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ClassicsOnline Home » BLOCH: 4 Episodes / 2 Poems / Concertino / Suite Modale
Born in Geneva, Ernest Bloch moved to the United States in 1916. Although Bloch’s name is indelibly associated with his ‘Jewish works’ such as Schelomo (Naxos 8.550519), Suite hébraïque (Naxos 8.557151) and the Israel Symphony, his music underwent several changes of compositional style, exploring a varied melodic and harmonic language. The early, neo-romantic diptych Hiver- Printemps was Bloch’s first important work to be performed. Scored for string quintet, wind quintety and piano, Four Episodes consists of four short, highly individual and virtuosic movements. Concertino for flute, viola and strings and Suite Modale for flute and strings, written towards the end of Bloch’s life, provide a masterly demonstration of contrapuntal technique.
By David Denton
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
Four Episodes • Two Poems • Concertino • Suite Modale
Ernest Bloch was one of the most interesting, inventive and successful composers, recognised and appreciated during his lifetime as a successor to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. While these three giants developed and established their own definite style within their own respective historical period, Bloch was unique. He was a wanderer and explorer, caring nothing for the fashions of the time. He possessed the supreme qualities of a great creator in each of the varied styles in which he wrote throughout his whole life.
Music was Bloch's most authentic language for the expression of his individuality, ideas, philosophy, profound intellect, truthfulness and ethnicity, all perfectly balanced. At the same time he carried within himself and passed on his feelings of Weltschmertz, love and hope.
For several years during World War II he wrote nothing, but found his salvation in J.S. Bach. In his later compositions he returned to modality and polyphony, whether modern or conventional. After his death, Bloch became internationally famous, but known to the new generation only for several compositions in his Jewish style. It is baffling, almost fifty years after his death, that most of his works should have remained hidden from the present-day generation. The challenge now for performers and listeners is to understand Bloch's multiple styles, and the secret of its correct interpretation.
Written in 1926, Four Episodes is the best example of different styles of varying degrees of complexity which yet complement each other, and reveal more and more on repeated hearings. Scored for eleven instruments, string quintet, wind quintet and piano, the work is fascinating also in its orchestration. Each of the four short, individual and virtuosic episodes includes the sounds of solo writing, chamber music and the richness of a symphony orchestra.
The first episode, Humoresque macabre, reminds us of the Jewish period in Bloch's music, with its sense of drama, rhythmical excitement, sadness, mystery, grotesquerie and enthusiasm. Although Bloch had probably in his mind a certain narrative programme while composing, it is a piece in which each listener may imagine something different.
In the second episode, Obsession, the same five-bar tune is repeated, with 24 continuous variations. Like the bass of a passacaglia, or Ravel's orchestration of his Bolero, the theme starts with one instrument, the piano, and in each variation a new instrument is added. A short strict Bach-style fugue appears at the centre of this movement. The general humour and spirit of the episode is similar to that found in music by Jacques Ibert and Darius Milhaud, who belonged to the same circle and were subject to the same influences of the period. The obsessive rhythmical melody long haunts the memory.
In Pastoral the peaceful flow of nature starts with the shepherd pipe. Then a dialogue between the various colors and nuances of nature is played out by the solo instruments, which evoke the human sensibility for the mysterious creation of nature, and nostalgia for love.
Bloch was fascinated by the Chinese Theatre. He admired the background, the décor, the heroic contrasts, the smells and the magic that take you to distant worlds. Once again we encounter earlier images, such as the Jewish figure that appeared in the first episode. Bloch's prophetic intuition succeeded in attaining a deep understanding of Israeli and Chinese music, without even visiting those lands.
Two Poems : Winter and Spring was composed in Geneva in 1905 and was performed in New York in 1916. As a young man of 25, full of feelings, passion, admiration of nature and romantic hopes, Bloch provided a vivid description of the creation, as well as the human reaction to the atmosphere of the seasons. One can see, hear smell and feel every little change in nature. Written for a symphony orchestra, the work is a combination of neo-romantic expressionism together with colorful impressionism. Bloch wrote about his Two Poems : "They are neither Classical nor 'ultra-modern' and absolutely unfit for making a sensation…" This was Bloch's modest opinion about his music. Perspectives, however, are always changing with time, and now after 102 years, one can appreciate their true value. He continued: "They are the expression of an inward necessity", something that is true of all the compositions of a great genius such as Ernest Bloch.
In Winter, sadness and the pain of nostalgia slowly develop into a cry of desire, before falling back into despair, expressed brilliantly by the orchestration and the interplay between the various instruments. The music conveys a wide spectrum of intimate feelings and imagination.
Spring brings a joyful, youthful and colorful awakening of nature after the solitude of winter, embroidered by songs of birds, green trees and leaves. In the middle section a new spirit of pure romance appears, progressing towards a climax of true happiness. This is followed by the serenity of a lingering farewell, which ends the work pianissimo, with only one short pizzicato, almost unheard, in the double-basses.
Bloch's Concertino for flute and viola of 1948 was commissioned by the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, and was first performed in 1950. Here too we find modal scales and different expressions of old styles. This is a precise masterwork of imitative style and contrapuntal technique, in which flute and viola blend perfectly with the string orchestra. Here we can hear the deep influence of the ancient polyphonic style. Each movement has a different mood, then, suddenly a wild Polka emerges from nowhere, as if in contravention of the rules, to conclude the Concertino on a note of high excitement.
The first movement, Allegro comodo, dances to beautiful rhythms. The second movement, Andante, introduces an old-style melody, entrusted to the violas and cellos, developing into a logical counterpoint between the soloists and sections of the orchestra. The third movement, Allegro, is an orchestral Fugue, with a short intermezzo in the middle. Then, in the last 33 bars of the Coda, the Polka emerges enthusiastically, bringing the work to a sudden and surprising conclusion. It is important to mention that Bloch allowed the option of using a full symphony orchestra in the last fourteen bars. For the present recording, however, the original scoring for string orchestra was chosen.
Suite Modale for flute and strings is one of Bloch's last works, written in 1956, three years before his death. The title indicates the style of his musical language in his later years, which centered on modal melodies and polyphonic writing, as in his last symphony, the E-flat of 1955, which combines these characteristics with the use of modern thematic material. In many of his works Bloch referred to the sound of the flute as the voice of the soul. This very same element is also found in his Two Last Poems for flute and symphony orchestra, which are a meditation on death and after-life.
Bloch dedicated the Suite Modale to the flautist Elaine Schaffer, whose beautiful sound he greatly admired. The music is a kind of reverie, as if the composer is looking back on the course of his life, and the impressions it has left behind. The work consists of four movements. The first, Moderato, is a kind of melancholy meditation which penetrates the inner recesses of the heart, with the flute and the strings dwelling harmonically and polyphonically together. L'istesso tempo, of the same tempo, but in a different mood, is written in old melodic style and motion.
The Allegro giocoso that follows awakens feelings of the joyous dancing of youth through the rhythm of a Gigue. The middle section brings a slow melodic dance, before returning again to the opening dance, and concluding the movement with a delicate charm. The last movement, Adagio – Allegro deciso, is marked by two highly contrasted sections. The opening meditative sadness gives way suddenly to an exciting middle section with fast and lively Bach-style counterpoint. When the Adagio returns for the last time, however, this is a short cadenza, followed again by the opening meditative music. This time, with a kind of peace and acceptance of destiny.
Professor Dalia Atlas
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