About this Recording
8.223289 - BLOCH: Piano Sonata / Visions and Prophecies / Ex-voto / Dans sacree
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Ernest Bloch (1880–1959)
Ex-voto (1914) • Sonata (1935) • Danse Sacrée (1923) • Visions and Prophecies (1936)

 

Ernst Bloch was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on 24th July 1880. His first teachers were Louis Rey for violin and Emile Jaques-Dalcroze for composition. At the age of 16 he left Geneva to spend the next eight years studying in Brussels (with Eugène Ysaÿe and F. Schorg for violin, and François Rasse for composition) and in Frankfurt (with lwan Knorr). He also lived in Munich and Paris for intervals during this period.

Already having composed songs, two symphonic poems and his first major work, the Symphony in C-sharp minor, Bloch returned to Geneva in 1904. His activities at this time, in addition to composing, included lecturing on aesthetics at the Geneva Conservatoire, and conducting symphonic concerts in Neuchâtel and Lausanne. In 1910 his opera Macbeth was performed at the Opera-Comique in Paris.

A dedicated friend, the author Romain Rolland, was instrumental in bringing Bloch to the United States in 1916. He immediately gained recognition from the première, in New York, of his First String Quartet, and from a performance by the Boston Symphony of Three Jewish Poems, which the composer himself conducted at the invitation of Dr. Karl Muck. In May 1917 the New York Society of the Friends of Music presented a concert of Bloch’s orchestral works. The impact of this event convinced him to bring his family to New York, where they settled in the fall of that year.

Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Piano won the Coolidge Prize in 1919. The following year he was appointed director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he remained until 1925. In that year he became director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In 1926 he received the Carolyn Beebe Prize for Four Episodes for Chamber Orchestra, and in 1925 his epic Rhapsody America won the Musical America competition over a field of ninety-two entries. He was made beneficiary of the Rose and Jacob Stern Fund of the University of California in 1930, which enabled him for some years to devote his full energies to composition.

Returning to Europe, he lived for a few years in a village in the Swiss-Italian mountains of Ticino. It was here that he composed the Sacred Service. After brief intervals in Paris, New York, and London, he settled in the hamlet of Châtel in Haute-Savoie, France.

The world’s deepening political crisis and the approach of war affected Bloch so deeply that he could not compose for a time. He returned to the United States in 1939 to conduct his works in various concerts, and once again decided to settle in the United States. For the rest of his life he made his home in the small coastal town of Agate Beach, Oregon. For many summers he drove from there to the University of California at Berkeley, where he gave master classes and lectures. In 1952 he was made Professor Emeritus of Music at the University.

Bloch received many honorary awards during his lifetime: honorary membership at the Academia Santa Cecilia in Rome in 1928, the first Gold Medal in Music of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1942, the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award in 1943 for String Quartet No. 2, and the same award in 1952 for Concerto Grosso No. 2 and String Quartet No. 3. He was also the recipient of many honorary degrees from various universities.

In 1957 Bloch was diagnosed with a serious illness that required immediate surgery. His instinct was to return home and complete compositions he had begun, but in 1958 he had to undergo the operation. The Fine Arts Commission of the city of Portland gave him a special award during his convalescence. He died on 15th July 1959. The Brandeis Creative Arts Award was awarded to him posthumously.

The impact of his prodigious intellect, his vitality, his enthusiasm, and his respectful, conscientious approach to the works of the great masters left an indelible impression on all his students, among whom are several noted composers spanning several decades.

Throughout his life Bloch always insisted that he was not a pianist. He had no pretentions to technique, yet with the piano he brought out the life, the essence and the emotion of whatever music he played. His first instrument had been the violin and at the age of eleven he had already won praise for his performances in Geneva. It was his talent as a player that led him to become a pupil of Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels at the age of sixteen, through the advice of a famous violinist who had heard him play and seen the score of his First String Quartet, and was able to persuade Bloch’s father to sanction the move. In Brussels he worked hard, bombarding his sister with letters describing his busy life and mentioning his work at the piano. In 1898 he grandly announced that it was not logical to compose at the piano, since the result would merely be improvisation written down. The instrument, nevertheless, was of the greatest value, he claimed, in opening up a wider world of music. With this in mind he was, he said, spending two and a half hours a day at the keyboard.

