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ClassicsOnline Home » BLOCH, E.: Israel / Suite for Viola and Orchestra (Gandelsman, Atlas Camerata Orchestra, Slovak Radio Symphony, Atlas)
Bloch’s so-called Jewish Cycle—the Israel Symphony, Schelomo, Trois Poèmes Juifs and the String Quartet—earned the composer the kind of esteem in America that had been lacking in Europe. The Israel Symphony, premièred in Carnegie Hall in 1917, is the cycle’s centrepiece and originally intended as a gigantic three-part work, but later reduced in size. Powerful and evocative, it also fuses pastoral and sensuous elements in a rich tapestry. The award-winning Suite for Viola and orchestra or piano is a rhapsodic but cyclical tour de force, a ‘vision of the Far East’, in Bloch’s own words.
Ernest Bloch (1880–1959)
Israel Symphony • Suite for Viola and Orchestra
Ernest Bloch was born in Geneva in 1880 and died in Portland, Oregon, in 1959. His compositions fall into several phases: unpublished oeuvres de jeunesse (1895–1900); the first European period (1901–1916), culminating in the ‘Jewish Cycle’ (1912–16); works written successively in New York (1917–20), Cleveland (1920–25) and San Francisco (1925–30); the second European period (1930–38); and finally, the American West Coast period (1939–59). The Israel Symphony (1912–16) and the Suite for Viola (1917–19) were composed while Bloch was in his thirties, at a crucial time of change in his geographical location and creative identity.
While struggling to make a living as a composer, conductor and lecturer in Geneva, Lausanne and Neuchâtel during the early years of the twentieth century, Bloch embarked upon an ambitious project which he designated the ‘Jewish Cycle’, comprising six substantial works—five for large orchestra and one for string quartet—plus an unfinished biblical opera entitled Jézabel. Bloch’s intention at this time was to write Jewish music, ‘not for the sake of self-advertisement, but because I am sure that this is the only way in which I can produce music of vitality and significance…I believe that those pages of my own in which I am at my best are those in which I am most unmistakably racial…’ (See Olin Downes, ‘Ernest Bloch, the Swiss Composer, on the Influence of Race in Composition’, The Musical Observer, Vol. XIV No. 3, 1917, p. 11.)
The Israel Symphony forms the centrepiece of this cycle. In a letter to his Swiss-born friend and librettist Edmond Fleg (Bordeaux, 30 September 1917), Bloch gave a detailed outline of his vision of a gigantic work in three parts: the first would draw the audience into the world of Ancient Israel; the second would present a social history of the Jews in the Diaspora over the past two millennia; and the third would proclaim the spiritual message of Judaism. In the event only the first part was ever written, since the traumatic impact of World War I (and its aftermath) upon Bloch made it impossible for him to continue with his plans.
There are three movements in the completed first part of the symphony, for which Bloch originally provided the title Fêtes Juives (Jewish Holy Days). It was, however, renamed ‘Israel’ on the advice of the great French writer Romain Rolland. The first movement is a brief, slow introduction (lent e solennel), which Bloch described as a meditation and an evocation of the mobile Temple in which the Jews prayed while wandering in the wilderness, prior to the establishment of a permanent edifice in Jerusalem (c.1000 BCE). For the bold and sometimes barbaric second movement (Allegro agitato), Bloch took as his inspiration the most sacred Fast day in the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). To him this movement represented personal conscience—a ‘returning to oneself’, and a synthesis of the Jewish soul: distress, human weakness, the tragedy of existence, resignation, but also glimmers of hope. Following a mystical bridge passage, the last movement (Andante moderato) evokes Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), the joyful Autumn harvest festival that occurs five days after Yom Kippur. Here, the contemplative, pastoral atmosphere combines religious and sensual elements.
An important feature of the finale is the introduction of five solo voices: two sopranos, two altos and one bass. The text, reminiscent of verses from Psalms 142 and 143, was created by Bloch himself, and consists of the following phrases in various configurations: ‘Adonai (Lord), O Thou my Elohim (God), Allelouyah; hear Thou my voice, hear my prayer; Thou art my refuge; O I implore Thee, hear my crying; in Thee I trust, I am steadfast.’ The composer stipulated in the score that the vocalists should be placed among the instrumentalists or at the rear of the platform, so as to be heard as an integral part of the orchestra.
The Israel Symphony contains musical elements derived from biblical cantillation (notably the Eastern Ashkenazi Pentateuchal chant and that of the Song of Songs), brass fanfares akin to Shofar (Ram’s Horn) calls dating from Temple times and blown traditionally in the synagogue up to the present day, certain motifs connected to cantorial chant and others borrowed from the incomplete opera Jézabel, as well as occasional stylistic references to Swiss folk song.
The symphony was dedicated to Mrs J.F.D. Lanier, President and Founder of the Society of the Friends of Music, under whose auspices the first performance—conducted by the composer—took place at Carnegie Hall, New York, on 3 May 1917.
All the works of the Jewish Cycle (Trois Poèmes Juifs, psalm settings, ‘Israel’, Schelomo, and the String Quartet) made an immediate impact upon audiences in the United States. For the first time Bloch experienced the recognition and appreciation that he felt had been denied him in Europe. As a Jew he felt comfortable and free in the multicultural atmosphere of New York, and his life began to improve professionally, socially and financially.
In the same year as the Israel Symphony and other works of the Cycle were given their premières Bloch began making sketches for his Suite for Viola and Piano or Orchestra, a similarly large-scale work in four movements, about which he wrote as follows: ‘My Suite does not belong to my so-called “Jewish works”—though, perhaps, in spite of myself, one may perceive in a very few places a certain Jewish inspiration. It is rather a vision of the Far East…that inspired me…Java, Sumatra, Borneo, those wonderful countries I dreamed of so often…’ (quoted from an unpublished letter to Hugo Kortschalk, dated 8 September 1919). But how consistent is this statement with Bloch’s view of himself as a Jewish composer quoted earlier? Suffice it to say that the sources of this clear shift in perspective were deep and complex, and are the subject of ongoing research.
Bloch had, since childhood, been drawn to the ‘exotic’, and this propensity had later been intensified through his reading of an article entitled L’Âme Javanaise (The Javanese Soul), published in La Revue de Paris, 1 November 1896, pp. 193–224) by his sometime friend and mentor Robert Godet, the French critic. Each movement of the Suite had originally carried a programmatic title: the first (Lento – Allegro – Moderato): ‘In the Jungle’; the second (Allegro ironico): ‘Grotesques’; the third (Lento): ‘Nocturne’; and the last (Molto vivo): ‘Land of the Sun’. (The finale is one of three works by Bloch that incorporate traditional Chinese elements.) These headings were, however, found by Bloch to be incomplete and unsatisfactory, and they were ultimately abandoned so as not to restrict the listener’s imagination.
The main characteristics of the Suite as a whole are the evocations of the natural world: the tropical and the mysterious. As so often with Bloch, the style is outwardly rhapsodic and often recitativic, but the underlying form and structure are in strict conformity with Western Classical norms. For example, motifs generated at the opening of the first movement are reintroduced cyclically throughout the whole work.
This Suite was first performed by Louis Bailly (viola) and Harold Bauer (piano) on 27 September 1919 during the Pittsfield Festival, and was awarded first prize in the Berkshire Chamber Music Festival Competition, sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Though not conceived as an expression of virtuosity, it nevertheless places enormous demands upon the soloist.
The original version for viola and piano, as well as later versions for viola and orchestra, and cello and piano, were published by Schirmer in 1920. The orchestral score of the Israel Symphony was brought out by the same publisher in 1925.
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