Hyperion Records

January to February 1916; Rhapsodie hébraïque; dedicated to Alexandre and Katja Barjansky; first performed by Hans Kindler at Carnegie Hall in 1917

'Bloch: Schelomo & Voice in the Wilderness; Bruch: Kol Nidrei' (CDA67910)
Bloch: Schelomo & Voice in the Wilderness; Bruch: Kol Nidrei
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Track 1 on CDA67910 [20'06]

Schelomo, subtitled ‘Rhapsodie hébraïque’, was written in the space of six weeks during January and February 1916. Bloch had, over a number of years, noted down thematic ideas for a vocal setting of selected verses from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the authorship of which is attributed to King Solomon (Hebrew: Schelomo) who reigned some 3000 years ago. Bloch had felt, however, that French, German or English were somehow unsuitable for the purpose, and that his grasp of Hebrew was inadequate. Coming into contact with the celebrated Russian cellist Alexandre Barjansky (1883–1961) and his wife Katja in Geneva towards the end of 1915 (some six years after their first meeting), Bloch was keen to share with them his ‘Jewish Cycle’ in general, and this new work in particular. Barjansky was greatly moved by what he heard. Realizing that the cello was the solution to the language problem, Bloch reformulated his sketches and passed them to Alexandre for scrutiny, while Katja at the same time made a small sculpture of King Solomon. In gratitude, Bloch dedicated Schelomo to the Barjanskys.

According to Bloch: ‘It is possible to imagine that the solo cello is the incarnation of King Solomon, and that the orchestra represents his internal world and his experience of life, though sometimes it is the orchestra that seems to reflect Solomon’s thoughts, while the solo instrument voices his words: “All is vanity.”’ Bloch places much emphasis on the king’s pessimism, despite ‘the royal pomp, the treasure, the wealth, the power, the women, all that a man might desire in this world’, and ‘the barbaric coloration of an Oriental world’ that surround him. The rhapsodic manner and glittering instrumentation may give the work an improvised air, but the underlying structure is a sturdy ‘ternary’ form (ABA), plus an introduction and coda.

The heroic melody that appears before and during the great orchestral climaxes occurring towards the end of the first and third sections of Schelomo is built upon motifs that bear a remarkable resemblance to the those of Tzur Yisroel (‘Rock of Israel’), a traditional chant that Bloch received from Reuben Rinder (1887–1966, Cantor at Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco) in the late 1920s while preparing his Avodath Hakodesh (‘Sacred Service’, 1930–33). Nevertheless, although numerous motifs throughout the six published works of the ‘Jewish Cycle’ are the composer’s subconscious transformations of biblical and cantorial chant, in only one instance did Bloch acknowledge that he had consciously taken a melody from a traditional source—a motif that his father ‘sang often, in Hebrew’, which appears for the first time at the beginning of the middle section of Schelomo. Bloch quoted the Hebrew text in a letter written to his mother four years after the work had been completed; and the melody is, in fact, an adaptation of a South German cantorial chant Uv’chen ten pachdecha, sung in Ashkenazi synagogues during High Holy Days.

‘Almost all my works, even the darkest ones, still end optimistically, or at least with some hope. This is the only one that concludes in complete negation. But the subject demanded it.’ The opening of Ecclesiastes confirms Bloch’s observation: ‘The words of Kohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith Kohelet … And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven … and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.’

Despite the enormously demanding technical skills required of the soloist, this is not a concerto in the usual sense, and virtuosity is always the servant of that expressiveness in which the spiritual and sensual are fused.

from notes by Alexander Knapp © 2012

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