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8.223103 - BLOCH: Symphony in C-Sharp Minor

Ernest Bloch (1880- 1959)

Symphony in C Sharp nMinor

Lento - Allegro agitato ma molto energioo

Andante molto moderato


Allegro energico e molto marcato

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. Some of his compositions have become a well known element in popular repertoire, particularly those of a pronounced Jewish character, such as the Hebrew Rhapsody for cello and orchestra Scheloma and the three Pictures of Hassidic Life for violin that make up Baal Shem. Nevertheless, while the overtly Jewish character of a number of his works is of obvious importance, he was able to achieve considerable distinction in music that seems entirely to lack anything of the kind.

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 from Yseÿe’s former pupil François Rasse, who had studied 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 unti11952. He died in 1959.

The music of Bloch's earlier years is romantic in style, showing similarities with the work of Richard Strauss. His opera Macbeth, which won success in Paris in 1910, showed affinities with Debussy. The following years brought the setting of two Psalms for soprano and orchestra and the Trois poémes iuifs, with which, after some controversy, he was to make his later debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The specifically Jewish compositions include the Sacred Service written between 1930 and 1933, but he was also to pay rather less successful tribute to the country of his birth, Switzerland, in the so-called Symphonic Fresco Helvetia and to the land of his adoption in a so-called Epic Rhapsody America. Something of his eclecticism may be seen in the neo-classicism of some of his work and elsewhere in a tendency to the romantic.

The Symphony in C sharp minor, completed in 1903 is a work in which Bloch was later to detect the qualities and faults of youth. His original sketches for the symphony suggested titles for the movements, the first, the Tragedy of Life, to show doubts, struggles and hopes, followed by a second movement of happiness and faith. The third movement, the Irony and Sarcasms of Life, was to show struggle, leading to the final Will and Happiness.

The second and third movements of the symphony were performed for the first time at the Basle Festival of Swiss - German music under the director of the composer and provoked considerable hostility from reviewers, with one critic suggesting that concert police should be employed to lock up for 24 hours composers guilty of such prolonged torture. The writer Robert Godet, to whom the published work was later to be dedicated, was more perceptive, adding to the encouragement that Bloch had already received from his teacher Ysaÿe, to whom he had played the symphony in Munich earlier in the year. Godet, later distinguished for his anti-Semitism, detected a Jewish element in the music, an insight that was to influence Bloch's future work. The whole symphony received its first complete performance in Geneva five years later, when it aroused more sympathetic interest. Bloch himself, in later life, was to point out that the symphony contains the roots of what he was to become, pessimist, optimist, warm-hearted or ironical, a summary of his continuing doubts and aspirations.

The symphony is extravagantly orchestrated for a large wind section and percussion that includes tam-tam, chimes, glockenspiel and xylophone, as well as the more usual instruments. The first movement, in which, as elsewhere, early German critics detected the influence of Gustav Mahler, a composer whose work Bloch had never heard at the time, starts in doubt and hesitation to swell in heroic confidence, turning aside at times to episodes of lyrical romanticism, with a final return to the mood of its opening.

The second movement offers expansive music with all the orchestral colouring and variety of a Richard Strauss, leading to a Scherzo of even greater contrast, introduced by an energetic fanfare and leading on to an episode for xylophone, before relaxing into a mood of lyrical serenity, followed by a return to the harsher irony that frames it. The finale opens with a fugue, its angular subject confidently asserted to introduce a movement that makes passing reference to much that has gone before, bringing the work to conclusion of tranquil happiness.

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