Ernest Bloch: A Retrospective on the Centenary of His Birth

October 1, 1980

With the death of Ernest Bloch on July 15, 1959, the world of music lost one of its profound and influential voices. But the spirit of Bloch lives enduringly in the rich legacy he left as a creative artist and as a teacher.

On March 10, 1962, Ivan Bloch, the composer's son, presented to the music library of the University of California at Berkeley a bequest of 21 autograph scores along with sketches or drafts of 16 works, thereby establishing the core of what is the major repository of Blochiana in this country. The composer's association with Berkeley was inaugurated in 1940, when he accepted an appointment as professor of music at the institution. Until his retirement in 1952 he taught and lectured there one semester per year.

It was Bloch's fate to live to see many of his works establish themselves in the concert repertory, among them Schelomo, the first Piano Quintet, the first Concerto Grosso, the Sacred Service and several of the string quartets. In looking at the Swiss-born artist's career in retrospect in this year, the centenary of his birth, it becomes apparent that an independent spirit is the controlling factor in a creative force whose boundless energy was often contagious and at times overwhelming.

The early student works, composed when the budding musician was a teenager, reveal the influences of the prevailing musical currents, as well as those of such mentors as Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. The Symphonie funèbre (1895), a one-movement work in modified sonata form of which only a piano reduction is extant, reveals Bloch's life-long predisposition toward modally-tinged harmonies and modal scalar constructions. A year later there emerged the first large-scale work, the Symphonie orientale; planned originally as a gigantic symphonic structure in two parts, only the first part containing three movements is extant. With the customary modal hue, repeated-note patterns, and descriptive titles for each of the movements, certain of the traits that characterize Bloch's oeuvre as a whole appear already in this programmatic outpouring which is, to be sure, overly long and repetitious.

The Orientale, begun in Geneva in July 1898 and completed in Brussels in October of the same year, is a tone poem in a single movement with such identifying features as a constant flux in meter and tonality, assorted touches of exotica and the ever-present modal cast.

The element of musical orientalism, sufficiently pervasive to affect the titles of two successive works, suggests that Bloch was susceptible to such influences as the music of the Russian Five and the Hebrew melodies he heard sung or hummed by his father, Maurice.

During the period 1897-99, when Bloch's teachers in Brussels were Eugène Ysaÿe and Franck's pupil François Rasse, he produced two works for violin (the orchestrations, however, were not completed). Once again the youthful Swiss shows his malleability by writing music which displays elegance, taste and refinement, Franco-Belgian attributes reflecting the predilections of his teachers. Indeed, the treatment of the solo violin in an obbligato manner, the cyclic handling of thematic material, and the relative absence of bombast and grandiloquence suggest a decided tilt toward the Franckian tradition. These works, the Poème concertante (1898) and the Concerto (1899), based on the same motifs and both single-movement compositions, indicate a movement away from the programmatic effusions favored in Geneva.

Following the three years in Brussels, Bloch journeyed to Frankfurt, and began a course of study under the celebrated teacher Ivan Knorr, concerning whom the apprentice musician commented: "He was a profoundly great pedagogue. He taught me the greatest thing of all—he taught me to teach myself."1 The principal work of this period, the symphonic poem Vivre-Aimer, composed between November 6 and December 3, 1900, is a return to the extra-musical essay; the composer had originally planned a thematic guide to this Lisztian creation. Dedicated to Jaques-Dalcroze, Vivre-Aimer had specifically descriptive thematic content; on the page following the title page of the unpublished manuscript, various headings, though crossed out, are still identifiable. These include "La révolte contre la vie, L'amour," and "La destinée inexorable."

Knorr's thorough schooling becomes observable as Bloch passes from an amateur to a disciplined craftsman. Unlike the situation in the Symphonie orientale, the themes here are not reiterated ad infinitum, the orchestration is deft and the composition is not marred by excessive length. While Vivre-Aimer falls into the mainstream of the German post-romantic idiom with its large opulent orchestra and its thematic metamorphoses, French characteristics, notably the coloristic use of solo instruments and cyclical form, are also present. As his teacher had wished it, Bloch was now his own master.

The French-German duality continues with such important works as the Symphony in C-sharp Minor (1901-03), a Straussian epic composed in Munich, the city in which Richard Strauss served as conductor of the court opera from 1886 till 1889, and Hiver-Printemps (1904-05), two tone poems played in succession, the inspiration for which derives from Bloch's Parisian sojourn in 1903-04, during which time he had personal contact with Claude Debussy.

