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Piano Quintet No 1
begun in 1921, completed in March 1923; first performed by Harold Bauer and the Lenox Quartet on 11 November 1923

'Bloch: Piano Quintets' (CDA67638)
Bloch: Piano Quintets
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Movement 1: Agitato
Movement 2: Andante mistico
Movement 3: Allegro energico

Piano Quintet No 1
The Piano Quintet No 1 was completed in March 1923 after two years of arduous effort. It had originally been conceived as a three-movement sonata for cello and piano, incorporating some themes that Bloch had created during his childhood; but it was shelved while he was working on the second movement. Having almost destroyed the mass of accumulated sketches in a moment of depression, he came to the realization that a larger framework could successfully accommodate his expanding ideas; and the medium of string quartet plus piano—with the piano as ensemble instrument rather than solo—was selected. The result was a work of epic dimensions lasting over half an hour, and comprising three movements: Agitato, leading without pause into Andante mistico, and finally Allegro energico. The premiere was given by Harold Bauer and the Lenox Quartet during the inaugural concert of the League of Composers in New York on 11 November 1923.

Introduced at the very outset of the first movement is one of the distinctive features of this work that has provoked a great deal of discussion among commentators and scholars, namely the composer’s use of quarter-tones. Bloch made a special point of emphasizing that his intention—so far from creating a quarter-tone ‘system’—was rather to inflect, upwards or downwards, the existing diatonic and chromatic intervals of standard Western keys and scales, in order to intensify even further the enormous range of emotions with which the quintet is replete.

The opening pages of the work contain the motivic materials upon which the entire quintet is based. Thus, as in most of Bloch’s multi-movement compositions, the overall form is cyclic. Some of the motifs are simple and narrow in range, whereas others, by contrast, are more complex and cover a wider gamut; but all are short and succinct, and all are subjected to extensive development—melodically, harmonically and rhythmically.

The first movement is a vigorous essay in a modified sonata form. There are six main ideas, from which further material is generated: (i) a brooding phrase no wider than a minor third that moves tightly around the tonic C at its first appearance on the piano; (ii) a crisply angular figure comprising intervals of the fourth and seventh also pivoting around C and introduced by the strings; (iii) a sweeping lyrical melody that is first heard on the strings in their highest register; (iv) a subdued motif first presented by the viola; (v) a slowly rising chromatic figure played by viola and cello in octaves; and (vi) a dramatic quaver motif first heard in the piano in triple octaves, then harmonized in consecutive root-position triads, and subsequently in bare fifths. It is with this figure that the movement ends.

The second movement opens with motif (ii) from the first movement. Here, however, the dissonant interval of the major seventh is expanded into an octave. This consonance, together with the establishment of a gentler tempo, has the effect of transforming its formerly violent character into one of tenderness. This kind of dramatic metamorphosis is typical in Bloch’s cyclic method. There are several other prominent motifs: (vii) a repeated rising fourth first heard in the cello; (viii) a descending figure also played for the first time by the cello; (ix) a plaintive gesture comprising an upward arpeggio ending with repeated quarter-tone inflections appearing on the first violin; (x) two adjacent motifs reminiscent of material in Bloch’s Schelomo (a rhapsody for cello and orchestra of 1916); and finally (xi) an idea, in quasi-Lydian mode, similar to those in other works of Bloch that evoke the folk idiom of his native Switzerland.

The finale opens with a powerfully rhythmical metamorphosis of motif (i) from the first movement; and motif (ii) appears later in the movement. New material takes several forms: (xii) a triadic motto theme suggestive of an Alpine horn call, first heard on viola and cello; (xiii) a slower-moving, heavily accented motif designated barbarico in the score; (xiv) a spiky theme in dotted notes in the piano; and (xv) an expansive lyrical motif mainly in the whole-tone scale, apparently derived from a Caribbean chant. Towards the end there is a long passage based on the notes D and A in the bass register which eventually resolve to tonic C; and it is on this major chord that the work peacefully concludes. In the words of the British critic Ernest Newman: ‘There is no more welcome, more impressive, more clinching, more conclusive, more authoritative C major chord in all music.’ This key carried special spiritual connotations for Bloch; and in this context, it serves to resolve the harmonic ambiguities found in the main body of this work.

Apart from differences in tempo, the three movements exhibit remarkable similarities in terms of technique and style. In each can be found melodies constructed from small cells, accumulated in upward or downward sequences, then imitated, inverted and ornamented in a multiplicity of ways. Gritty motifs contrast with soaring solos. Some of the string writing is contrapuntal, where two or more primary themes may be combined; other passages are written in unisons and octaves, or with the support of sustained chords and drones. Special features include rapidly repeated notes, double and triple stopping, harmonics, use of mutes, sul ponticello and sul tastiera, col legno, glissando, and pizzicato strumming. The overall sonority is often that of a string orchestra rather than a quartet. The piano part is similarly demanding, many passages requiring virtuoso skills. Arabesques, tremolos, ostinatos and hammered chords all take their place alongside lyrically expressive cantabile writing. A section of the finale contains a motif featuring acciaccaturas in which Bloch encourages the pianist to sound ‘like an exotic bird’. Tonalities and modalities fluctuate and are sometimes left undefined through the use of open fifths and octaves and whole-tone harmony. Simple diatonic triads are often superimposed in unusual combinations. Rhythms are sometimes freely rhapsodic, sometimes trenchant; and syncopations and other cross-rhythms abound. However, the ‘Scotch snap’, so frequent in many Bloch works, is largely absent here. Moods are extreme, and they change dramatically—sometimes with little or no warning. Serenity and meditation contrast with melancholy and savagery; primitive passions yield to poignancy, nobility and tenderness. Bloch’s independence of spirit is vividly expressed in the statement he made about his quintet: ‘I write without any regard to please either the so-called “ultra-moderns” or the so-called “old-fashioned”.’ And though he neither applied a ‘programme’ to this quintet nor categorized it among his ‘Jewish’ works, there are distinct resonances with earlier compositions such as the Israel Symphony, Schelomo, and the String Quartet No 1.

from notes by Alexander Knapp © 2007

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