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Bloch, Ernest (1880-1959)

Ernest Bloch

born: 24 July 1880
died: 15 July 1959
country: USA

Ernest Bloch (1880–1959) remains a difficult composer to categorize. He belonged to no school and the individuality of his work owes much to his Jewish heritage on the one hand, and his Western European (originally Swiss) upbringing on the other. Feted in the years before World War II, his popularity began to wane, especially after his death. His grandfather was a leading light in the Jewish community in the Aargau region of Switzerland, and his father—who was well-versed in Hebrew—intended for a time to become a rabbi, though he was working as a clockmaker in Geneva by the time Ernest was born. This strong Jewish background had a profound and lasting influence on Bloch, while his composition studies between 1894 and 1902 opened his ears to more cosmopolitan influences. His teachers included Jaques-Dalcroze (in Geneva), Iwan Knorr (in Frankfurt) and Richard Strauss’s friend Ludwig Thuille (in Berlin). In the summer of 1903 he heard Mahler’s second symphony in Basel and wrote at once to the composer. Mahler sent a reply which surely resonated with Bloch’s own rather isolated position: ‘I live in the world like a stranger, it’s seldom that the voice of someone who thinks as I do reaches my ears. How could I not be moved by such intimate understanding.’

After a year in Paris where Bloch discovered Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (and met its composer), he returned to Geneva. Over the next decade, he struggled to find acceptance, and his opera Macbeth was greeted coolly at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1910. In April 1916 he composed Schelomo for cello and orchestra, the work that was to establish his international reputation. That same summer, he crossed the Atlantic, initially to work as a conductor for the English dancer Maud Allan. The tour collapsed, but Bloch felt at home in the United States and settled there. As well as becoming a successful composition teacher, he established friendships with several conductors who took up his music, including Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia, Frederick Stock in Chicago and Serge Koussevitzky in Boston. Having studied in several European countries, experienced anti-semitism in Geneva, and settled in the USA, Bloch wrote about his Jewish identity in Gdal Salesky’s Famous Musicians of a Wandering Race (New York, 1927, p. 5):

Nationalism is not essential in music, but I think that racial consciousness is. The two things are not the same … I, for instance, am a Jew, and I aspire to write Jewish music, not for the sake of self-advertisement, but because I am sure that this is the only way in which I can produce music of vitality and significance—if I can do such a thing at all! … The racial quality is not only in folk-themes, it is in myself.

Many of Bloch’s works have explicitly Jewish titles, but others do not. Among his more abstract works are the five string quartets, two piano quintets, two suites for unaccompanied violin and the three suites for solo cello. Of these, the string quartets Nos 3–5, the second piano quintet, and all the unaccompanied string suites were written in the last few years of Bloch’s life, following his retirement from the University of California at Berkeley. All were composed at his house in Agate Beach, Oregon. As Bloch himself wrote, the Jewishness of his music was not only to be found in melodies drawn from traditional sources, but also in the deep-rooted sense of racial consciousness which transcends overt musical references—something that is apparent in all these works.

from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2017


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