About this Recording
8.573241 - BLOCH, E.: Symphony in C-Sharp Minor / Poems of the Sea (London Symphony, Atlas)

Ernest Bloch (1880–1959)
Symphony in C sharp minor • Poems of the Sea


Ernest Bloch was a great Jewish composer (who did not convert like most of his contemporaries). He was born in Geneva in 1880 and died in Oregon, in the United States, in 1959. Bloch was a multi-faceted composer, and, in my opinion, was second to none in musical history; he was stylistically versatile, in accordance with the times, the place and the cultural, ethnological or cosmopolitan inspiration that he encountered throughout his life. Because of this a great number of his works have been either forgotten or discarded, even though most of them are masterpieces. The great historical enigma is that only the few works inspired by pure Jewish style have survived and are frequently performed all over the world. It remained in the public memory as the representative feature of Bloch as a composer. One should mention that despite the numerous styles, such as Jewish and Impressionist music, contemporary, serial, universal and even Chinese music, Bloch’s works contain both covert and overt Jewish motifs and scales.

The Symphony in C sharp minor, which lasts approximately an hour, was written when Bloch was merely twenty, while he was studying in Germany. The work embodies the dense complexity of his genius and the vortex of his musical, philosophical and intellectual talents and emotions, a phenomenon that can be observed in the early and late works of other great composers. It is amazing to find a similar pattern in Bloch’s first Symphony in C sharp minor and his last Symphony in E flat (1955) in the contemporary style.

The Symphony in C sharp minor is written in the perfect neo-Romantic symphonic form customary at the time, like the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner, Richard Strauss and others. This work reveals exceptional depth and maturity. Bloch said that it was written during a time in which he experienced inner struggles and turmoil, hopes, desires, joy, sorrow and despair. Without searching for external influences, he attempted solely to express his innermost self. Romain Rolland wrote after hearing the symphony: “I know no work in which a richer, more vigorous, more passionate temperament is revealed…It is not a composition coming from the brain without having first been felt. It is wonderful to think that it is a first work.” Like most of Bloch’s orchestral works, this too was written for a large orchestra, in rhapsodic form, with exceptional orchestration and use of polyphony and modes, occasionally featuring pastoral melodies from the Alps. The first bars and the whole work are permeated by a repetitive rhythmic motif of two short beats followed by two long ones, seemingly symbolizing the rhythm of fate. I am of the opinion that this is Bloch’s greatest and best work.

The first movement, Lento – Allegro agitato ma molto energico, is long and is divided into three parts, which leave their mark owing to the deep and strong emotional expression, ranging from the dark abyss and sorrow to peaks of sweeping force and then back to the dark abyss. The second movement, Andante molto moderato, leads us at a slow walking pace to lyrical realms, which alternate with light and humouristic themes and outbursts. These are filtered into a tremendous chorale, leading to a march, built on the first theme and to be repeated in the last movement. The third movement, marked Vivace, is brilliant and virtuosic and begins with a trumpet fanfare, later joined by the rest of the instruments in turn. This movement is intriguing and innovative. In the middle of the movement, as in most Scherzos, appears a pastoral intermezzo in A-B-A form, followed by the development of the movement’s themes and culminating in a heroic vein. The symphony’s finale, Allegro energico e molto marcato, contains a strict fugue, and here Bloch’s inventiveness meticulously combines with the rest of the themes of the work, a device frequently used by the composer in his later compositions. The march from the second movement reigns triumphant and the entire work gradually dissipates into a quiet and tranquil D flat major conclusion.

Throughout history the sea has inspired the imagination of many composers. The sea is one aspect of nature that is close enough for us to reach out and touch; we may swim in it, float or dive into its depths and attempt to understand its magical inner world. The sea represents both incessant movement and mysterious qualities, from the tranquility of meditation to the crushing force of the waters. Many composers have allowed their imagination to bring the sea to life, combining their musical talents with infinite experiences, visions and descriptions.

It is a tremendous challenge to set the sea to music. The most famous attempt is Debussy’s La Mer, written in the early years of the twentieth century. Anyone familiar with the score of this masterpiece will discover the myriad of descriptive details buried deep within the sound of the music, just as the sea’s surface does not reveal its depths.

Bloch wrote two versions of Poems of the Sea in 1922, one for piano, and the other for a large orchestra. The style is clear and pleasing, and includes Irish tunes and jigs, as well as the sound of ripples and of waves crashing onto rocks, all of which were inspired by Walt Whitman’s poems about the sea.

Prof Dalia Atlas

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