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ClassicsOnline Home » BLOCH: Violin Concerto / Baal Shem / Suite hebraique
A precocious violin talent, Bloch left home at the age of seventeen to study with the illustrious Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe, who regognised his pupil's extraordinary creative potential and persuaded him to pursue composition. Bloch's Violin Cocnerto, an underrated rarity, is one of his most important works of the 1930s. Although Bloch attributed the major themes in the Concerto to American Indian songs heard on a visit to New Mexico, he also described the work as portraying 'the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating through the Bible'. The Suite hébraïque, which draws on traditional melodies to evoke a sense of nostalgia, and the exotic tryptich Baal Shem (Three Pictures of Chassidic Life), are indelibly associated with Bloch's 'Jewish works'.
By David Hurwitz
By David Denton
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Violin Concerto • Baal Shem • Suite Hébraïque
It is not surprising that Ernest Bloch probed the unique expressive capability and tonal palette of the violin. Born on 24 July 1880, in Switzerland, the son of a clock merchant in Geneva, Bloch exhibited a precocious violin talent. By the time he was seventeen, he left home to study with the illustrious Belgian violinist and composer, Eugène Ysaÿe. Although impressed by Bloch's instrumental virtuosity, Ysaÿe recognised his pupil's extraordinary creative potential and persuaded him to pursue composition. Bloch continued his studies in Germany, but with no obvious prospects for a musical career he reluctantly returned to Switzerland, becoming a book-keeper and clerk in his family's shop. His musical drive did not, however, disappear. In the evenings he quietly and persistently amassed a portfolio of compositions, including an opera, Macbeth. To his amazement, Macbeth was accepted for première at the Opéra Comique in Paris on 30 October 1910.
Despite mixed reviews, a leading critic, Romain Rolland, was so impressed that he travelled to Geneva to meet the young composer. When he found him in the clock shop, the shocked Rolland advised Bloch to concentrate exclusively on his music. He wrote to Bloch, "Do not let yourself be turned aside or led astray from yourself by anything… Continue expressing yourself in the same way, freely and fully; I will answer for your becoming one of the masters of our time."
In 1916 Bloch arrived in the United States as conductor of the Maud Allen Troupe. When the tour ended in bankruptcy, he was stranded. This apparent disaster turned into triumph when several key musicians – Karl Muck in Boston, Arthur Bodanzsky in New York, and Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia – championed his music. Three years later, as recipient of the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Prize, Bloch became a respected name in his adopted country, accepting an appointment as Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he served from 1920 to 1925. Next came directorships at the San Francisco Conservatory and the University of California at Berkeley. In 1927 Temple Emanu-El of San Francisco commissioned his Sacred Service. This resulted in increased patronage, which, by 1931, permitted Bloch to give up teaching and completely devote his attention to composition. He moved to Agate Beach, Oregon, where he lived until his death on 15 July 1959.
Bloch's exquisite Violin Concerto and Suites portray, in the composer's own words, "…the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating through the Bible…the freshness and naiveté of the Patriarchs, the violence of the prophetic Books; the Jew's savage love of justice; the despair of Ecclesiastes; the sorrow and the immensity of the Book of Job; the sensuality of the Song of Songs…it is all this that I endeavour to hear in myself, and to translate in my music."
Besides the Sacred Service, Bloch's most important work during the 1930s was his Violin Concerto. Gradually conceived between 1930 and 1937, he completed it in January 1938 while in Switzerland at Châtel Haute Savoie. Although he had not touched his violin in over thirty years, he began practising again in order to test his ideas and experience the physicality of his writing. Decades earlier, while conducting the orchestra of the City of Lausanne, he had hired as soloist Joseph Szigeti, a teenage Hungarian violin sensation. Inspired by Szigeti, Bloch dedicated the concerto to his life-long friend.
Although Bloch attributed the major themes in the concerto to American Indian songs heard on a visit to New Mexico, the major motifs unquestionably evoke cantorial chants of the Bible. Stripping away the grace notes in the opening violin statement, one is left with the same interval (fifth) as in the beginning of both the Vidui and Simchat Torah in Baal Shem. This is also a traditional interval for blowing the shofar, the ram's horn, on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Throughout the concerto, fragments of Bloch's Sacred Service abound, and one can imagine King David, himself, plucking the harp in the tender moments after the cadenza, before the tumultuous race to the end of the first movement. The second movement, with segments requiring a muted solo violin, creates an enchanted, mystical spell, while the third expands and reworks the concerto's opening theme with a pyrotechnical display that persists until the final passionate statement. When Szigeti performed the première in Cleveland on 15 December 1938, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting, Arthur Berger, of the New York Herald Tribune, exclaimed, "…There is scarcely a work in the whole category of art music in which Jewish associations are stronger."
Inscribed To the memory of my mother, Bloch's Baal Shem was written in 1923, while he was Director of the Cleveland Institute. He wrote it for his Swiss friend, André de Ribaupierre, who was on the violin faculty at the Institute. The title refers to the founder of Chasidism, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the "Baal Shem Tov" – miracle worker or, literally, "master of the good Name [of God]". A charismatic visionary who lived during the time of Bach, the Baal Shem believed, like Bach, in a spiritual connection and service to God through song and dance.
Vidui refers to the Jewish confessional prayer recited on one's deathbed. The traditional text acknowledges God as the ultimate Healer, asks forgiveness for all transgressions, and requests a place in the Garden of Eden and the Messianic Age reserved for the righteous. The Vidui is also a set of communal confessional prayers constituting the core of the service on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year.
Nigun means "melody". According to Kabbalah, the Jewish mysticism on which Chasidic religious fervour is based, a melody can elevate a person to a transcendent level, reaching spheres of hidden knowledge. Singing, especially songs for the Sabbath, is an integral aspect of Chasidic worship.
Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Law) refers to the celebration at the end of Sukkot, the week-long Jewish thanksgiving holiday period. Amidst dancing and song, the Torah scrolls are carried in joyous procession around the synagogue. The last verses of Deuteronomy are recited, immediately followed by the opening verses of Genesis, signaling the beginning of a new, unending cycle of Torah study.
The final letter of Deuteronomy, linked together with the first letter of Genesis, forms the Hebrew word lev, meaning heart, most appropriate since the Torah is a symbol of love of both God and humanity. Bloch's "Jewish Valentine" to his mother incorporates a famous Chasidic wedding dance, the mezinka. This tune is also found in Dmitri Shostakovich's first violin concerto (1958), composed for his Jewish friend, David Oistrakh.
Bloch celebrated his seventieth birthday belatedly in December 1950 with a week-long musical tribute in Chicago. Spearheaded by composer Ezra Laderman's uncle, Sam, an ardent admirer of Bloch, the festival featured concerts throughout the city. These included performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik conducting, and culminated with a gala dinner hosted by the Covenant Club, a festival sponsor. Visibly touched by the event, Bloch promised a small token of his appreciation. Several months later, the Suite Hébraïque arrived to the 1,200-member Covenant Club, which was founded in 1917 for Eastern European Jews. Originally composed for viola, Bloch later adapted the Suite for violin.
Suite Hébraïque glows with the artistic maturity of the composer. The Rhapsody exudes Bloch's passionate improvisational voice, while the Processional presents a vision of the ancient priests majestically ascending to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In Affirmation, Bloch captures the post-Holocaust miracle of the newly reborn State of Israel, affirming the eternal spirit of the Jewish people. The suite concludes with an emotional final statement that is reminiscent of the closing bars of his Violin Concerto.
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