BLOCH: Symphony in C# minor

by Walter Simmons

BLOCH: Symphony in C# minor. St. Louis Philharmonic conducted by Robert Hart Baker. ERNEST BLOCH SOCIETY EBS-001 [free with $15 membership in Ernest Bloch Society, 34844 Old Stage Road, Gualala, CA 95445].

Here, for the first time on records, is the long-awaited Symphony in C-Sharp minor of Ernest Bloch. Upon hearing the Z1-year-old composer render it at the piano, Eugene Ysaye exclaimed, “This is beautiful, large, powerful, of immense scope…. the work of an artist and poet.” Romain Rolland wrote, “Your symphyony is one of the most important creations of the modern school. I do not know of any other work in which is revealed a more opulent, a more vigorous, a more impassioned temperament…. I guarantee that you will become one of the master musicians of our time.”

Bloch composed the work in Munich in 1901, shortly after completing his studies with Iwan Knorr in Frankfurt. Its first complete performance took place in Geneva in 1908, under the direction of Bernhard Stavenhagen. There were several subsequent performances, but the large, demanding work had not been played in more than 30 years-nor for nearly 60 years in this country. Then in January 1984, the symphony was presented by the St. Louis Philharmonic, an amateur ensemble that Eugene Ormandy described as “the finest nonprofessional orchestra in the world.” This recording derives from that performance.

Many composers have concluded their period of apprenticeship with a particularly ambitious statement. On rare occasions, such a work proves to be a masterpiece, e.g., Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder; but usually not, e.g., Stravinsky’s Symphony in Eb. But in either case, such works are fascinating, because they usually reveal, with little camouflage, the formative stylistic influences and aesthetic standards operating on the composer as his identity is being formed, as well as the extent of his mastery of the technical matters required in order to meet these standards. It is also fascinating to contemplate the degree and manner in which the issues and concerns set forth in such a work are retained and developed in the composer’s maturity.

All these factors make Bloch’s Symphony in C# minor an important — indeed, indispensable — item for those who regard Bloch as one of the seminal musical figures of the first half of this century. The work, scored for large orchestra, lasts 46 minutes. The spirit of the symphony is made clear from the beginning of the first movement, a throbbing, portentous introduction that builds to a huge climax before the appearance of the main allegro agitato. Bloch initially entitled this movement, “The Tragedy of Life — Doubts, Struggles, Hopes”; I am sure that the reader can already begin to imagine the music — a vehement late-Romantic drama of metaphysical conflicts, in which the sense of struggle is relieved only by a subordinate theme of ardent lyricism.

While the experienced listener will have no difficulty identifying the work as to time and place, there are no indications or earmarks identifying it as a work of Bloch. Only in the third movement do elements of the composer’s mature style emerge at all. The music does not really resemble the style of any composer in particular, but does suggest a generalized sense of turn-of-the-century German music with a French touch — not Debussy, though, so much as d’Indy.

The second movement is the weakest, in which a melody of Mahlerian tenderness is overdeveloped, becoming mawkish in the extreme, and culminates in a grandiose apotheosis that is intolerably blatant. One might mention at this point that while he was writing the symphony, Bloch was still (eagerly) awaiting his first exposure to the music of Mahler. This took place in 1903, when he heard the “Resurrection” Symphony in Basel. He described it as “a titanic work…. among the greatest ever born of human genius…. His music, everywhere expressive, is a means of recreating life, of crystallizing joy, suffering and all human emotions……”  Considering these comments in light of the symphony he had written two years earlier, one realizes that Bloch, always a fervent proponent of music as a vehicle for emotion, must have seen Mahler as a kindred spirit, whose independent pursuit of similar goals must have confirmed for him the legitimacy of his own strivings. Ultimately, owing partly to biographical circumstances — his longevity among them — Bloch developed a broader, more fully evolved musical personality. 

The third movement is a driving scherzo, somewhat Brucknerian in tone, but with tritones and augmented triads featured prominently, which provide the only evidence in the work of Bloch’s mature style. Contrasting material features the kind of Swiss Alpine pastoralism also found in Helvetia and the third movement of the Concerto Grosso No.1.

The fourth movement is (what else?) a large symphonic fugue, based on a subject whose angularity again suggests Mahler. After a diligent workout, the entire symphony culminates in a reprise of the two elements of faith and hope: the second theme of the first movement and the melody of the slow movement, now inflated to a level of grandiloquence exceeding anything heard earlier in the work.

The symphony proclaims itself as a work of apprenticeship through a consistent tendency toward overelaboration: that which could be suggested or implied is always spelled out completely. Of course, if this is the work of an apprentice, he is a talented and accomplished apprentice, indeed: attention is paid at all times to matters of motivic development, harmonic richness, melodic growth, formal balance, contrapuntal interest, splendor of orchestration — nothing is overlooked. The tone is serious and sincere. But, unfortunately, there is nothing in the entire work that is really surprising, that takes one’s interest from the musicological to the purely musical. It simply does not proceed in any direction that one hasn’t predicted beforehand, nor is the thematic material really striking in any state of transformation or development. In trying to place the work for the reader, the closest I can come is the Symphony No. 2 of Scriabin, composed at about the same time, and sharing many of the very same stylistic and structural traits. But even in that work the quality of Scriabin’s thematic material is far more distinctive. (Yes, Scriabin was eight years older at the time.)

It is difficult to evaluate this performance with any sense of fairness. First of all, we are deeply indebted to the orchestra and to its conductor Robert Hart Baker for making available a work that knowledgeable listeners have been clamoring to hear for years. At the same time honesty compels one to concede that there is no way a nonprofessional orchestra can play a work as demanding as this without sounding exactly like what it is. Typically, passages in the extreme registers are badly out of tune and ragged — the players are clearly strained. But the totality does hold together; it does not require great imagination to conjure in one’s mind what a performance of the work by the Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, might sound like. Baker, who is barely 30 years old, has won great praise for his ambitious programming of difficult and lesser-known works. His conception of the piece is quite convincing, and the orchestra realizes that conception without stinting in its efforts; it is this that enables one to fully grasp the work in spite of deficiencies in execution and sonority.

This private release was recorded with high-quality equipment and pressed by Europadisk, using direct metal mastering, so that the quality of the record itself is superb. Extensive and highly informative program notes are included. This is a release of unquestionable musicological importance, and I am grateful that it has been made available.