Ernest Bloch lived a long life—79 years—and was creatively productive for six decades. His busy life took him from Switzerland to Brussels, Franfurt, then New York, to Cleveland, San Francisco, back to Switzerland, then back to California, finally spending his last twenty years in Oregon. Throughout his life he continued to evolve both in his philosophical and compositional thinking.
Bloch was born in 1880 to a Jewish family in Geneva; his father owned a successful gift shop. His musical education began during his mid-teens, when he began study with Émile Jacques-Dalcroze, an innovative theorist who had developed a method of teaching music through physical movement. Bloch’s extraordinary talent was soon recognized and he was sent to Brussels to study with Eugène Ysaye, a close associate of Cesar Franck. Ysaye was even more impressed by Bloch’s compositions than with his violin playing, and imbued Bloch with the serious artistic values of the Franck school, which was evolving in opposition to the shallow forms of entertainment that held the stage in Paris throughout much of the 19th century.
During the late 1890s Bloch pursued study in Germany, and this led him to discover the early works of Mahler, which impressed him deeply. In 1901 he completed his first symphony. Although he had composed some 30 works by then, he considered the Symphony in C-sharp minor to be his first mature work. During the next few years he composed an opera based on Macbeth, which enjoyed a positive reception and was praised by Nadia Boulanger, as well as by the older writer Romain Rolland, who subsequently became a friend and staunch advocate of the composer.
Around 1910 Bloch began to delve into his Jewish heritage. He began to develop the notion of becoming the creative voice of the “Jewish soul.” In a white heat of inspiration he composed a number of works of Jewish significance: among them several Psalm settings, an Israel Symphony, and Schelomo, a work for cello and orchestra that became very popular—the work by which he is best known to this day. He completed the work shortly before his arrival in New York in 1916.
Bloch’s interpretation of “the Jewish soul” was consumed with emotional intensity. In order to accomplish his purpose, he stretched the bounds of the Western European musical language, using considerable harmonic dissonance and harsh, biting rhythms. As a result he was widely heralded as one of the bold innovators of the early 20th century.
But Bloch’s concerns were not limited solely to the Jewish experience, and many of the works that followed had no Jewish associations at all. In fact, works with explicit Jewish reference account for only about 17% of his output.
By 1920 Bloch had attracted so much attention that he was invited to create a conservatory in Cleveland. He thus became the founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. He became very active in Cleveland’s musical life, and wrote numerous articles and essays to promote his points of view on artistic expression. Yet he continued to compose prolifically, producing some of his greatest works during this period.
One such example is his Piano Quintet No. 1, composed in 1924. Many of its external formal features follow directly from the artistic lineage of Cesar Franck and his students. But its expressive content is fraught with outcries of flaming passions. As the esteemed composer Roger Sessions wrote, “[Bloch grew] increasingly aware of the menace of superhuman forces over which he has only a limited control. The violence of his [music from the 1920] is ruthless and mechanical; it is no longer the voice of human suffering and revolt. It externalizes itself more often in brusque and vehement rhythms, insistent sometimes almost beyond endurance ….”
The Quintet begins with a driving undercurrent of turbulence quite striking in its gruffness, as the work’s “motto theme” is introduced, a grimly resolute motif built from two fourths: one ascending and other descending, but in dissonant relatnship to each other. The motif soon gives rise to other, less tonally stable thematic ideas. Falling generally into the shape of a sonata allegro, the first movement’s thematic material is deeply integrated into the fabric of the music. While the overall tone of the movement is unremittingly grim, material of a more mysterious, reflective cast provides some contrast. Remarkable is the way Bloch uses quarter-tones (e.g. halfway between C and C-sharp) at various points throughout the work to enhance the sense of anguish.
The haunting second movement opens with a transformation of the “motto theme.” Mournful and full of woe, the movement builds to a huge climax on that theme before receding into the distance.
The third movement is fierce in its sense of abandon and looser and more rhapsodic in form. It opens brusquely, with a driving, aggressive sense of kinetic energy, its use of dissonance deliberately harsh. This relentless energy is offset by passages of reflection, suggesting a profound abstract dialectic on the state of mankind. A climax of tremendous angst is achieved after which the music seems to slip gently into a serene resolution, ending with a surprisingly straightforward perfect cadence.
After its premiere, American critic Olin Downes called it the “greatest work in its form since the piano quintets of Brahms and Cesar Franck,” while the distinguished English critic and musicologist Ernest Newman wrote, “No other piece of chamber music produced in any country during that period can be placed in the same class with [Bloch’s First Quintet].”
© 2023 Walter Simmons
Author, Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers
(Scarecrow Press, 2004)