The Symphony, completed under the guidance of the Wagner disciple Ludwig Thuille (1861-1907), is an enormous programmatic utterance with an autobiographical bent. The composer acknowledged that he was not seeking originality, and that the work "has probably the qualities and defects of youth."2 The sketches of the Symphony contain references which furnish a point of orientation for the listener. The four movements are titled in the following manner:

Part I: Doubts, Struggles, Hopes (The Tragedy of Life)
Part II: Happiness, Faith
Part III: Struggles—The Irony and Sarcasms of Life
Part IV: Will, Happiness

The captions are deleted in the published score (F.E. Leuckart, 1902).

While definite tonal centers are identifiable, chromatic inflections are abundant. Despite the large orchestra, French clarity and coloristic solos and the ever-present cyclic form suggest a further amalgamation of national styles.

Shortly after Bloch conducted the Symphony at Geneva in 1915, Romain Rolland declared in a letter to the burgeoning master, "Your Symphony is one of the most important works of the modern school. I do not know any work in which a richer, more vigorous, more passionate temperament makes itself felt."3

Hiver-Printemps, musical mezzotints whose purpose is to cull in the auditor's imagination a series of undefined images associative of winter and spring, represents an overtly impressionistic expression; nevertheless, notwithstanding occasional tonal vagaries, specific key areas are established and melodies are relatively clearly defined. The impressionistic delight in color per se is notable in woodwind and harp solos. While seventh and ninth chords are utilized effectively, parallelism is eschewed for the most part. The close of the work is marked by a reflective evanescent coda.

The music drama Macbeth, produced at the Opéra Comique in November 1910, contains an admixture of influences including those of the Russian Five, particularly the Mussorgsky of Boris Godounov, of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and, of the Wagnerian leitmotivic metamorphoses. As a consequence of various personality clashes, intrigues and hostility toward the composer, Macbeth did not establish itself in the Parisian repertory and in fact was not heard again for nearly three decades.

While the creative products discussed up to this point reveal Bloch as a master of existing forms and styles, they are in reality harbingers of the powerful and original voice which was to emerge when the Genevan discovered his own musical personality in what he referred to as the "Jewish" Cycle. The "Jewish" Bloch set for himself the task of expressing in music the elusive and intangible attributes of the collective Jewish soul as interpreted by the artist. There is no particular concern for nationalistic expression in the sense of intentionally employing themes associated with Jewish ritual or folk melos. Since a Jewish state did not exist at the time of these historic utterances, the imputation of nationalism has been misapplied to Bloch's intentions by reputable reference sources such as the Harvard Dictionary of Music, the second edition of which states (p. 447), "Since 1915 there has been a movement to create a Jewish national music, comparable to the national music of other countries. The leader of this movement was Ernest Bloch."4

Bloch himself enunciated his views in the following manner: "I believe that those pages of my own in which I am at my best are those in which I am most unmistakably racial, but the racial quality is not only in folk-themes; it is in myself."5 The racial consciousness, which becomes a dominant factor in the musician's creative thinking, did not allow for the inherent difficulty in viewing the Jewish people of the twentieth century as a race. Judaism is, after all, a religion practiced by individuals of diverse national, cultural and—importantly—racial backgrounds. That Bloch made no allowance for these truisms indicates only that he was consumed with his rediscovery of his own roots. It is essential, however, to reinforce the composer's avowal that what he was creating was his personal conception and his personal interpretation of Jewish music.

The works of the "Jewish Cycle," particularly the settings of Psalms 22, 114 and 137, the cello rhapsody Schelomo, the Trois Poèmes Juifs, and the symphony with voices titled Israel, established Bloch not only as a major composer, but as a "Jewish" composer, and it is this "Jewish" label that has, at times, too narrowly pigeon-holed him and consequently hindered a full appraisal of his total oeuvre of which "Jewish" works represent only a small facet of an all-encompassing art.

While a gemora nigun is quoted in Schelomo, more significant are the kaleidoscopic orchestral coloration and the profound voice of the solo violoncello, the musical embodiment of the monarch to whom all was vanity. Israel, too, contains Hebraic associations, including a quotation from the Song of Songs, but the work rests solidly on its fervent emotive power, its brilliant orchestration and its idiomatic choral writing. In retrospect the "Jewish Cycle" was a necessary step along Bloch's evolutionary path. The fame which accrued to these works and the resultant recognition bestowed upon their creator enabled the musician to forge new ground in several areas of endeavor.

