Bloch, Ernest, remarkable Swiss-born American composer of Jewish descent, father of Suzanne Bloch; b. Geneva, July 24, 1880; d. Portland, Ore., July 15, 1959. He studied solfeggio with Jaques-Dalcroze and violin with Louis Rey in Geneva (1894–97); then went to Brussels, where he took violin lessons with Ysaye and studied composition with Rasse (1897–99); while a student, he wrote a string quartet and a “symphonie orientale” indicative of his natural attraction to non-European cultures and coloristic melos. In 1900 he went to Germany, where he studied theory with Knorr at the Hoch Cons, in Frankfurt am Main and took private lessons with Thuille in Munich; there he began the composition of his first full-fledged sym., in C-sharp minor, with its 4 movements orig. bearing titles expressive of changing moods. He then spent a year in Paris, where he met Debussy; Bloch’s first publ. work, Historiettes au crépuscule (1903), shows Debussy’s influence. In 1904 he returned to Geneva, where he began the composition of his only opera, Macbeth, after Shakespeare; another opera, Jézabel, on a biblical subject, never materialized beyond a few initial sketches. As a tribute to his homeland, he outlined the orch. work Helvetia, based on Swiss motifs, as early as 1900, but the full score was not completed until 1928. During the season 1909–10, Bloch conducted symphonic concerts in Lausanne and Neuchâtel. In 1916 he was offered an engagement as conductor on an American tour accompanying the dancer Maud Allan; he gladly accepted the opportunity to leave war-torn Europe, and expressed an almost childlike delight upon docking in the port of N.Y. at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. Allan’s tour was not successful, however, and Bloch returned to Geneva; in 1917 he received an offer to teach at the David Mannes School of Music in N.Y., and once more he went to America; he became a naturalized American citizen in 1924. This was also the period when Bloch began to express himself in music as an inheritor of Jewish culture, explicitly articulating his racial consciousness in several verbal statements. His Israel Symphony, Trois poèmes juifs, and Schelomo, a “Hebrew rhapsody” for Cello and Orch., mark the height of Bloch’s greatness as a Jewish composer. In America, he found sincere admirers and formed a group of greatly talented students, among them Sessions, Bacon, Antheil, Moore, Rogers, Thompson, Porter, Stevens, Herbert Elwell, Isadore Freed, Jacobi, and Kirchner. From 1920 to 1925 he was director of the Inst. of Music in Cleveland, and from 1925 to 1930, director of the San Francisco Cons. When the magazine Musical America announced in 1927 a contest for a symphonic work, Bloch won first prize for his “epic rhapsody” entitled simply America; Bloch fondly hoped that the choral ending extolling America as the ideal of humanity would become a national hymn; the work was performed with a great outpouring of publicity in 5 cities, but as happens often with prizewinning works, it failed to strike the critics and the audiences as truly great, and in the end remained a mere by-product of Bloch’s genius. From 1930 to 1939 Bloch lived mostly in Switzerland; he then returned to the U.S. and taught classes at the Univ. of Calif, at Berkeley (1940–52); finally retired and lived at his newly purchased house at Agate Beach, Ore. In 1937 he was elected a member of the National Inst. of Arts and Letters, and in 1943 of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1947 he was awarded the first Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1952 he received 2 N.Y. Music Critic’s Circle awards for his String Quartet No. 3 and Concerto Grosso No. 2.
In his harmonic idiom, Bloch favored sonorities formed by the bitonal relationship of 2 major triads with the tonics standing at the distance of a tritone, but even the dissonances he employed were euphonious. In his last works of chamber music, he experimented for the first time with thematic statements of 12 different notes, but he never adopted the strict Schoenbergian technique of deriving the entire contents of a composition from the basic tone row. In his early Piano Quintet, Bloch made expressive use of quarter tones in the string parts. In his Jewish works, he emphasized the interval of the augmented second, without a literal imitation of Hebrew chants. Bloch contributed a number of informative annotations for the program books of the Boston Sym., N.Y. Phil., and other orchs.; he also contributed articles to music journals, among them “Man and Music” in Musical Quarterly (Oct. 1933). An Ernest Bloch Soc. was formed in London in 1937 to promote performances of his music, with Albert Einstein as honorary president and with vice-presidents including Sir Thomas Beecham, Havelock Ellis, and Romain Rolland.
