About this Recording
8.572743 - BLOCH, E.: America / Concerto Grosso No. 1 (Michaelian, Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Ernest Bloch (1880–1959)
America: An Epic Rhapsody • Concerto Grosso No 1


Ernest Bloch is remembered by many as a composer of music inspired by the traditions and liturgies of Judaism. But while such works as Schelomo, the Israel Symphony, and Baal Shem distinguish Bloch as music’s foremost exponent of his ancient religion, this is by no means the full extent of his work or interests. Bloch was a complex man of wide knowledge and experience, a European who spent most of his life in America, a Jew who embraced humanism in its broadest aspects. And as a composer, he drew on both the classical past and certain innovations of the early twentieth century to forge a distinctive compositional style.

Bloch was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1880 and demonstrated his musical aptitude at an early age. Among other evidence of his precocity, he composed a symphony when he was only fifteen. Later, musical studies took him to Germany, Belgium and France. In Paris he met and was encouraged by Debussy, and Bloch’s best early works adopted an impressionist manner close to that of the great French composer. In 1912 Bloch began a series of works reflecting what he termed “the Jewish spirit…the complex, ardent, agitated soul I feel vibrating in the Bible”. His efforts to express that spirit led to a more vigorous and impassioned musical language, one that he retained long after his specifically “Jewish” period had ended.

In 1916 Bloch emigrated to the United States, where he established himself as an educator as well as composer. He taught at Mannes College and Hartt School of Music, was the founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music and subsequently served as director of the San Francisco Conservatory for five years, beginning in 1925. In 1930 he returned to Switzerland, but the darkening political situation in Europe brought him back to the United States and a teaching post at the University of California, in Berkeley. In 1941 Bloch moved to the village of Agate Beach, on the Oregon coast, where he lived until his death, in 1959.

Composed in 1926, America: An Epic Rhapsody is a singular part of Bloch’s output. It is his only large-scale concert piece not predicated on a Judaic subject, as well as the only work he wrote on anything like a patriotic theme. Bloch stated that the urge to write a tribute to his adopted country came to him as the ship that brought him from Europe entered New York harbour. But this composition underwent a long gestation before Bloch finally could realise it. Not until a decade after he conceived it, by which time he was living in San Francisco, did the composer set to work in earnest. Practical motivation came from a competition, sponsored by the magazine Musical America, for a symphonic piece by an American composer on an explicitly American theme. Having already attained United States citizenship, Bloch needed only a suitable subject. He conceived this on the largest possible scale, devising a programme that surveys the history of the United States from pre-colonial times to his own day and beyond.

Bloch started the score by quoting Walt Whitman: ‘O America, because you build for mankind, I build for you’. The first of the work’s three movements begins with a low, rustling tremolo that suggests the primeval continent before human habitation. From that initial sound emerges a melodic line in the low strings. It suggests an American Indian chant, but it contains the germ of something else: the name “America”, conveyed in the rhythm and melodic contour of its first four notes. Further use of Native American melodies, which Bloch gleaned from the ethnomusicologist Frances Dinsmore, provide material for the bulk of the movement, which works up into an energetic musical evocation of tribal dances. The arrival of the Pilgrim settlers is indicated by a quotation of the familiar hymn tune Old 100th, English colonization represented by music in the style of Handel. Bloch spares us Yankee Doodle or other emblems of the American Revolution. Instead, the birth of the nation is suggested simply by a reprise of the America motif heard at the outset of the piece.

The second movement gives us America during the years leading up to the Civil War, through that conflict and in its immediate aftermath. Once again, Bloch references folkloric melodies, painting an aural picture of antebellum society by quoting ballads from the southern states, Stephen Foster’s The Old Folks at Home, and dance tunes that he identified in the score as Virginia Reels. (One of these will be recognized as Pop Goes the Weasel, which did, in fact, cross the Atlantic in the 1850s and enjoyed popularity in the United States as a dance tune.) The America motif from the first movement also sounds on several occasions, including during the musical tempest representing the Civil War. Bloch also weaves songs of both the Union and the Confederate armies into this passage. The America motif makes a final appearance near the end of the movement, its forlorn character here suggesting a nation bloodied and grieving, but nevertheless enduring.

The finale begins in the modern era—that is, in 1926, when Bloch composed this music. American modernity, for Bloch, was not a happy development. Its speed, machine-generated noise, and jazz music combine in the first portion of the movement to create a colourful cacophony, one that leads to a climactic moment that Bloch, in his score, pessimistically labeled The Inevitable Collapse. But if the society that produced the preceding frenzy, with its suggestion of degeneracy, is to implode, the composer evidently believed that America itself would still survive. A recollection of the “Indian” music from the first movement seems to imply a spiritual rebirth, and that notion is confirmed by a quiet yet sturdy march that soon rises through the orchestra. As it gathers strength, this march incorporates the America motif into its texture, and that figure initiates the choral anthem in the composition’s final moments.

Although Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No 1 predates America by a year, its sound is more modern than that of the latter composition, with its frankly Romantic complexion. Bloch wrote this piece toward the end of his tenure as head of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the work was first performed in June 1925, at the school. (More than 25 years later, the composer produced a second Concerto Grosso.) Bloch’s decision to use the eighteenth-century concerto grosso form as a model may have been influenced by Stravinsky’s early neo-classical compositions, which were commanding considerable attention during the 1920s. But Bloch’s work has little else in common with that composer’s L’histoire du Soldat or Octet. In place of Stravinsky’s metric complexities, Bloch writes bold, straightforward rhythms in the outer movements of this piece, supple ones for the slow movement. And there is little opportunity for Stravinsky’s characteristic play of instrumental colour in Bloch’s austere scoring for strings and piano.

The Concerto Grosso opens dramatically with a series of harsh chords that form the basis of the first movement, Prelude. The use of melodic sequences—short figures repeating at progressively higher or lower pitches—as well as sustained pedal-point tones, show an affinity with the music of Bach. The violent energy of this opening gives way to a lyrical and elegiac Dirge, which forms the second movement. One of the composition’s most poetic moments is the episode for solo strings and piano that appears midway through this threnody. The serene Pastorale heard at the start of the third movement accelerates into a set of “rustic dances”—

inspired, perhaps, by those Bloch heard in villages of Switzerland and France—which functions somewhat like a scherzo in the overall scheme of the work. But Bloch was fundamentally a composer of serious intent, and he closes his Concerto Grosso with a vigorous and impressive fugue that demonstrates how effectively a skilled composer could unite classical form and procedure with modern tonal language.

Paul Schiavo

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