About this Recording
8.223288 - BLOCH: Poems of the Sea / Nirvana / In the Night / Enfantines

Ernest Bloch (1880–1959)
Poems of the Sea (1922) • Nirvana (Poem for Piano) (1923) • In the Night (1922) • Five Sketches in Sepia (1923) • Enfantines – ten pieces for children (1923) • Four Circus Pieces (1922)


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 Jaques-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 lwan 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 Maud 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 pretensions 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.

Bloch had his first contact with the ocean in 1917 during various crossings of the Atlantic, travelling between Europe and America. His impressions were by no means those of Walt Whitman, with his “boundless blue, expanding”, but rather one of “trying out the guns, life-boat drills, or sleeping with one’s clothes on”, since this was a time of war. It was in 1920 that he first absorbed the feeling of the sea during a summer spent in the village of Perce, on the Canadian Gaspe Peninsula. In those days Perce was not a resort, but had only one hotel, perched on a cliff overlooking the almost empty beach. There during storms the waves would swell in the wild wind, with the sea-gulls screaming. After a short trip round Bonadventure Island in a small boat, he began to take notes in a little book that would contain some of the material for his Poems of the Sea, completed in 1922. Later the manuscript was to include the words of Walt Whitman, which, in the opinion of the present writer, give less of the essence of the music created in that special place, Perce.

“In cabin’d ships at sea,
The boundless blue on every side expanding,
With whistling winds and music of the waves, the large imperious waves
Or some lone bark buoy’d on the dense marine.
Where joyous, full of faith, spreading white sails,
She cleaves the ether ‘mid the sparkle and the foam of day, or under
By sailors young and old haply will I, a reminiscence of the land be read, In full rapport at last.”

Walt Whitman from “Leaves of Grass”

Poems of the Sea is tonal and easy to listen to, even, in the opinion of some, conventional, as Bloch himself intended. Waves depicts the feature of the title, gently rolling towards the shore, swelling and drawing back. In the middle section there is a simple melody, a moment when the sea is quiet, but not for long. Chanty is like a folk-song, with an Irish tang to it and a touch of melancholy, while At Sea allows the composer to indulge in a mood of gusto and panache. Great waves surge forward, strong and unbridled in exhilarating music, in which one can almost feel the wind and the spray blown in one’s face.

The poem for piano Nirvana, with the sub-title “sans desire, sans souttrance…paix…neant…” was written in 1923. Title and sub-title prepare the listener for the special atmosphere of the work. Sydney Dalton, writing in Musical America, claimed it as “a veritable picture in tones of the Buddhist conception of the hereafter… This tone-poem is indescribable; its appeal is too sensitized to be translated into words, its harmony too subtle for analysis: It seems to surround and enfold the listener, not like a gorgeous sunset, but rather like the mystery of twilight”. The work might have been the forerunner of a later orchestral piece written in 1937, Evocations, for in the course of his life Bloch had studied the work of great Chinese painters and read the works of Lao Tse and many Buddhist philosophers. Nirvana meant to him the respite and peace he yearned for during a tormented life. He would find it in the long solitary walks he took wherever he lived, whether in the high mountains, on the deserted beaches of Oregon or in the deep woods of New England. contemplative, the music is mysterious with its rhythmical pulses, drone basses and strange sonorities in the upper register. It seems out of reach, at the end floating away into the hereafter.

In the Night, A Love Poem, was written in 1922 and is an expressive piece, offering first the quiet background of the night, over which later a lyrical and passionate theme arises, surging to and fro and sensuously reaching climaxes that will recede into the peace of the opening. Bloch orchestrated the work towards the end of the same year.

Five Sketches in Sepia, composed in 1923, comes at the end of the series of piano pieces of this creative period of Bloch’s life and differs from the rest in style and texture. Impressionistic, each short section blends with another, though each has a definite identity of its own. Bloch at first called these “moods”, and rightly so, but the titles he used later fit the music admirably. What binds them together is the final Epilogue. The first movement is a Prelude, providing a foretaste of the textures and harmonies to come. Fumees sur la ville shows the smoke of the city of Cleveland, Ohio, where smoke from the coal used by many factories all too often darkened the skies. To counter this dreary scene come the rapidly flickering fireflies of Lucioles, disappearing before you know it. Incertitude is just that, a state of mind happily corrected by the Epilogue, in which all the themes of the suite return with particular Blochian warmth.