DRAMATIC: Opera: Macbeth (1904–09; Paris, Nov. 30, 1910). ORCH.: Vivre-Aimer, symphonic poem (1900; Geneva, June 23, 1901); Sym. in C-sharp minor (1901–02; first complete perf., Geneva, 1910); Hiver-printemps, symphonic poems (1904–05; Geneva, Jan. 27, 1906); Trois Poèmes juifs (1913; Boston, March 23, 1917); Schelomo, Hebrew rhapsody for Cello and Orch. (1915–16; N.Y., May 3, 1917); Suite for Viola and Orch. (1919); In the Night (1922; orchestration of piano piece); Poems of the Sea (1922; orchestration of piano piece); Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Strings and Piano Obbligato (1924–25; Cleveland, June 1, 1925) and No. 2 for String Quartet and String Orch. (1952; BBC, London, April 11, 1953); 4 Episodes for Chamber Orch. (1926); Helvetia, the Land of Mountains and its People, symphonic fresco (1900–1929; Chicago, Feb. 18, 1932); Voice in the Wilderness, symphonic poem with Cello Obbligato (1936; Los Angeles, Jan. 21, 1937); Evocations, suite (1937; San Francisco, Feb. 11, 1938); Violin Concerto (1937–38; Cleveland, Dec. 15, 1938); Bal Shem Suite for Violin and Orch. (1939; N.Y., Oct. 19, 1941; orchestration of 1923 chamber piece); Suite symphonique (1944; Philadelphia, Oct. 26, 1945); Concerto symphonique for Piano and Orch. (1947–48; Edinburgh, Sept. 3, 1949); Concertino for Flute, Viola, and Strings (1948); Scherzo fantasque for Piano and Orch. (1948; Chicago, Dec. 2, 1950); Suite hebraique for Viola or Violin and Orch. (1951; Chicago, Jan. 1, 1953); In Memoriam (1952); Sinfonia breve (1952; BBC, London, April 11, 1953); Sym. for Trombone and Orch. (1953–54; Houston, April 4, 1956); Sym. in E-flat major (1954–55; London, Feb. 15, 1956); Proclamation for Trumpet and Orch. (1955); Suite Modale for Flute and Strings (1956; Kentfield, Calif., April 11, 1965); 2 Last Poems (”Maybe”) for Flute and Chamber Orch.: Funeral Music and Life Again? (1958; anticipatory of death from terminal cancer). CHAMBER: 5 string quartets (1916, 1945, 1952, 1953, 1956); Suite for Viola and Piano (1919; also orchestrated); 2 violin sonatas (1920; Poème mystique, 1924); 2 piano quintets: No. 1 with the use of quarter tones (N.Y., Nov. 11, 1923) and No. 2 (N.Y., Dec. 6, 1957); Baal Shem, “3 Pictures of Chassidic Life” for Violin and Piano (1923; orchestrated 1939); From Jewish Life for Cello and Piano (1924); Méditation hébraïque for Cello and Piano (1924); 3 Nocturnes for Piano Trio (1924); Nuit exotique for Violin and Piano (1924); In the Mountains for String Quartet (1925); Night for String Quartet (1925); Paysages for String Quartet (1925); Prelude for String Quartet (1925); Abodah for Violin and Piano (1929); Melody for Violin and Piano (1929); 2 Pieces for String Quartet (1938, 1950); Meditation and Processional for Viola and Piano (1951); 3 suites for Cello (1956, 1956, 1957); 2 suites for Violin (1958); Suite for Viola (1958; last movement incomplete). KEYBOARD: Piano: Ex-Voto (1914); 4 Circus Pieces (1922); In the Night (1922; orchestrated); Poems of the Sea (1922; orches trated); Danse sacrée (1923); Enfantines (1923); Nirvana (1923); 5 Sketches in Sepia (1923); Sonata (1935); Visions et Prophéties (1936; piano reduction to parts of Voice in the Wilderness). Organ: 6 Preludes (1949); 4 Wedding Marches (1950). VOCAL: Historiettes au crépuscule, 4 songs for Mezzo-soprano and Piano (1903); Poèmes d’automne, songs for Mezzo-soprano and Orch. (1906); Prelude and 2 Psalms (Nos. 114 and 137) for Soprano and Orch. (1912–14); Psalm 22 for Alto or Baritone and Orch. (1914); Israel, sym. for 5 Soloists and Orch. (1912–16; N.Y., May 3, 1917, composer conducting); America: An Epic Rhapsody for Chorus and Orch. (1926; N.Y., Dec. 20, 1928); Avodath Hakodesh for Baritone, Chorus, and Orch. (1930–33; Turin, Jan. 12, 1934).
