Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)

Concerto Grosso No.1 for string orchestra with piano obligato  

Pastorale and Rustic Dances


Ernest Bloch was undoubtedly, the first truly Jewish composer. He took as his basis the chants of the synagogue. Nevertheless, he was specific about what he was trying to achieve by doing so: " It is not my desire or my aim to attempt to reconstruct Jewish music. I am not an archaeologist. Rather I listen to an inner voice, deep, secret, insistent, ardent, a voice which seems to come from far beyond myself". This influence was to create the first truly great pieces of Jewish music written by a European composer. Most famous perhaps are his Jewish Cycle "Schelomo" and "Baal Shem".

Born in Geneva, the son of a clock maker, Bloch began his studies in composition with Jaques Dalcroze. He studied the violin with Ysaye in Brussels and later composition with Knorr in Frankfurt. In 1916 he travelled to the United States as the conductor of the Maud Allan Dance Company. He remained in US teaching in various different institutions. His ideas of music education were considered radical. He believed that textbooks and examinations were not useful in the training of musicians. His belief that practical musical experience was most important brought about the composition of the first concerto grosso which he composed during his time as Director of the Cleveland Institute of

 Music in 1923. He wrote it as an example of the neo classical style.for his students  Bloch taught many of America's greatest composers, including Roger Sessions, Ernest Bacon, George Antheil and Quincy Porter. His belief that modern techniques could be freely used within older forms of musical composition is brilliantly successful in the Concerto Grosso No. 1. Unfortunately his brilliance did not impress the board of directors of the Cleveland Institute of Music and Bloch was forced to resign the same year. In the 1930's Bloch returned to Europe where he lived again in Switzerland as well as visiting Italy. The rise of anti-Semitism influenced him to hold on to his American citizenship. It was not long before he was indeed blacklisted by Nazis. The blacklist already included Martinu, Toch, Krenek and many other distinguished composers. Bartók, incensed with this, wrote a deeply sarcastic letter to Goebbels. "Seeing so many of my distinguished colleagues on this list of yours", he wrote to Hitler's chief of propaganda and head of the cultural senate, "has led me to request of you the honour to be included on it too". This courageous, if unwise letter's request was, needles to say, happily granted by Goebbels, forcing Bartók into exile. Bloch returned to United States where he died in1959. Yehudi Menuhin told  young composers how he was astonished to discover notebook upon notebook containing fugues in Bloch's study. When he questioned the Bloch he was told that the composer began every day by writing a fugue in order to "remain", as it were, "in shape". It is therefore not surprising that the Concerto Grosso No. 1 with is first three movements built on Jewish, Swiss and American musical influences ends with a masterly fugue which contains all three of these influences on one movement.

copyright Lygia O'Riordan