Bloch

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I…am a Jew, and I aspire 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 — if I can do such a thing at all … I believe that those pages of my own in which I am at my best are those in which I am most unmistakably racial, but the racial quality is not only in folk themes: it is in myself!

So wrote the Geneva-born composer, Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) about his Jewish Cycle in 1917. Within two years, he had moved from a Jewish aesthetic to a Far Eastern aesthetic, as seen in his  Viola Suite, composed in New York in 1919:

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 though I was never fortunate enough to visit them myself in any other way than in my imagination.

What had transformed the Jew who wrote Jewish music, because this was the only way he could achieve vitality and significance, into a visionary South East Asian pentatonicist?
The surname Bloch originally indicated a ‘foreigner from the West’. When the Jews of Alsace moved to Germany in the Middle Ages, they were given the name Welsch. This became transformed, in the 13th and 14th centuries, into Wallach, Wallack, Wloch, Vlach, Block, and Bloch, as persecutions drove the Jews back and forth between Eastern and Western Europe. Though there are earlier references, the first direct ancestor of Ernest Bloch so far discovered was cited in a document found in Stühlingen in South West Germany in 1732: this was Abraham, Ernest’s great-great-great-grandfather. What seems significant here is that, although Bloch’s music has often been considered exotic and oriental, his maternal and paternal forbears were Western Ashkenazim over many generations.
In the mid-19th century, Bloch’s grandfather Isaak Josef was a celebrated ba‘al tefillah (lay-cantor) in the synagogue in the North Swiss village of Lengnau and President of its Jewish community. Bloch’s father Meier (also known as Moritz and, later, Maurice) had been a chorister in the Lengnau Synagogue and, at one time, considered entering the Rabbinate; but he went into business instead. Originally pious, he became outspokenly agnostic, but practised traditional rituals and took his family to the Geneva Synagogue, especially during the High Holidays. Ernest often wrote and spoke affectionately of his memories of Friday evenings  and Seder services at home, but indignantly of synagogal and communal behaviour: men reading the newspapers in shul on Yom Kippur, and the contemptuous treatment some members of the community meted out to poor Hasidic Jews from Eastern Europe. Bloch learned Hebrew and cantillation for his Bar Mitzvah in 1893, but lost all visible contact with Judaism for a considerable period thereafter. He had very few Jewish friends; and his student years in Geneva (1894-6), Brussels (1896-9),  Frankfurt (1899-1901),  Munich (1901-3), and Paris (1903-4) were spent far away from any Jewish milieu. In 1904, he married Margarethe (later Marguerite) Schneider, a fellow student from Frankfurt days, daughter of prosperous German-Lutheran parents who lived in Hamburg.
The year 1906 saw the surfacing of one of many apparently contradictory dualities in Bloch’s life. On the one hand, his then mentor and confidant, the well known French critic Robert Godet, persuaded him to buy a life-size Crucifix (which Bloch kept all his life). In the same year, only two years after his marriage to Marguerite, Bloch wrote to his close friend and librettist, the great Parisian author and playwright, Edmond Fleg:

My dear friend … I have read the Bible — I have read fragments about Moses. And an immense sense of pride has been surging within me! My entire being reverberated. It is a revelation … I could not continue reading, for I was afraid. Yes, Fleg, I was afraid of discovering too much of myself, of feeling everything which had gradually accumulated, glued to me, fall away in one sudden blow; of finding myself naked … within this entire past which lives inside me, of standing erect as a Jew, proudly Jewish … We must see to it that everything which has a Jewish soul is conscious of the grandeur and destiny of this race…  While reading certain passages, I almost regretted having only music to speak with; but Jews do listen to music. Yes, Fleg, this idea must enlighten us both; it is perhaps for this reason that we met.

How are we to reconcile this vigorously expressed awakening of Jewish identity with the purchase of a Crucifix? Bloch explained that, though he admired the teachings of Jesus, he regarded Christianity as a ‘failure’, and interpreted Jesus on the Cross as the figure of a ‘betrayed Jew’, a metaphor with which he was personally to identify, not least as a result of his experience with Robert Godet, which he described as ‘the greatest tragedy  . . .  in my life’, and of whom he wrote:

It was Godet who attracted my attention to the unconscious Jewishness in my music. He was the greatest anti-Semite, who translated [Houston Stuart Chamberlain’s     Foundations of the 19th Century], the book that made Hitler … and was my best and deepest friend for ten years…

