impressive, memorable, and accessible music.  On the other hand, when Bloch sets words from the Bible, as in his Two Psalms (1913), or when he sets the Jewish liturgy in his Sacred Service (1933), the combination of voices with orchestra produces a powerful and convincing result.

Bloch Schelomo Section of Score

Bloch waited until after World War II to compose another score entitled symphony – his Sinfonia Breve (1953), which began life as Concerto Grosso No. 3.  By 1953, Bloch had retired from public life (he had held a professorship at the University of California at  Berkeley) and had gone to live at Agate Beach in Oregon; he continued to compose, but in a private way, whether or not the result might please anyone except the composer.  Sinfonia Breve unfolds in four brief movements totaling just under twenty minutes in performance: The idiom is densely contrapuntal, working with short, pregnant motives; the temperament is fierce, declamatory, another act of musical prophecy.  The same descriptive terms apply to the Trombone Symphony and the Symphony in E-Flat, both of which appeared a year after Sinfonia Breve.  Of the three, the Trombone Symphony is the most accessible, largely because the employment of a solo instrument gives the work dramatic focus, but all three exercise a powerful spell over the sensitive auditor.  The thematic transformations, the chromaticism – these seem to indicate working-out of great subterranean process that, like the Deluge, might break loose and destroy the world.

Suite Symphonique (1944) also deserves to be regarded as a true symphony; it is not only earlier by a decade, but far closer to Bloch’s Romantic style than the other works discussed in the previous paragraph.

Bloch Schelomo Abravanel Album Cover

Bloch endowed instrumental virtuosi with several important concertante scores, beginning with Schelomo.  In fact, Schelomo has a “younger brother,” the tone-poem Voice in the Wilderness (1936), another more or less Jewish work, nearly the equal of its prototype.  In 1919, Bloch wrote a Suite for Viola and Piano, which he swiftly orchestrated as Suite for Viola and Orchestra (1920).  In using the title Suite, Bloch was exercising unnecessary modesty: The work is in the nature of a four-movement symphony concertante with viola obbligato.   The Fourth Movement concludes in a remarkable “Sunrise.”  The atmosphere throughout the Suite is exotic and colorful.  Bloch had an interest in this period of his life in Balinese gamelan music, reminiscences of which he weaves into the complicated, sometimes dark, orchestral textures.  The Violin Concerto audaciously incorporates American-Indian motifs although, as Mellers has written, Bloch’s aborigines dance “with Chassidic feet.”  Certainly this concerto equals Bartok’s Concerto No. 2 of the same year as one of the mid-Century’s most important entries in the genre.  Again, one might get the impression of a genuinely symphonic score that just happens to give a role to a virtuoso soloist.  The Concerto Symphonique followed the Violin Concerto by ten years (1938, 1948); it uses Bloch’s post-war, chromatic harmonies and, as might be expected, is a grim work compared to the Violin Concerto.  Bloch’s large-scale piano concerto revives the prophetic voice of Schelomo and A Voice in the Wilderness only to fill it with renewed anger at human folly, bigotry, and destructiveness.

That invaluable addition to basic musicology, Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective (revised version, 1965), gives a glimpse into the types of spurious criticism that Bloch had to face from the beginning of his career.  Of Schelomo and the Three Jewish Poems a New York Evening Post critic wrote (14 May 1917): “Mr. Bloch’s ideal of Jewish music of the future is apparently the grotesque, hideous, cackling dispute of the Seven Jews in Richard Strauss’s Salomé…  Mr. Bloch got plenty of applause from a large audience, largely of the Oriental persuasion.”  Of Three Jewish Poems a Brooklyn Eagle critic wrote (26 January 1918): “The funeral march… can be likened to the lugubrious sounds which mournfully assail the ears at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.”  Finally, one E. Robinson writing in The American Mercury had this to say (December 1931): “Bloch may justify [his style] by relating his scores to his conception of primitive Indian religion, of ancient Hebrew rebellion, or of modern scientific skepticism… To me, there is something monstrous about his gargantuan enterprise.”

