Ernest Bloch: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Ernest Bloch

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Ernest Bloch: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of Ernest Bloch

Ernest Bloch: Overview

Ernest Bloch: Ernest Bloch (b. Geneva, 24 July 1880; d. Oregon, 15 July 1959).

Ernest Bloch came from a Jewish family that had been settled in Switzerland for many generations. He was born in Geneva on the 24th July 1880 and among his first musical impressions were the traditional Hebrew chants and melodies sung by his father. An early aptitude for music led to studies in Geneva and other capitals between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two. His principal teachers were the celebrated Ysaye for violin and the renowned pedagogue Iwan Knorr, of the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatorium, for composition. Ethnic influences asserted themselves very early with an Oriental Symphony begun when he was fourteen.

Ernest Bloch's consciousness of his Jewish background, which had somewhat receded during his foreign studies, was rekindled in the early 1900s. Between 1911 and 1918 he worked on the seven large-scale works constituting his 'Jewish Cycle'. In 1916 Ernest Bloch agreed to conduct for an American tour of the dancer Maud Allan but this collapsed after a few weeks. Fortunately he quickly became in demand as a composition teacher and he took American citizenship in 1924. In 1930 an endowment permitted Ernest Bloch to return to Europe, and to full-time composing, for eight years. He went back to America in 1938, when he was fifty-eight. The last twenty years of his life were spent largely in composition at Agate Beach, a very quiet place on the coast of Oregon. He died, a week before his seventy-ninth birthday, on the 15th July 1959.

Ernest Bloch is usually described as a Jewish nationalist composer. This is an incorrect generalisation. He was, in fact, a constantly developing artist, enriching his work by the steady assimilation of influences, musical and otherwise, from various sources. Only about a quarter of Ernest Bloch's seventy published works are Jewish either in musical style or programmatic content. During the last twenty years of his life he wrote only three quite minor essays in this idiom. He was too large a figure to be contained within the limits of national- or any other 'ism'. His early works were strongly influenced - the Symphony in C sharp minor (1901-2) by Strauss, the orchestral Hiver-Printemps (1904-5) by Debussy. But already in the opera Macbeth, composed during his twenties, a strong individual voice is apparent. This work has not been staged in Britain, but Andrew Porter, who saw an American production, has described it as 'bold, resolute and masterly ... at each performance it became more arresting and impressive'.

In the works of the 'Jewish Cycle' (1911-18), such as the dramatic and psychologically penetrating Schelomo {Solomon), for 'cello and orchestra, the moving Psalm settings for voice and orchestra and the vast Mahlerian-type first String Quartet, Ernest Bloch developed a wholly original style, evoking an Old Testament atmosphere and making extensive use of the characteristics of traditional Hebrew melody, although quoting actual tunes quite sparingly. The extent to which Ernest Bloch has drawn on these traditional sources has been intensively investigated by Alexander Knapp. Having achieved notable success with the 'Jewish Cycle', what more natural than that Ernest Bloch should continue in the same vein? He in fact advanced in a quite new direction in his next three works: the Suite for viola and orchestra or piano (1919), the first Violin Sonata (1920) and the first Piano Quintet (1921). Although these all incorporate the characteristic turns of melody, harmony and rhythm that were first developed in the 'Jewish Cycle' and became permanent features of Ernest Bloch's vocabulary, they not only exclude traditional Jewish, middle-Eastern, thematic material but evoke a quite different, more remote, tropical atmosphere. These highly poetic works originated from Ernest Bloch's reading of books about Polynesia, Indonesia and Tibet in about 1903.

The burden of full-time teaching during the years 1920-9, necessary to support a growing family, took its toll. The two really large-scale works of this period, the orchestral rhapsody America (1926) and the symphonic fresco Helvetia (1929), are no more than skilful orchestral documentaries, making extensive use of indigenous folk tunes. Ernest Bloch returned to his Jewish style for the A vodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service), an extensive choral and orchestral setting of the synagogue Sabbath Morning Service (1930-3). But in seemingly aiming at as wide as possible an appeal, both religious and musical and not only to the Jewish people. Ernest Bloch adopted a simpler, more traditional, musical vocabulary with unconvincing results. The Service was followed by the Piano Sonata of 1935 in which, conversely, he extended his stylistic frontiers. The notably acerbic harmonic vocabulary, including fierce bitonal clashes of B major and C major in the menacing march-like finale, foreshadowed the coming war. Towards the end of his European stay Ernest Bloch wrote a full-scale Violin Concerto (1937-8) that is one of his creative peaks. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji described it as 'a great work ... crammed with thought and significance, and surrounded with an atmosphere of austere splendour'.

Among the early fruits of Ernest Bloch's second American period was the String Quartet No.2 of 1945. This and other subsequent compositions embody a new technical feature: themes employing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (in a tonal context). It also incorporates the cyclic element, with 'motto' themes, employed in much of his music from the 'Jewish Cycle' onward. Ernest Newman described the Quartet No. 2 as 'worthy to stand beside the last quartets of Beethoven' and a work of 'subtle contemplative beauty and torrential power'.

In the 1952 Sinfonia Breve, written at the ripe age of seventy-two, Ernest Bloch made the most remarkable of all his stylistic advances. A ferocious Varese-like energy and a much higher level of dissonance than before mark this steely, uncompromising, score. Yet as always it remains unmistakably Ernest Bloch. The style is largely maintained in the notably fine String Quartets Nos 3, 4 and 5 and other products of the composer's old age, but like the majority of his works they remain virtually unknown. Ernest Bloch's output was decidedly variable in quality, more so than that of many lesser masters. The majority of his works are, however, highly original, wide ranging and deeply rewarding to experience.

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