Ever since his youth, Bloch had been fascinated by the ‘exotic’. For example, as a child he had read legends about the Incas that made an indelible impression upon him, according to his own testimony. When, in his early twenties, he came to know the celebrated music critic Robert Godet, he was spellbound by the older man’s personal descriptions of Java, Sumatra and Borneo. When preparing lectures for the Geneva Conservatoire between 1911 and 1916, he researched collections of traditional music from Africa and the Arctic regions. Bloch never had the opportunity to visit such places, and this caused him much frustration and regret. However, following his arrival in New York in 1916, he was able to travel extensively throughout the New World, and gradually developed a strong affinity for Native American cultures from every part of the continent. All of these—as well as the more familiar Jewish influences—inspired Bloch; and as a result he incorporated into his compositions motifs, melodies, rhythms and textures typical of these widely separated ethnicities.
North (Moderato molto), the first movement of Paysages, was inspired by Robert Flaherty’s film about Eskimo life, Nanook of the North. Bloch was overwhelmed by the vivid images portrayed—to the extent that he was unable to sleep after the showing. In one hour, in the middle of the night, he completed North. This has been described by one commentator as ‘a study in pianissimo’, descriptive of the bleakness and desolation of icy wastes. Against a backdrop of frequently repeating quavers in groups of four and three respectively, marked ‘without expression’ at the beginning (the time-signature of this movement is mainly 7/8), motifs comprising oscillating semitones or augmented seconds are occasionally interrupted by phrases covering much wider intervals.
Switzerland, the country of Bloch’s birth, was a further source of inspiration to the composer; and again, motifs from the Swiss folk repertoire find their way into many of his works, including the middle movement of Paysages: Alpestre (Allegretto). This pastoral essay is altogether warmer and more lyrical. There are four main ideas: the opening melody on viola that swoops low then high, rather as a bird in flight; a tighter motif of narrow compass that suggests the Lydian mode, also introduced by viola; an ornamented phrase on the first violin; and a passage marked misterioso played by all four instruments.
The finale is entitled Tongataboo (Allegro) and evokes the pounding dance and percussion traditions of the island of Tongatapu in the Tongan archipelago. There are striking rhythmical similarities here with the finale of the Piano Quintet No 1. Apart from several secondary motifs, there is one prominent theme that first appears on the first violin soon after the beginning, and is then repeated throughout the movement. This work was dedicated ‘to my dear friend Carl Engel’, the American musicologist (1883–1944).
from notes by Alexander Knapp © 2007