During his time as Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, besides his administrative duties Bloch gave weekly master classes in composition for advanced students, members of the teaching staff and various local composers. He also conducted the student choir and string orchestra. In addition to this he listened to a variety of students of all ages, but was disappointed with the quality of the contemporary repertoire for children, finding the music often too childish, superficial or over-sophisticated. He therefore decided to write a series of children’s pieces, his Enfantines, which, although easy to play technically, would communicate different moods and feelings comparable to those he remembered himself as a child. The task proved less simple than he had thought, in view of the technical limitations that were necessary for this purpose, and from time to time he sent parts of some of the pieces to his friend Harold Bauer, asking for advice on details of fingering. He later changed two titles into something that would mean more to a child. Meditation he changed to With Mother, and Prelude became Elves in the corrected manuscript. Each piece was dedicated to a member of the Cleveland Institute faculty, except two, for his daughters Suzanne and Lucienne. The latter, a gifted artist, drew the illustrations for the pieces.

During a quiet period in the summer of 1922, in July, while his children were away visiting friends, Bloch and his wife Marguerite relaxed in Cleveland, where, for some reason, he rapidly wrote his four satirical Circus Pieces in the space of a few days. Having a considerable and occasionally sardonic sense of humour, he must have derived great pleasure from the composition of the new work, even writing captions for the pieces that he would read aloud as he played. He had no intention of publishing the music, but his good friend, the publisher Irving Broude, when he was helping the Bloch children make a complete catalogue of their father’s music, suggested just this, “for the records”. Pianists later showed considerable interest in the pieces, wanting to be the first to perform them. It is only now, however, that having listened to recordings of Bloch’s music by István Kassai Lucienne and Suzanne Bloch have agreed that he should be the one to grace these little pieces in a première, and we feel our judgement has been proved right.

The Two Burlingham Brothers, old-fashioned eccentrics, form a sort of vaudeville act, starting with pirouetting, followed by “burlesque”, with a grotesque change of tempi and a tune accompanied by staccato leaps. The music becomes sentimental “alla Chabrier” and slows down to a Tango, continuing with changes of mood, until the tune with the skipping accompaniment returns, giving the impression of dancesteps and ending with a return to the introduction. Bloch may have seen these two performers in some vaudeville show from England, travelling though Europe.

The Clown is dedicated to “the sad and ever comprehending Charlie Chaplin”, but, although a copy of the music was sent to Chaplin, he never replied. Possibly the title “Clown” seemed insulting, and if so it was misunderstood. Bloch always found Chaplin moving, able, as he was, to create in his films so much of the pathos of loneliness, but perhaps Chaplin would not have understood. Beginning with melancholy, the character steps lightly forward in staccato passages in the lower register, but as the music becomes louder he tries to be jolly. He does not succeed, and his heart is heavy as the melody descends… but the audience must be amused, and the opening theme returns. Sadness intervenes once more, in spite of his efforts, and then “the great somersault”, with the music very loud and fast and the end of his act, as he leaves the stage, as light as a feather.

The Homeliest Woman, sub-titled “L’lnvitation a la Valse”, has the added caption “la plus belle femme du monde ne peut donner ce qu’elle a…”. The subject is a woman of uncertain age, with a certain avoir-du-poid, trying to act the vamp with a gentleman. There are detailed descriptions written over the music, which can, nevertheless, speak for itself. The opening hoarsely invites, followed by vamping alla Chopin, making eyes, “I have secret charms”, Valse with grand rallentando, “and temperament too”, alla Mazurka, rit, after a fermata, “and sweet too… and loving… and fresh”. The waltz goes on with deciso subito… “and I have a marvellous contralto voice… well, then…”. The music, con bravura, then ending in tenderness, sweetly soft, like a whisper. Under his signature Bloch wrote“Prise de la Bastille”.

The Dialogue and Dance of the Heavy-weight and the Dwarf needs no captions, as the music makes obvious the contrast between the enormous, burly athlete and the quick, tiny dwarf, who competes with him, able to escape, for a time, complete defeat. Bloch describes the delight of the audience, enjoying the brutality of the heavy-weight. The musical by-play between the two will end with heavy chords battering away. The little high voice of the vanquished clown is heard, but drowned by the joy of the crowd, waiting for the kill.

Suzanne Bloch

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