July 24 2016 marks the 136th anniversary of Ernest Bloch’s birth. The composer, born in Geneva, Switzerland to Jewish parents, began playing the violin aged nine and started composing soon after. Initially making music in a Romantic style, his composition evolved into taking inspiration from his Jewish background, as he claimed the Hebrew spirit was one of his most important inspirations. Throughout his varied career, there are many musical, if not always critical highlights. Here are seven of the best…
Hiver–Printemps, two symphonic poems for orchestra (1905)
Before adopting the Jewish-influenced sound he was best known for, Bloch took inspiration from a number of different periods in musical history. On Hiver-Printemps (Winter-Spring), there is a strong influence from French Romanticism. From the use of mysterious violin and oboe melodies in the first movement, to the bright trumpet fanfares of the second, this piece showed that even before finding his own voice, Bloch was a composer of many strengths.
Based on the Shakespeare play that also inspired works by Verdi and Richard Strauss, Bloch’s Macbeth faced numerous difficulties at the time. It received mixed reviews reportedly due to conflict within the cast, was unperformed for almost 30 years, and was banned by the anti-Semitic Mussolini due to Bloch’s Jewish faith during its 1938 Naples revival. This meant that it took over a century to receive its UK premiere in 2009 and US premiere in 2013. Bloch was even initially sceptical about the idea of using Macbeth as subject matter for his only opera, wanting instead to focus on material of ‘great gaiety’. But despite its difficulties, this was a work that made a lot of Bloch’s contemporaries realise they were justified in their faith to the composer.
Israel Symphony (1912-1916)
From 1911-1926, Bloch gained his own compositional voice in what was known as his Jewish Cycle, a period where he took influence from Jewish culture and spirit for works such as this piece, his Israel Symphony. The work features five soloists towards the end – four women’s voices and a solo bass. This piece is a fascinating listen for its juxtaposition of the symphony orchestra and Jewish themes, such as in the first movement, Prayer in the Desert.
Schelomo: Hebrew Rhapsody (1916)
The final work written before the composer settled in the US in 1916, this work for cello and orchestra marks the height of Bloch’s Jewish Cycle and became a standard of the cello repertoire. The piece’s title is the Hebrew translation of Solomon, as he was inspired to write it after seeing a statue of King Solomon made by another cellist’s wife. There are hints of the Romantic Era, but this is very much a piece of Bloch’s own style, thanks to his use of oriental motifs, colourful use of orchestra and dynamic lyricism.
Baal Shem: 3 Pictures from Hassidic Life (1923)
Music expert Erik Levi believes that Bloch’s Jewish Cycle came as a result of the inner impulses of his heart rather than him consciously writing music in a Jewish style. In few places was his music more heartfelt than this violin and orchestra piece. Named after Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of the Hassidic movement, it is designed as an exploration of the Jewish spirit across its three movements, the sweet but mournful Contrition, the virtuosic and dramatic Improvisation and the bright and optimistic Rejoicing.
From Jewish Life (1924)
This three-movement work for cello and piano was dedicated to New York Philharmonic solo cellist Hans Kindler, who had previously premiered Schelomo. One of the later works of the composer’s Jewish Cycle, the main focus of the work is not so much virtuosity as it is emotion and expression. As well as the Jewish spirit of the piece, there is a Romantic-style cello line, Debussian chords in the piano and a sharing of the melodic line between cello and piano.
Two Last Poems (1958)
This was one of Bloch’s final compositions before his death from cancer the following year. It features two uninterrupted movements, ‘Funeral Music’ and ‘Life Again?’, prophetically both named before his cancer diagnosis. For the composer’s late period, he was living in Agate Beach, a seaside area in Lincoln County, Oregon. During this period he continued to take influence from music’s past, but on pieces such as this he also experimented with the avant-garde with tritones and disjunct modal flute melodies.