M. Chiesa, Bibliografia delle opere musicali di E. B. (Turin, 1931); idem, E. B. (Turin, 1933); D. Kushner, E. B. and His Music (Glasgow, 1973); S. Bloch and I. Heskes, E. B., Creative Spirit: A Program Source Book (N.Y., 1976); R. Strassburg, E. B., Voice in the Wilderness: A Biographical Study (Los Angeles, 1977); D. Kushner, E. B.: A Guide to Research (N.Y., 1988); W. Matz, Musica humana: Versuch ù’ber E. B.s Philosophie der Musik (Frankfurt am Main and N.Y., 1988).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire
Ernest Bloch was born in Geneva on July 24, 1880. Showing musical gifts at an early age, he studied violin with Louis Rey and theory with Émile Jacques-Dalcroze. In 1897 Bloch went to Brussels, where he studied violin with Eugène Ysaye, and then to Frankfurt, studying composition with Iwan Knorr.
Bloch composed his first important work, the Symphony in C-sharp Minor, at the age of 21. In 1904, after having written some songs and a symphonic work, Hiver Printemps, he began to work on his opera, Macbeth, with a libretto by Edmond Fleg, and it was premiered in Paris in 1910. Bloch became a professor at the Geneva Conservatory in 1911. Among his pupils was the conductor Ernest Ansermet.
The compositions Bloch wrote between 1912 and 1916—Three Jewish Poems; settings of Psalms 137, 114, and 22; Schelomo; Israel; and String Quartet No. 1—when premiered during his first visit to the United States in 1917, brought him spectacular recognition. He soon settled in New York City with his family, teaching and lecturing. Among his pupils were Roger Sessions, George Antheil, Douglas Moore, Quincy Porter, Randall Thompson, Frederick Jacobi, Herbert Elwell, and Leon Kirchner.
In 1919 Bloch won the Coolidge Prize (Suite for Viola and Piano), in 1926 the Carolyn Beebe Prize (Four Episodes for Chamber Orchestra), in 1928 the Musical America Prize (an orchestral rhapsody, America), and in 1930 the Victor Prize (Helvetia).
As director of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (1920-1930), Bloch made a strong impact. He continued to compose works, such as the Concerto Grosso No. 1, which are tonal, classical in form, and conservatively modern. Bloch vitalized the atmosphere with his enthusiasm, informality, and rather stubborn opinions.
After 1930 Bloch returned to Europe to live, where he composed a sacred service, a piano sonata, a violin concerto, and some large orchestral works. The events leading to World War II affected him deeply, and he stopped composing for some time.
On his return to America, Bloch and his wife, Marguerite, settled in Agate Beach, Ore. He gave master courses for several summers at the University of California at Berkeley and became professor emeritus in 1952. Many of the 25 works he wrote during his final years are considered his peak achievements. They include four String Quartets, Symphony in E-flat, Sinfonia Breve, Piano Quintet No. 11, works for trombone, trumpet, and flute with orchestra, and several suites for unaccompanied stringed instruments.
In 1958, after a long illness, Bloch submitted to surgery; on July 15, 1959, he died. He had received many honors, medals, and honorary degrees, but he always remained unworldly, preferring the solitude of nature to the social life of big cities.