Other critics of the mid-century compared Bloch to Arnold Schoenberg, whose music struck them as the non plus ultra of the who-cares-what-the-audience-wants avant-garde, by way of damning the former.  The comparison offers itself as entirely probable, but not in the way the critics intended.  Schoenberg, like Bloch, was essentially a Jewish Romantic, as one of his perfectly tonal works, the Kol Nidre (1938), makes clear.  Where Schoenberg, an introvert, strove to disguise his Romanticism, however, Bloch, an extrovert, tended to wear his fervency on his sleeve; then again Schoenberg tended to systematize and Bloch to rhapsodize.

Considered side by side, Bloch’s string quartets make a fascinating parallel study with Schoenberg’s.  Both wrote five entries in the string-quartet genre, Schoenberg’s earliest (in D-Major, 1898) being unnumbered and somewhat uncharacteristic.  Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1, contemporary with Schelomo, is his thorniest; Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 (1905) is his most conventional.  Both scores last between forty-five and fifty minutes in performance; the proliferation of themes in all movements is fecund, and the counterpoint is dense throughout.  Bloch’s String Quartet No. 2 (1942) slims down its proportions, uses baroque forms like passacaglia and fugue, and offers a first-time listener a more tractable experience than does its precursor; Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 (1908), dispenses with tonality and incorporates a symbolist poem by Stefan George, sung by a soprano, yet it too is more tractable, being for one thing only half as long, than its precursor.

Bloch Photo Portrait 02 Silhouette at Agate Beach

In String Quartet No. 3 (1952), Bloch wrote four clear-cut movements unified through recurring melodic material; the final movement culminates in a fugue, a device of which Bloch was fond, on a theme encompassing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, but treated tonally, not as a serial “row.”  In String Quartet No. 3 (1927), Schoenberg applies his serial approach to composition as rigorously as he ever would, and yet, as his commentators remark, he treats his “rows” as themes.  In String Quartet No. 4 (1953), Bloch’s lyrical genius is working at a high level; the prevailing temperament of the No. 4 is serene, and once again the composer uses themes embracing all the notes of the chromatic scale.  In String Quartet No. 4 (1936), Schoenberg has relaxed considerably from the onus of strict serialism, treating his “rows” even more like themes than in the previous score.  Bloch’s String Quartet No. 5 (1954) is even more listener-friendly than No. 4, a product of late-in-life serenity.

Bloch repays acquaintance.  One can say this even of his thorniest scores (String Quartet No. 1, Piano Quintet No. 1).  Bloch always sought direct contact with his audiences, often challenging them, but just as often giving them music that is readily accessible.  Through his music he invited his listeners to ponder his observation that the Twentieth Century was an era out of sorts, morally afflicted, politically diseased, and in desperate need to hear the prophetic voices that he tried, in his scores, to echo and channel.

Symphony in C-Sharp Minor

Macbeth: Two Interludes

Schelomo (Leonard Rose, Soloist)

Suite for Viola and Orchestra

Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh)

Concerto Grosso No. 1

Voice in the Wilderness

Violin Concerto

America, Part I

America, Part II

America, Part III

Israel Symphony, Part I

Israel Symphony, Part II

Israel Symphony, Part III

Concerto Symphonique (First Movement)

Concerto Symphonique (Second Movement)

Concerto Symphonique (Third Movement)

Symphony in E-Flat (First Movement)

Symphony in E-Flat (Second Movement)

Symphony in E-Flat (Third Movement)

Symphony in E-Flat (Fourth Movement)

Three Jewish Poems I (Dance)

Three Jewish Poems II (Rite)

Three Jewish Poems III (Cortege Funebre)

Baal Shem

Suite Hebraïque

String Quartet No. 2 (Third Movement)

5 thoughts on “Ernest Bloch and the Prophetic Impulse: Music as Spiritual Protest

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  2. Pingback: Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony – The Orthosphere


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