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8.223289 - BLOCH: Piano Sonata / Visions and Prophecies / Ex-voto / Dans sacree
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Ernest Bloch (1880 -1959)

Ernest Bloch (1880 -1959)

Ex-voto (1914) Sonata (1935)

Danse sacree (1923)

Visions and Pophecies (1936)


Ernest Bloch occupies an ambivalent position in twentieth century music. Born in Geneva in 1880, the son of the owner of a clock business, he spent periods of his life in Germany, in Paris and in the United States of America, as eclectic, possibly, in his choice of home as in his music. Bloch undertook his early musical studies in Geneva with violin lessons from Louis Rey and lessons in composition from Jacques Dalcroze. In 1897 he went to Brussels, where he took lessons from the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe and in composition with César Franck. Two years later he moved to Frankfurt where he took lessons from Reinecke's old pupil Iwan Knorr, the teacher of Cyril Scott, Ernst Toch and Hans Pfitzner, among others. The years from 1901 to 1903 he spent in Munich, taking some lessons from Ludwig Thuille. A year in Paris was followed by return to Geneva and marriage, work in his father's business and a period during which he undertook engagements as a conductor and lectured in aesthetics at the Conservatory of Geneva, while continuing to develop his powers as a composer.


In 1916 Bloch went to America for the first time, working as a conductor for the Canadian dancer Maude Allan and her company, with her re-creation of Greek dance, remaining in the United States to teach at the David Mannes School of Music in New York, and, from 1920 to 1925, as the first director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. In the latter year a disagreement over academic courses led to his resignation and appointment as director of the San Francisco Conservatory, a position he relinquished in 1930 to return to Europe, although he had taken out American citizenship papers in 1924. The increasing anti-Semitic prejudices of the old world, even in Italy, where he had enjoyed some success, and his desire to retain American citizenship took him back once more to the United States in 1938, and finally to a position on the staff of the University of California at Berkeley, where he continued to work until 1952. He died in 1959.


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 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 a part 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 Chatel 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 year 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 Opéra 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 Chatel 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 Wilderness is 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.


István Kassai


István Kassai was born in Budapest in 1959 and was admitted to the Bartók Conservatory at the age of ten. In 1972 he was first prize-winner in the Czechoslovakian International Youth Piano Competition. He then went on to study under Pál Kadosa at the Ferenc Liszt Academy and won first prize in the Hungarian Broadcasting Company's Piano Competition. In 1982 Kassai was granted his diploma by the Academy later going on to win first prize in the Debussy International Piano Competition. Having won a scholarship to study at the European Conservatory of Music in Paris he gained a master diploma with the highest distinction in 1984. Since 1987 he has been one of the pianists of the Cziffra Foundation.

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