Bloch’s style of playing was to a great extent a personal one, providing orchestral colouring in a special way, his long fingers that turned up at the tips spread out and often using a kind of tremolo in the bass when he played scores, to which he would sing apart that he could not play. His wife Marguerite preferred his piano-playing to his performance on the violin, finding the latter cold, while with the keyboard there was always warmth.

It was in the United States of America in the early 1920s that Bloch wrote much of his piano music. In 1935, in Europe once more, he wrote his piano sonata. The following year his keyboard adaptation of the orchestral section of his Voice in the Wilderness became the Suite Visions and Prophecies.

After Bloch’s death Ex-voto was discovered among some unclassified papers with pages from the Geneva journal Le monde et la mode, a most unlikely place to find one of his compositions. The publication included sketches illustrating the latest women’s fashions of the period. There was also a page with a picture of Bloch and an article explaining that the journal, realising the importance of developments in musical life in Geneva, was embarking on a series on local musicians, starting with Bloch. The article was very flattering and was followed by a facsimile of the manuscript of Ex-voto. How this came about is unknown, and as far as the present writer remembers Bloch never referred to the piece. The music, written, it seems, in 1914, is very simple, introduced by modal chords, followed by an evocative and wistful theme. This is repeated, bringing a more energetic section that leads to a climax before the return of the original theme. The piece ends quietly.

In 1929 Bloch left America, having been invited to take part in a Bloch Festival organised in Holland by the conductor Willem Mengelberg. His later plan was to settle away from the city, high in the mountains, where he might find the quiet he needed in order to compose. He found at first a small hamlet in the Swiss-Italian Alps, Roveredo, Ticino, where he spent three years writing his Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh). He then returned for two short visits to New York, where he conducted the work.

In 1934 Bloch left Roveredo and moved to the French Haute-Savoie, on the other side of Lake Leman, at the village of Châtel in a mountain valley. There he and his wife Marguerite lived in a rented chalet, where they were able to receive many visiting musicians. At the same time they were near enough to Geneva, where they had relatives. Bloch would also often go to Italy, where admirers arranged concerts of his music. There he heard the great Italian pianist Guido Agosti, who often performed the Piano Quintet. A warm friendship developed, and the result was the Piano Sonata of 1935, which Bloch dedicated to him.

Bloch was always concerned with the condition of the planet, becoming more and more pessimistic. He foresaw much of what was to happen. The sonata is largely a result of this state of mind. Although the work has no overt programme, the titles of each of the three movements, played without a break, give an indication of what he had in mind.

Alexander Cohen, one of the founders of the English Bloch Society in 1937, described the first movement, marked Maestoso ed energico, as “having a tang of wormwood, hardness and menace”. This is, in fact, very angry music throughout, characterised by fragments of ascending and descending arpeggios, ending in harshly accented notes. There are sudden changes of nuance and dynamics, from fortissimo to pianissimo, as the music moves forward, with few moments of respite, but ending heavily with a figure from the opening of the work. The Pastorale, marked Andante, opens with a repetition of the arpeggio, this time very softly, ushering in a different world. There is a very simple melody, as ingenuous and naive as a child’s song, although there is a Jewish touch to it. The movement is full of serenity, unrolling with no marked change of nuance above a soft dynamic. This is the Bloch of slow movements, communing with Nature, in which he found the peace he needed. This, however, is the real world, and the third movement, Moderato alla marcia, explodes into a brutal march.

