Ernest Bloch Studies Review

by Mark Glanville, edited by Alexander Knapp and Norman Solomon

Ernest Bloch, who was born in Switzerland in 1880 to a Jewish family but spent most of his adult life in America, was the prototypical “citizen of nowhere”. “In Switzerland,” he lamented, “they say I am a Swiss renegade – in America: a Swiss expatriate who steals the prizes from our native composers… in Germany, I am a ‘Frenchman’ because I fought for Debussy! – in France, I am a ‘German’ because I defended G. Mahler – and now… the Jews put me ‘out’, saying I am not a ‘Jew’ … where must I go to live and to belong(!) … the Moon?!!!”

Bloch did not help his cause by making the antisemitic composer Richard Wagner (“my Messiah”) his role model. Klára Móricz, quoted by Malcolm Miller in his illuminating essay, “Bloch, Wagner and Creativity: Refutation and Vindication”, writes that,

Bloch’s image of himself as a racially determined Jewish composer, though conceived as a refutation of Wagner’s accusation that Jews are creatively impotent, ultimately remained true to Wagnerian principles. It accepted Wagner’s first premise, namely, that art can be genuine only if based on an indefinable, mysterious racial essence.

Wagner defined art as emanating from the life force of the “Volk”. Bloch followed suit, claiming, “Only that art can live which is an active manifestation of the life of a people…  it must have its roots deep within the soil that brings it forth.”

For Bloch, Die Meistersinger was the key work. In 1911, the year of his own “Jewish cycle”, Bloch described Wagner’s opera “not merely as a plea to German nationalism but as a spur to develop both his own cultural nationalism and his search for a personal identity.”

How Jewish, then, were Bloch and his music? Co-editor Alexander Knapp writes that his mentor, the French critic and notorious antisemite Robert Godet, encouraged the composer to buy a life-size crucifix that he kept for the rest of his life. Bloch also took inspiration from Native American, Swiss and Chinese traditions. Liturgical texts were as great an inspiration as traditional Jewish music: “a voice which surged up in me on reading certain passages in the Bible, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, the Prophets… it was this Jewish heritage as a whole which stirred me and music was the result.”

At a Hassidic service in Manhattan, Bloch modestly, if rather self-pityingly, conceded that, “My music seems to me a very poor little thing beside that which I heard… everything separates me from it, my wife (a German Lutheran), my children… and my whole life. It’s a great tragedy… All that will remain is the shadow of what I could have been.” Knapp claims to have found hundreds of subtle and unconsciously imported Jewish motifs in Bloch’s music.

Norman Solomon, Knapp’s co-editor, confesses puzzlement at his subject’s neglect in the second half of the 20th century. If Bloch has been neglected, as he suggests, it might be because he generally eschewed the twelve-tone, serial composition that had become faddish, seeing it as a fetishism, to be deplored (an accusation that might also be levelled at his own obsession with cultural nationalism). In fact, such a cerebral method of composing was never going to sit comfortably with an artist for whom musical expression was deeply connected to his sense of self and, specifically, his Jewish background.

Bloch is probably best known today for overtly Jewish works such as the “Baal Shem” suite and “Schelomo”, but despite Knapp’s discovery of so many Jewish themes in Bloch’s music, his voice transcends musical particularism, with works such as the three string quartets, the piano quintets, and the opera Macbeth giving him a strong claim to sit alongside the major composers of the 20th century. This collection of essays by leading authorities also includes a catalogue of Bloch’s works and an extensive bibliography. It will be an essential tool for those wishing to explore and understand an important 20th century composer.

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