Although Bloch wrote letters to numerous relatives and friends about the potential for expressing a Jewish ethos in his music during his mid-late 20s and early 30s, only two out of a total of over a hundred formal lectures on music, given by Bloch at the Geneva Conservatoire and elsewhere, prior to his settling in America, were devoted to Jewish music per se. Neither lecture has ever been published. The first is a meditation on the problem of the Jewish arts in general, as experienced through his work with Fleg, with few allusions to music. The second is a commentary on a slim volume by Emil Breslaur, the German-Jewish scholar and choirmaster, entitled Can the Synagogue and Folk Melodies of the Jews be Proved to be Historically Authentic? This book, according to Bloch’s elder daughter, Suzanne, was the only publication on Jewish music that Bloch read prior to his departure for the USA. Both lectures are vague in terms of definition. We may summarise their joint contents as follows: Bloch says that he listens to an inner voice; he eschews ‘nationalism’ and what he calls ‘deformed’ folk themes. He denies the authenticity of Jewish melos as it exists in his own time, because of the absorption of foreign elements from host nations; and it is Gregorian Chant that he sees as a direct descendant of Temple Chant. There are references to Jews in music such as Dukas, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Rubinstein, and Mahler. Why he adds Bruch, Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Wagner to his list is not made clear. What is apparent from these lectures, however, is an emerging pattern of ambivalence to the society around him, the pain of alienation and antisemitism, tensions between the internal world of spirituality and the external world of identity, and vacillations between confidence and insecurity.
But if his lectures contain no precise definitions of Jewish music, he defines himself unambiguously as a Jewish composer in the seven works of the Jewish Cycle (1911-16), six of which were later published by G. Schirmer: Trois Poèmes Juifs (composed in 1913); Deux Psaumes 137 et 114, Précédés d’un Prélude Orchestral (1912-14); Psaume 22 (1914); Israel Symphony (1912-16);  Schelomo – Rapsodie Hébraïque (1916); and the String Quartet No.1 (1916 — sometimes referred to as the ‘Hebrew Quartet’). All are highly charged epics, either in terms of length (the string quartet lasts 50 minutes), or in terms of the vast orchestral forces required. There are solo roles in Psalms 137 and 114 for soprano, and in Psalm 22 for baritone; two sopranos, two altos, and one bass in Israel; and cello in Schelomo. In addition, there is an unfinished and unpublished biblical opera entitled Jézabel, which occupied Bloch for over twenty years (c.1904 to the mid-1920s) and which, in a sense, generated all the published works of the Cycle.
In my doctoral research, I have scrutinised the six published works of the Cycle for traditional Jewish elements (ta’amei hammiqra — accents of biblical recitation, nusach — cantorial modality, shofar calls, etc.) as set down in eighteen carefully selected written sources of liturgical music. Bloch admitted to utilising only one traditional tune in his entire Cycle, namely, what I discovered to be the South West German High Holiday chant for the text Uvechen ten pachdecha (variants having been notated by Abraham Baer, Samuel Naumbourg, and Salomon Sulzer, in their respective anthologies), which appears at the beginning of the middle section of Schelomo.
But there are also hundreds of more subtly and unconsciously incorporated motifs and their metamorphoses which Bloch may have absorbed from his father’s singing and from the music of the Geneva Synagogue which he attended as a child: not only the melodic and rhythmic contours themselves, but also the distinctive, deep formal structures of cantillation and cantorial recitatives.
Bloch claimed he was composing Jewish music out of himself: ‘It is not my purpose, not my desire, to attempt a “reconstitution” of Jewish music, or to base my work on melodies more or less authentic,’ he wrote in 1917, the year of many such pronouncements. He continued: ‘I am not an archaeologist … It is the Jewish soul that interests me, the complex, glowing, agitated soul, that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible.’
Extraordinary it is, then, to discover that, in the very same year, he had already started to conduct research in the New York Public Library and, within a short time, had sifted through all the volumes of the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, writing down almost all of Rev. Francis L. Cohen’s transcriptions of traditional tunes in an unpublished manuscript book which bears the title: Chants Juifs. This paradox gives rise to many questions: Is the volume of Chants Juifs surely not ‘archaeology’? Why this volte-face, which contradicted Bloch’s otherwise passionately held principles? Was his inward search for Jewish inspiration losing momentum? Had it, by 1918, been largely abandoned? Was all this a response to what he perceived to be the philosemitic atmosphere of New York, which he had encountered for the first time in 1916, and then again when he brought his family with him to settle in the following year? Was it because, now having achieved success and celebrity status in New York, he had no further use for a label that he had needed in the Old World in his struggle for survival and recognition as a composer, conductor, and educator?
The Jewish Cycle received its final coup-de-grâce in April 1918 as a result of what Bloch described, in his letters to his mother Sophie and to Fleg, as ‘perhaps the strangest experience in my life.’ He had been invited to an unspecified Hasidic community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for a Sabbath morning service at the end of Passover. He paints a vivid picture of the bare room, the 50-60 male congregants of all ages from Poland and Galicia, their poverty, their genuine piety, and how moved he is when the Rabbi bestows upon him the Priestly Blessing. ‘And what music’, he exclaims:

Neither organ, nor instruments, nor choir. Everyone his own orchestra. . . Everything was vibrant, living, creating an extraordinary atmosphere. I dissolved with emotion…I assure you that my music seems to me a very poor little thing beside that which I heard. You will understand everything that this experience means for me. It’s a great joy. It’s also extreme sorrow; for my life has been split in two. I would have been able, as a single man, to plunge myself into this Truth, even at my age, letting it live anew in me, and creating a formidable work, linking this granite past to the present, to the future … Alas, alas, I can’t … Everything separates me from it, my wife, my children… and my whole life. It’s a great tragedy. . . All that will remain is the shadow of what I could have been.

The crunch had come: the trauma of the two Blochs — the ‘ideal’ and the ‘real’ — finally confronting each other. The one yearned for the intensely observant Jewish life that he had never truly experienced; the other lived and participated in the wider world. Since he could not attain the ‘ideal’, he would have to settle, reluctantly, for the ‘real’; but this produced an inner conflict that was never fully resolved.
Bloch, one could argue, ceased to be a ‘Jewish Composer’ at the very moment he became an ‘archaeologist’. Many of his subsequent Jewish works involved the conscious use of ethnic materials. Two will suffice to exemplify this: Abodah (God’s Worship): a Yom Kippur melody for violin and piano (1929) is an almost note-for-note transcription of the Vehakkohanim chant from the Jewish Encyclopedia; and Suite Hébraïque for violin (or viola) and piano (or orchestra) (1951) contains five traditional tunes from the same source, according to a sheet in Bloch’s own handwriting. Bloch had now become a ‘composer of Jewish music’ alongside other musics. Indeed, the non-Jewish works that he wrote after the Cycle saw the lively incorporation of Gregorian Chant; Swiss, American, and Far-Eastern folk melodies and styles; Renaissance, Neoclassical, Neoromantic, and, very occasionally, Serial idioms. Despite all these complexities and contradictions, the ethos and essences of the Cycle were the abiding qualities that permeated Bloch’s later works, and represent his unique and significant contribution to twentieth-century music.

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1 Comment
  1. […] MP: ik begrijp wat er bedoeld wordt. Het is overigens slechts een mening van een auteur en ik heb niet genoeg kennis over het werk van Bloch om het met hem eens of oneens te zijn. Ik ben er wel van overtuigd dat kennis een middel en geen doel is. Voor mij is deze kwestie wel heel interessant. Ik doe onderzoek naar Joodse muziek omdat ik ervan uitga dat kennis en kunde juist heel waardevol kan zijn. Deze aanname is niet helemaal ongegrond. Als ik kijk naar mijn eigen compositie Der Gasn Nigun voor piano solo dan concludeer ik een paar dingen: het is een schitterend stuk (sorry voor de onbescheidenheid maar liegen is erger), de linkerhand slaat terug op de beweging uit de Blues, het lachen en tegelijkertijd huilen zit erin (Joods), de melodie van de gelijknamige nigun zit erin verwerkt maar is eigenlijk verborgen, een soort Japansachtige impressie geeft het. Kortom, er is sprake van een fusion van stijlen. Vergelijk ik dat mijn lied Havdalah voor zang solo, gecomponeerd na enkele jaren studie naar Joodse muziek, waarin ik geprobeerd heb met Steigers en nussach te werken, dan zie ik dat het laatstgenoemde werk in Joods opzicht veel coherenter en sterker is. In studeren zie ik zelf wel degelijk voordelen. Het stuk is niet persé mooier maar wel Joodser. Mogelijkerwijs zou je wel kunnen stellen dat met de toename van complexiteit van het componeren de Synagoge ingeruild wordt voor een concertpodium. Misschien stuurt de auteur daarop aan? Bron: https://jewishquarterly.org/2010/07/bloch/ […]

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