Upon his arrival in New York in 1916, in which year he completed the powerful first String Quartet, Bloch established himself as a musical personality of consequence. He conducted his "Jewish" compositions with much critical acclaim in such centers as New York and Boston, he brought his wife and three children to the New World, and he accepted an appointment as head of the theory department at the newly-founded music school of David Mannes. The latter was able to shed some illumination on his "find" in his autobiography Music Is My Faith, in which he remarked that the new arrival was "a man of brilliant and dynamic qualities"6 but "born to create and not observe a teacher's schedule and a routine scholastic timetable."7

Notwithstanding this apparent dichotomy, Bloch was sought by the trustees of the newly-formed Cleveland Institute of Music to direct what was to become one of this country's principal conservatories. From 1920 to 1925 he wore his various hats as administrator, teacher, fund raiser, and yes, composer. Prior to his acceptance of this post the Suite for Viola and Piano—which was awarded the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Award (1919), and which was praised by Oscar Sonneck (The Musical Quarterly, January 1921) as "the greatest work for viola in musical literature"—was added to his rapidly growing catalog. Although "Jewish" elements are absent, descriptive titles were given each of the four movements, but as with the Symphony in C-sharp Minor, they were omitted from the published score.

In Cleveland Bloch created some 21 works, among them two sonatas for violin and piano (the second sonata, the Poème mystique, quotes from the Gregorian Kyrie fons bonitatis), the first Piano Quintet, with its bold use of quarter tones (according to Olin Downes "the greatest work in its form since the piano quintets of Brahms and Cesar Franck (The New York Times, December 10, 1950), the first Concerto Grosso for strings with piano obbligato, such "Jewish" works as the suite Baal Shem for violin and piano (Three Pictures of Chassidic Life), Three Sketches from Jewish Life and Meditation Hébraïque, both for cello and piano, the pedagogical Enfantines for piano, and several impressionistically-colored piano compositions, such as the Poems of the Sea, a three-movement cycle inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman.

A number of revelatory articles were also penned during the Ohio years,8 and composers who came to study with the transplanted Swiss included Bernard Rogers, Quincy Porter, Douglas Moore and Roger Sessions, the latter serving as his mentor's assistant.

Bloch's forthrightness in dealing with the Board of Trustees on matters of policy and methodology (he advocated doing away with textbooks and grades, and used the music of such masters as Lasso, Josquin, Bach and Beethoven to illustrate his ideas) resulted in a severe conflict of interests and caused him to resign. Shortly thereafter he moved to a new climate, musical and otherwise, when he accepted an invitation to head the new San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It was here that Bloch produced what are perhaps his most nationalistic works: America, An Epic Rhapsody and Helvetia, in honor of his adopted country9 and his native land, respectively.

The seeds for America germinated in the composer's mind for about a decade, originating when he crossed the ocean for the first time in 1916. By 1926, when he had become an established composer and a devoutly patriotic American, he conceived the idea of writing an orchestral rhapsody based on indigenous thematic material and culminating in a choral theme in which the audience would rise and join the chorus. It is dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. Whitman's line "O America, because you build for mankind, I build for you" is included on the title page.

Bloch entered the work in a competition sponsored by Musical America; it was awarded the $3000 first prize over 91 other entries.10 Unified by the opening motto, the apotheosis of which is the concluding hymn, Bloch unashamedly quotes from American Indian tunes, Negro spirituals, sea chanteys, and a host of patriotic melodies, and includes automobile horns in the third movement. The score is replete with captions giving a blow-by-blow account of the events the music seeks to portray. While today's sophisticates may find America a mere pastiche, this attitude reflects a general malaise in present-day society in which undue pride in one's country is somehow anathema, un-chic, a quality regarded as undesirable. Sincerity and conviction, nevertheless, permeate every page of this "epic."

Contrapuntal skills acquired in the composer's youth are now evidenced in the masterful combination of folk songs, and the orchestral brilliance manifested in the "Jewish Cycle" comes to the fore in a totally new environment. The perfect fourth "calls," a shofar-like reference in the context of the "Cycle," are here a clarion call to fellow Americans. The context defines and refines the meaning. In short, characteristics which had been assigned narrowly to Jewish sources become Blochian traits when observed in compositions far removed stylistically from those with specific Hebraic content.