General works which discuss Bloch's music include Guido Pannain, Modern Composers (1932; trans. 1932); John Tasker Howard, Our Contemporary Composers: American Music in the Twentieth Century (1941); David Ewen, The Book of Modern Composers (1942; 3d ed. rev. and enlarged 1961) and The World of Twentieth-Century Music (1968); Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961); and Otto Deri, Exploring Twentieth-Century Music (1968).
Strassburg, Robert., Ernest Bloch, voice in the wilderness: a biographical study, 1977 (Los Angeles: Trident Shop, California State University). □
BLOCH, ERNEST (1880–1959), composer. Bloch, who was born in Geneva, revealed his musical gifts as a child and was only ten when he wrote down a vow that he would become a composer and then, in ritual fashion, burned the inscribed paper over a mound of stones. In the face of parental opposition, he left home at the age of 16 and studied music for eight years in Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, and Paris. At that time he composed his first big work, the Symphony in C Sharp Minor. Returning to Geneva in 1904, Bloch entered the family clockmaking business. During the next three years he composed his opera Macbeth. It was first produced in 1910 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, and was warmly received. Major works produced during the years immediately following include Trois Poèmes Juifs for orchestra (1913), Schelomo, a "Hebrew rhapsody" for cello and orchestra (1916), and the Israel Symphony for orchestra and five solo voices (1912–16). Bloch first went to America in 1916, as conductor for the dancer Maud Allan, and soon won recognition. Early in 1917, Karl Muck invited him to conduct the Trois Poèmes Juifs in Boston, and a few months later a concert of his orchestral works was given in New York. In 1920, he founded and organized the Cleveland Institute of Music. He left it in 1925 to become director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. During his five years in this post, Bloch composed a number of large-scale works. Best known of these is America, an "epic rhapsody" for chorus and orchestra (1926). A counterpart to this work is Helvetia, a "symphonic fresco" written in tribute to Bloch's native land.
One of Bloch's most important works is the Avodath Hakodesh ("Sacred Service") for Sabbath morning for baritone, mixed chorus, and orchestra which he wrote in seclusion in Switzerland during 1930–33 (commissioned by Gerald Warburg). He spent the years 1934–38 in a remote French village. From this period came the piano sonata, Voice in the Wilderness (symphonic poem with cello obbligato), and the violin concerto. Bloch also composed three string quartets (1916, 1945, and 1951–52). In 1938 Bloch returned to America. After a number of tours as conductor, he finally settled in 1941 in Agate Beach, Oregon. There he spent the rest of his life except for annual lecture visits to the University of California. The manuscripts he left when he died are in the university's music library at Berkeley, where an Ernest Bloch Archive was set up.
Many honors came to Bloch in his last years. He continued, however, to go his own way without much regard for musical fashion, and ended his career true to the ideals with which he had begun it. As he once stated: "I do not propose or desire to attempt a reconstruction of the music of the Jews…. It is rather the Hebrew spirit that interests me – the complex, ardent, agitated soul that vibrates for me in the Bible; the vigor and ingenuousness of the Patriarchs, the violence that finds expression in the books of the Prophets, the burning love of justice, the desperation of the preachers of Jerusalem, the sorrow and grandeur of the Book of Job, the sensuality of the Song of Songs. All this is in us, all this is in me, and is the better part of me. This it is which I seek to feel within me and to translate in my music – the sacred race-emotion that lies dormant in our souls."
M. Tibaldi Chiesa, Ernest Bloch (1933), incl. bibl.; D.Z. Kushner, "Ernest Bloch and His Symphonic Works" (unpubl. dissert. 1967); G. Saleski, Famous Musicians of Jewish Origin (1949), 18–27; D. Ewen (ed.), New Book of Modern Composers (1961), 86–97; G.M. Gatti, in: Musical Quarterly, 7 (1921), 20–38; D. Newlin, ibid., 33 (1947), 443–59; California University, Autograph Manuscriptsof Ernest Bloch at the University of California (1962); Sendrey, Music, index; Grove, Dict; Baker, Biog Dict.