Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), who was born in Switzerland and settled in the United States when he was thirty-six, found his personal style through mystical identification with the Hebraic spirit. His response to his heritage was on the deepest psychic level. ‘It is the Jewish soul that interests me, the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible: the freshness and naiveté of the Patriarchs, the violence of the books of the Prophets, the Jew’s savage love of justice, the despair of Ecclesiastes, the sorrow and immensity of the Book of Job, the sensuality of the Song of Songs. It is all this that I strive to hear in myself and to translate in my music—the sacred emotion of the race that slumbers deep in our soul.’
Bloch’s ‘Jewish Cycle’ includes his most widely played work, Schelomo (Solomon, 1916); the Israel Symphony (1912-1916); Trois Poèmes juifs (1913); Psalms 114 and 137 for soprano and orchestra, and Psalm 22 for baritone and orchestra (1914); Baal Shem, on Jewish legends, for violin and piano (1923, subsequently arranged for orchestra); and Voice in the Wilderness for cello and chamber orchestra (1936). Several of Bloch’s works lie outside the sphere of the specifically national.
In Schelomo (Solomon), a ‘Hebraic Rhapsody’ for cello and orchestra, Bloch evokes a biblical landscape now harsh and austere, now lush and opulent; an antique region wreathed in the splendor that attaches to a land one has never seen. This musical portrait of King Solomon is projected with all the exuberance of a temperament whose natural utterance inclined him to the impassioned and the grandiose.
Bloch’s kind of music is not in fashion at the moment. But fashions change more quickly than we suspect. If he seems to be cut off from the mainstream of contemporary musical thought right now, it is quite likely that, as his distinguished pupil Roger Sessions prophesies, ‘the adjustments of history will restore to him his true place among the artists who have spoken most commandingly the language of conscious emotion.’
Yet the very titles of the works already indicate that ‘Hebrew music’ is not quite the same as ‘Jewish music’. For instead of copying the folk idioms of Eastern European Jewry using a classical vocabulary, Bloch sought for his purely expressive music a spiritual affinity with the traditional Hebrew liturgy and the Bible.
It was in fact seven years after the end of the composer’s ‘Jewish period’ (1912-1917), and in homage to Pablo Casals, that he wrote this Méditation hébraïque for cello and piano, which eloquently conveys Bloch’s spiritual intensity.
But Bloch’s wide-ranging musical output was not solely focused on the invention of a rhapsodic language impregnated with religious faith. Again and again, in Bloch’s work, one detects attempts at making a fresh start, even though these are frequently based on existing models. His opera Macbeth (1904/09) is wholly under the sway of Claude Debussy, whom Bloch had got to know in Paris. In his final creative period, from 1944 until his death in 1959, Bloch experimented with the most diverse forms and techniques. Hence, in his Second and Third String Quartets, he falls back on dodecaphony in the style of Arnold Schoenberg.
The trilogy of suites for solo cello, composed in 1956-57, may be seen as a point of intersection between the heritage of Bach and the three cello suites of Benjamin Britten. Bloch sets structural throwbacks like the rhythmic figurations, which recall Baroque dance forms, against a chromatic language with a forceful mix of harmonic colours; the manifest reminiscence, in these suites, of the cantabile properties of the cello, the emotional impact of its sound, is quite unmistakably to be heard once more in the Britten works (1964-1971). And just as Britten’s ideal interpreter for these pieces was the masterly Russian performer Mstislav Rostropovich, so Bloch’s for his was the Canadian cellist Zara Nelsova.
Then, during a European tour, Zara Nelsova was surprised to receive a letter informing her that he was working on an unaccompanied suite: He ended up sending me three suites, one at a time, the first two being dedicated to me. The third he meant to dedicate to me, but he sent it to me in Europe to edit and I didn’t get it in time. He didn’t hear from me so he assumed that I didn’t like it. The work remains undedicated. All three suites are very beautiful. Above all, the suites are, in their form and expression, a typical example of the characteristic relationship with the past of Bloch’s own creative and expressive powers.
Suite no.2 is also built on the four-movement principle, but with an entirely different emphasis. After the harmonic friction of the Prelude and Allegro, the Andante tranquillo is melancholy and withdrawn in character, whilst the Allegro finale sweeps the listener along with its robust drama and almost excessive culminating moments. Bloch was in the habit of returning to the material of earlier movements, and this cyclical principle is the very essence of Suite no.3.
Now shall I speak of how, in Bloch’s Nigun, over the piano’s rumbling resonance, praise and supplication flowed from your violin as you laid out a rhapsodic line? No, I’ll simply recall how your face glowed with a wild and tender beauty as you played.
Shall I speak of how the fingers of your left hand rocked as they stopped the strings, inflecting a voice that continually shifted between joy and lamentation? No, I’ll simply mention that in the simultaneous sounding of transgression and transcendence, you made solemnity voluptuous and devotion ecstatic.