Helvetia, a single movement fresco based on Swiss folk material, is unpretentious and readily accessible. As with America, there is no attempt at profundity; the music is addressed clearly to the mass audience. In this regard Bloch offered no apology whatever.

The ten-year span 1930-40, spent mostly in Europe, saw the creation of a series of significant works such as the monumental Avodath Hakodesh—a Sacred Service for baritone, chorus and orchestra—Voice in the Wilderness for cello and orchestra, the Piano Sonata, Evocations for orchestra, and the Violin Concerto.

Although designed for use in the Reform Synagogues of America, the Sacred Service was intended to be more than a ritual; rather it was Bloch's hope that it would be an assertion of faith for all mankind, universal in its message, the very essence of cosmic truth acceptable to all peoples.

Having studied Hebrew assiduously in order to arrive at the substance of the scriptural texts, Bloch immersed himself in this task and produced a work which has taken its place beside the major choral achievements of our time. The prevailing modality sets the mood for the five-part opus which established its creator as a leading figure in the movement toward creating viable sacred expressions for synagogal use. The prescription of musical instruments or organ at the least, however, precludes performance of the Service in orthodox synagogues as well as in many Conservative houses of worship, at least in a Sabbath service. As with the Masses of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, the concert hall has provided a hospitable locale for a musical statement which transcends the proscriptions of a particular creed.

The Piano Sonata (1935), dedicated to Guido Agosti and first performed in Geneva by the Italian virtuoso on April 24, 1936, differs markedly from the essentially impressionistic piano music of the 1920s. The composer regarded the first movement, for example, as being "of an obscure and metallic character without a trace of sentimentalism."11 The middle movement "Pastorale" is based on a folk-like melody which undergoes assorted metamorphoses, with arpeggiated figures and conventional trills aiding in establishing the idyllic mood. The finale, an inexorable polytonal march with an elongated coda which recalls the themes of the previous movements, was described by Bloch as being "like the great interrogation of life and the future which loses itself in the unknown."12 Even in an apparently abstract work, extra-musical impulses form the bases of the artist's inspiration.

The six-movement Voice in the Wilderness evokes certain reminiscenses of Schelomo; however, a perusal of the piece suggests a very different conception. Here, according to the composer, "the cello is neither a 'Variation' of what precedes it, nor is it, strictly speaking, a paraphrase. It is as though it were meditating upon, or expressing its reaction to that which has gone before it, its utterances being based on the thematic and emotional material of that which preceded it."13 There is a notable lack of specificity as regards programmatic content, the mood throughout is somber and meditative, and the title is possibly a subconscious allusion to the work's author. The "Bloch rhythm," a term I have assigned to the Scotch snap and its reverse owing to its predominance in so many Bloch compositions, is clearly discernible here, along with other typical trademarks such as the ever-changing meter and tempo, the parallelism, and the "orientalizing" augmented second.

Evocations, devoid of trumpet calls, repeated-note patterns or reiterated rhythmic figures, veers toward the exotic, particularly in the middle movement, Houang Ti (God of War). The first movement Contemplation and the final Renouveau reinforce the atmospheric mood which the scoring, including harp, piano, celesta and muted strings, helps to create. Unlike the vast canvasses of Israel and the Psalms, there exists here a series of musical moods at once arresting and evocative. Curiously, the celesta is employed to enhance the special aura of the exotic whether it be found in ancient Israel or in the Orient.

The Violin Concerto, first performed in Cleveland on December 15, 1938, by Joseph Szigeti, with Dmitri Mitropoulos conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, is based on an American Indian theme which, as in the instance of America, serves as a unifying motto.14 The solo instrument is treated in a highly expressive manner, and is often a well-integrated member of the orchestra; at other times it is unmistakably the focal point on which the Concerto revolves, but even then virtuosity for its own sake is not permitted to penetrate the work. Occasional "oriental" hues appear, but in the main absolutism prevails. Unlike the Piano Sonata there are no philosophical overtones.

When the creations of Bloch's final period, the eighteen years in which he lived in Agate Beach, Oregon, are viewed from the perspective of our own day, the single facet that seems to separate them from the creative efforts that preceded them is the increasingly objective stance and formal design which supplant the frequently overt subjectivity and emotionalism of earlier days.

The Suite symphonique, the first work composed in Oregon, demonstrates the new outlook. The harp and celesta are omitted from the orchestra and the musical content is purely abstract, with fugatos, inverted motifs, and, in the second movement, a passacaglia with 22 variations. Yet even in this traditionally-conceived example of architecture in sound, one notes with a smile the sly intrusion of the Dies irae in the final movement. The remaining works contain examples of neo-classicism, neo-romanticism, expressionism, atonalism and Gebrauchsmusik.

