Book Review: THE ERNEST BLOCH COMPANION. By David Z. Kushner. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. 198 pp

by Walter Simmons

 THE ERNEST BLOCH COMPANION. By David Z. Kushner. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. 198 pp. $79.

Information generally available about Ernest Bloch and his music is so stale, third-hand, and pervaded by ideas that are either misconceived, trite, or both, that any attempt to present a fresh view, based on authoritative research, is more than welcome. David Z. Kushner, chairman of musicology at the University of Florida School of Music, has written extensively on Bloch, including the entry in The New Grove, and is probably—since the recent death at age 95 of the composer’s delightfully irrepressible daughter Suzanne—recognized as the leading living authority on Bloch and his music. Hence his new Ernest Bloch Companion is likely to be the most informative publication on the composer’s life and works currently in general circulation. The book contains much interesting and provocative information, but—with fewer than 200 pages—many subjects and related questions are raised and addressed, without being discussed thoroughly or resolved definitively. One leaves the book with much to reflect upon, but with many questions unanswered. Moreover, one wonders how many aficionados are likely to jump at the prospect of spending $79 to wade barely waist-high into the subject at hand.

Organized chronologically, the book provides a fairly thorough biographical overview, along with basic descriptions of most of the composer’s works. The literary style is congenial and conversational, with little to alienate the reader who is at least somewhat conversant with general musical terminology. There are a few musical examples, but they are not essential to the usefulness of the study.

Some of the main issues that emerge in any discussion of Bloch and his works are the extent to which his musical identity is connected to Judaism, the extent to which Judaism actually dominated the essence of his music, and the extent to which this association has influenced the way his music is understood and evaluated by the general musical public and by the musicological community. Complicating the issue are Bloch’s own ambivalence, confusion, and shifting positions on these matters. While Kushner does not resolve these questions in any conclusive way, he does provide some information that might be surprising even to fairly knowledgeable enthusiasts: for example, the fact that at the time when he composed most of his explicitly Jewish works, Bloch was remarkably ignorant of Jewish terms, practices, and traditions, and that he kept a life-size statue of Christ on the cross in his study for some fifty years, revered Jesus and extolled the values of Christianity, and—initially, at least—praised Hitler for his “sincerity,” and was opposed to the formation of Israel.

Kushner provides authoritative documentation of Leonard Bernstein’s decision to have the recitative in the final section of the Sacred Service spoken, rather than chanted, initiating a flagrant violation of Bloch’s intentions that has become an egregiously commonplace practice during the past 40 years. He also draws a legitimate distinction between Bloch’s earlier works of Biblical inspiration (e.g., Israel SymphonySchelomo, the psalm settings), and later works more suggestive of shtetl or ghetto life (e.g., Baal ShemFrom Jewish Life).

Another important aspect of Bloch’s career that is mentioned, but not examined in depth, is his meteoric rise to international celebrity as a leading representative of musical modernism upon his arrival in the United States in 1916, and the rather abrupt decline in his critical status precipitated some twelve years later by his winning (sic) a lucrative award for America: An Epic Rhapsody. (This phenomenon is examined in fascinating detail in the article, “The Winner Loses: Ernest Bloch and His America,” by Charles Brotman, published in American Music[Winter, 1998]).

Other matters that are touched upon with tantalizing brevity are Bloch’s voracious womanizing (“at least 23 mistresses,” according to his daughter); also, his early acquaintance with Debussy, who commented in his correspondence on the younger man’s admiration with contemptuous disdain (“His voice sounds like that of a eunuch bursting into a harem…. He’s destined for higher things, like selling guaranteed rings on the streets– …”).

However, what I do miss from Kushner’s book is a real point of view, beyond simply a position of general advocacy: How does he assess Bloch’s musical contribution, relative to those of such contemporaries as, say, Bartók, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos, Respighi, or Vaughan Williams, with regard to its depth, consistency, expressive power, variety, technical mastery? What are his compositional strengths and weaknesses? Which are his most fully realized works? his most representative works? his weakest works?

Kushner does provide a valuable bibliography, as well as an appendix that discusses Bloch’s photography, another means of expression that he pursued actively throughout his life. Far more than a casual hobby, Bloch’s work in this medium brought him the warm admiration of Alfred Stieglitz. The appendix includes approximately a dozen of his photographs.