About this Recording
8.557151 - BLOCH: America / Suite Hebraique
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Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
America (An Epic Rhapsody for Choir and Orchestra) • Suite hébraïque

Born in Switzerland, Ernest Bloch studied the violin and composition there, before first moving to Brussels as a pupil of Eugène Ysaÿe, then continuing his studies in Frankfurt-am-Main and later in Munich. He returned to Geneva, combining musical activities with work in his father’s clock-making business, but by 1916 he was in the United States, conducting, teaching and composing, acquiring a particular reputation as a Jewish composer. From 1920 to 1925 he was Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, thereafter taking on similar responsibilities at the San Francisco Conservatory. He had become an American citizen in 1924, but spent much of the 1930s in Switzerland, returning to the United States at the end of the decade. His posthumous reputation has rested largely on his works of Jewish inspiration such as Schelomo, Baal Shem and the Suite hébraïque and Viola Suite.

Bloch was an all-embracing composer, whose intellect and senses thirsted to learn and feel as much as possible. He was involved with his surroundings and nature, mankind and ideology, ethnology and history. No wonder that he underwent several changes in his styles. He was involved with his personality and emotions. Still, any kind of spontaneity was at the same time well controlled, seeking perfection of the art of composing. Above all, Bloch never gave in to the common fashion. He always remained true and faithful to himself. He observed the world profoundly, and used his amazing sense of prophecy in his visions, expressed in ideas and sound. He used to say that 35 years after his death, his music would be accepted. He wrote an enormous amount of music, masterpieces of orchestral, instrumental, vocal, and chamber music, but at present only a relatively small proportion of all this is being played. Among his symphonies he dedicated three to his Jewish–Swiss–American heritage. He named them Israel, Helvetia, America.

Bloch wrote America, an Epic Rhapsody in Three Parts for Orchestra in 1926. The first part treats the early history of the country: The Soil – The Indians – (England) – The Mayflower – The Landing of the Pilgrims - 1620. The second part deals with the Civil War: Hours of Joy – Hours of Sorrow - 1861-1865 and the third part moves on to the time of composition: The Present – The Future . . . - 1926.

Bloch started the score by quoting Walt Whitman: ‘O America, because you build for mankind, I build for you’. The uniqueness of the America Symphony is that it describes history and events in the language of sound and is thus so different from any other symphony ever written. America was created in mysterious changes of spiritual moods, with tunes for each subject and period, like ‘the South - old Ballad played by corno inglese’ in the second part. The symphony covers the period between 1620 and 1926, the year of composition. He even wrote the last part, which he named The Future, in a manner of prophecy developing to a style and noises (automobile horn) that doubtless resembles the styles to come later during the twentieth century. The score is constructed with Bloch’s programme remarks, quotations from Walt Whitman, and instructions for the various events to the performers.

Bloch built the symphony by embroidering the thematic material along with micro motifs of the final anthem, and with tunes that he collected of the various types of folk-music involved: Native America, Pilgrim, Celtic, Negro, Creole, Civil War, mourning, and the new seeds of the future. He used motifs of the anthem throughout the symphony and built it towards the enthusiastic climax of the simple pure anthem, before which he commented in the score about a new prophetic vision: ‘The Call of America to the Nations of the World’.

In 1927 the work won the prize in a national competition sponsored by Musical America magazine. Its first performance was on 20th December 1928, with the New York Philharmonic and chorus, conducted by Walter Damrosch. In his preface, Bloch wrote:

‘This Symphony has been written in love for this country in reverence to its Past – In faith in its Future. It is dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman whose vision has upheld its inspiration. The ideals of America are imperishable. They embody the future credo of all mankind: a Union, in common purpose and under willingly accepted guidance, of widely diversified races, ultimately to become one race, strong and great.

Though this Symphony is not dependent on a program, the composer wants to emphasize that he has been inspired by this very ideal.

The Anthem which concludes the work, as its apotheosis, symbolizes the Destiny, the Mission of America. The symphony is entirely built upon it. From the first bars it appears, in root, dimly, slowly taking shape; rising, falling, developing, and finally asserting itself victoriously in its complete and decisive form.

It is the hope of the composer that this Anthem will become known and beloved, that the audience will rise to sing it, becoming thus an active and enthusiastic part of the work and its message of faith and hope.’

A Bloch Festival, organized by the Covent Club of Illinois, was held in Chicago in December 1950 to celebrate Ernest Bloch’s seventieth birthday. Bloch, deeply moved, decided to present the organizers with a suitable new musical composition, the Suite hébraïque. The suite was written first for viola or violin and piano in 1951. Later, on 10th March 1952, he completed orchestrating the work. The first performance of the orchestral version was on 1st January 1953, with the viola soloist Milton Preves and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rafael Kubelik. The Suite consists of three parts, Rapsodie – Processional – Affirmation. Bloch composed the entire piece in the Jewish style, a kind of reminder and nostalgia for his past Jewish cycle. As a matter of fact the very few famous works by Bloch which have remained well known to the world of today, belong to that period of his Jewish cycle.

For the Suite hébraïque Bloch used traditional Jewish melodies. In a comment to J.H. Braun he wrote: ‘I have absorbed them to such a point that it may be difficult for future musicologists to determine what is traditional and what is Bloch’.

Prof. Dalia Atlas


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