Representative examples of the Agate Beach period are cited below.

The Concerto symphonique is the first work to employ piano and orchestra since the first Concerto grosso and the Four Episodes for chamber orchestra. In both of the latter-named compositions, which date from the 1920s, the piano is treated in a chamber capacity. The Concerto symphonique is a large-scale entity in which traditional forms are utilized with modifications in all three movements. The melodies are broad and sweeping, the writing is brilliantly virtuosic, and the thematic transformations are of infinite variety.

On a smaller scale is the one-movement Scherzo fantasque for piano and orchestra. Here the piano is woven into the musical texture as another orchestral instrument; form and objectivity are the prevalent features in a work possessing a remarkable exuberance for a 68-year old.

The Suite Hébraïque is the only creation written subsequent to the "Jewish Cycle" and the several "Jewish" works which followed shortly thereafter in which the intent is expressly Jewish. However, the Suite is substantially different in that its overall demeanor is light and jaunty, a rare feature among this master's total production.

The Sinfonia Breve, the Concerto Grosso No. 2, and In Memoriam, all finished in 1952, will serve to detail the path Bloch chose to follow in his final years. The second Concerto Grosso, an intense and abstract work, featuring a string quartet (concertino) and a string orchestra (ripieno), is formally stricter than its predecessor. Devoid of programmatic or depictive suggestion, and with a clear distinction made between the solo and tutti, the work approximates its eighteenth-century model more closely than the initial foray in this genre. The Sinfonia Breve, a taut composition utilizing 12-tone themes (but not the 12-tone method), Pointillism and frequent rhythmic domination, is perhaps the most atypical orchestral essay to come from Bloch's pen. "In Memoriam," a cameo of extreme brevity employing the customary cyclic form, is devoid of any tumultuous or grandiloquent speech. It conveys an aura of remoteness fitting its somewhat cryptic title.

With such other works as the highly abstract suites for violin (2), viola (1) and violoncello unaccompanied (1), the Symphony for trombone and orchestra, the String Quartets Nos. 3, 4 and 5, and the four wedding marches and six préludes for organ, Bloch continued to display his creative powers in new and unexpected ways.

For this giant of twentieth-century music, the muse was a spiritual expression of the composer directed toward the listener, a pronouncement of the mind undivorced from the heart. The final outpouring amid the Oregon sand and surf represents an amalgam of the composer's most inspired expressions. They reveal a unique and original brand of eclecticism, a sincerity and a communicative power that transcends racial or national boundaries and ascends into the realm of the universal. In the judgment of this student Bloch will one day emerge with the recognition due one of the significant creative artists of our epoch.

1Bernard Rogers, "Swiss Composer's Aim: To Sing Himself," Musical America (August 12, 1916), p. 3.

2Program notes, New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra (March 8, 1918), pp. 1-2.

3Rogers, p. 4.

4The first edition of the Harvard Dictionary of Music incorrectly lists the Symphonie orientale as a representative work in the so-called Hebrew idiom.

5Olin Downes, "Ernest Bloch, the Swiss Composer, on the Influence of Race in Composition," The Musical Observer XV (1917), 11.

6W.W. Norton, 1938, p. 243.


8Among them "Ernest Bloch Surveys the Problem of Music Education," Musical America (May 21, 1921), pp. 3, 40; "The Pitfalls in Memorizing," The Musician (April, 1923), pp. 11-12; "Securing the Best Results from Piano Study," The Etude (September, 1923), p. 591. Other important writings by Bloch include Biography and Comment (San Francisco: Margaret Mary Morgan Co., 1925); "Man and Music," Musical Quarterly (October, 1933), pp. 374-381 (this article first appeared in the March, 1917 issue of The Seven Arts); "Thoughts at 70," The Etude (February, 1951), pp. 9-10, 57.

9Ernest Bloch became a citizen of the United States in 1924.

10The judges were Walter Damrosch, Leopold Stokowski, Frederick Stock, Serge Koussevitzky and Alfred Hertz.

11Ernest Bloch, liner notes for the Music Library Recording of the Piano Sonata (MLR 7015).


13Program notes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra (January 21, 1937), pp. 13-14.

14Bloch undertook a study of American Indian music in preparation for America.

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