For the last twenty years of his life Bloch settled in a large rambling house on a cliff above the Pacific in the state of Oregon. The small town where the Blochs lived was Agate Beach, and the house was the first one he and his wife had ever owned. When the present writer visited Bloch, she was shown round the house with pride, including the composer’s precious den, full of shelves of music, books and files. Bloch pulled out one of the last with a smile. It bore the title “Grotesque Department” and contained letters and articles of all kinds. He showed me two items, one a clipping dealing with a convention of the American Legion. There was a photograph of some of the members, with their silly hats, overweight, standing round a large high table looking up in admiration at a drum majorette, wearing high boots and a helmet, and stepping high on top of the table. The other item was a reproduction of the photograph of an antique Chinese sculpture, showing a horrible leering monster in the same pose as that of the drum majorette, his high stepping boots crushing victims lying piled under his raised foot. “The God of War”, said Bloch, “this is the last movement of the sonata”. The high stepping heaviness reaches a climax of brutality, after which there are final passages of mystery and questioning.

The Danse Sacrée of 1923 was intended as one of a series of Danses Orientales, as we gather from the title page. Below, written in small letters, we read the words “pour Jezabel”. This was a new French libretto written for Bloch by his close friend Edmond Fleg, who had adapted the French version of Bloch’s opera Macbeth, first performed in Paris in 1919.

With initial enthusiasm, Bloch had begun to collect sketches to form part of the two acts of the projected opera, which in the end was never completed. Having settled in the United States into the intense life he was obliged to accept, Bloch would lament the fact that this sort of existence made it impossible for him to bury himself in the timeless atmosphere he needed to create the music he had in mind. All that survives are innumerable pages of incomplete material. The Danse Sacrée is the only piece copied in its entirety, with signature and date - New York, 1923.

The music of the dance is obviously ritual in conception. Its Orientalism is not what one would expect of the Paris Opera corps de ballet. With its repeated rhythmical static bass line and fragments of archaic melody, it conjures up the picture of bodies moving in a trance, but as it flows on, there are some pauses, broken twice by melismatic figures of Arab character. The music returns to the mood of the opening, as it fades away.

The Suite Visions and Prophecies was derived from Bloch’s Voice in the Wilderness, composed at Châtel in the Haute-Savoie in 1935 and 1936. This major orchestral work, with solo cello, is unlike its earlier counterpart of 1916, the Rhapsody Schelomo, also for cello and orchestra. Though both works are pure Bloch in their idiom, Schelomo is vivid in colour and imbued with a Jewish emotional intensity and fervour, its prevailing mood. The Voice in the Wilderness differs from this in its structure and in its general mood.

Introspective, in six separate sections, and making different use of the solo cello, compared to Schelomo, its colouring is much more subdued.

Each movement begins with a purely orchestral statement, followed by the entry of the solo voice of the cello, as if meditating and commenting on what it has heard. This is the form used for each of the sections, the fifth movement ending with a long cadenza that introduces the sixth and final section, omitted in the piano version of the work.

The first theme, grave and solemn, is heard in the bass and is later to return. An anguished passage follows in the upper register, descending slowly to a pianissimo. The second section, marked Poco lento, is less static, with more movement, expressive in its changes of tempi. this time ending with an ascending figure. The section that follows is characterised by a dotted rhythm, giving a feeling of revolt. Near the end the pattern changes with the introduction of the so-called “Scotch snap rhythm”, a note of short duration followed by a longer note, the music descending strongly and increasing in speed and loudness. The Adagio piacevole section is dreamlike, the bass flowing peacefully, with expressive short fragments floating above, with light triplets fading away. The fifth section brings a return in the bass of the opening theme of the first section, leading though fluctuations of tempi from agitation to a calm and expressive end concluding a series of sections which, although short, are nevertheless rich in harmony and part of a well constructed whole.

Many years ago, during his last years, Bloch played over the Ansermet recordings of the two cello works. At the end he mildly remarked “I think that the Voice in the Wildernessis a greater work than Schelomo, and I think I will write another work of that kind, but about the Prophets in the desert, with music bare and stark”. He did not live to write such a work.

Suzanne Bloch


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