Ernest Bloch


Ernest Bloch  

Sacred Service       

The creator of the greatest Jewish concert music of the 20th century was undoubtedly the Swiss-American composer, Ernest Bloch. Born in Geneva, Switzerland on July 24, 1880, he was the youngest of three children. Although his father was actively involved in the Jewish community, Ernest's interests were focused on music. By the age of nine, he was already playing the violin and composing. To say that his father did not encourage his musical talent would be an understatement. But despite his father's objections (Maurice referred to his son's compositions as Scheissmusik), Ernest continued his musical training, moving from Geneva, where he had studied with Émile Dalcroze to Brussels to work with Eugene Ysaÿe, Frankfurt with Ivan Knorr, Munich with Ludwig Thuille, and Paris where he associated with Claude Debussy.

While in Paris, Bloch renewed his friendship with Edmond Fleg (1874-1963), a poet and historian and a fellow Genevan. Fleg was to plant seeds in his friend's soul that would bear fruit for many years and change the course of the composer's life. In 1894 Capt. Alfred Dreyfus had been put on trial in Paris on charges of treason. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to life in a prison colony. But within a few years evidence was brought forth proving that the documents that had incriminated Dreyfus were the forgeries of an anti-Semite. Paris was in turmoil over these revelations, and many Jews, Edmond Fleg among them, became ardent nationalists.

It was Fleg's influence that caused Bloch to rediscover his Jewish roots and proclaim his ethnic pride. In 1906 Bloch wrote a letter to Fleg in which he proclaimed, "I have read the Bible … and an immense sense of pride surged in me. My entire being vibrated; it is a revelation. … I would find myself again a Jew, raise my head proudly as a Jew." In a subsequent letter to Fleg (1911) Bloch formulated his new artistic manifesto.

I notice here and there themes that are without my willing it, for the greater part Jewish, and which begin to make themselves precise and indicate the instinctive and also conscious direction in which I am going. I do not search to produce a form, I am producing nothing so far, but I feel that the hour will come… There will be Jewish rhapsodies for orchestra, Jewish poems, dances mainly, poems for voices for which I have not the words, but I would wish them Hebraic. All my musical Bible shall come, and I would let sing in me these secular chants where will vibrate all the Jewish soul…  I think that I shall write one day songs to be sung at the synagogue in part by the minister, in part by the faithful. It is really strange that all this comes out slowly, this impulse that has chosen me, who all my life have been a stranger to all that is Jewish.

Bloch's terminology is telling. He writes that he did not choose to become a composer of Jewish music, but rather that the impulse had chosen him. Indeed, Bloch had no sympathy for nationalist composers who deliberately tried to insert folk-like themes into their works; Bloch was convinced that if a composition were to be honest and organic, the Jewish element must be integrated subconsciously into the creative process.

To our ears his use of the word "race" may sound alarming and politically incorrect. But Bloch was formulating his thoughts at a time when Europe was formulating a new form of Jew hatred. The term anti-Semitism didn’t make its first appearance until the year 1879, only one year before the composer's birth. Prior to the Enlightenment, anti-Jewish attacks had been based on religious intolerance or suspicions of divided national loyalty. But in the new liberal Europe, scorn of the Jew would be based on the inferiority of the Semites as a race. The "scientific" study of racial differences led to Joseph-Arthur Gobineau's, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853) and Richard Wagner's notorious essay, "Jewishness in Music" (1850), in which he argued that Jews were incapable of creating any original music within the European cultivated tradition. As to the distinctive liturgical music of the Jews, Wagner considered it "a travesty … a repugnant gurgle, yodel and cackle."

Bloch accepted the idea of the racial distinctiveness of the Jews, but, unlike Wagner, he had an appreciation for traditional synagogue chant, and believed that a Jew who is steeped in that tradition not only could create symphonic music, but could not help but create a work of art that somehow incorporates this traditional foundation.

In 1916 he was quoted in an interview in the Boston Post.

Racial consciousness is something that every great artist must have. A tree must have its roots deep down in its soil. A composer who says something is not only himself. He is his forefathers! He is his people! Then his message takes on a vitality and significance which nothing else can give it, and which is absolutely essential in great art. I try to compose with this in mind. I am a Jew. I have the virtues and defects of the Jew. It is my own belief that when I am most Jewish I compose most effectively.

From 1912 to 1916 Bloch composed a series of works based on Jewish themes, including The Israel Symphony (1912-1916), Three Psalms (1912-1914), Schelomo (1916), the first string quartet (1916), and Three Jewish Poems for Orchestra (1913).

In 1916 Bloch came to New York to conduct a ballet orchestra. He was so taken by the atmosphere and opportunities that the following year he fetched his family and moved permanently to the United States. For three years he was an instructor at the Mannes School of Music in Manhattan. Then, from 1920 to 1925, he served as the founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. In 1925 he moved to San Francisco to become Director of the San Francisco Conservatory. In 1930, thanks to a generous trust fund administered though the University of California at Berkeley, Bloch was able to resign his position from the San Francisco Conservatory and devote himself full-time to composing and conducting. After nearly a decade in Europe, Bloch returned to California, to teach an annual workshop for composers at Berkeley. In 1952 he retired from teaching altogether and moved to a reclusive life in Oregon. Bloch died July 15, 1959 in Portland, Oregon.

Bloch's greatest legacy may be the impressive body of compositions. But in addition, he affected the lives of so many Americans through his inspiring conducting of choruses and orchestras, and through his teaching. The roster of his students reads like a veritable who's who of American composers, including George Antheil, Henry Cowell, Frederick Jacobi, Leon Kirchner, Douglas Moore, Quincy Porter, Bernard Rogers, Roger Sessions, and Randall Thompson.

In 1929 Bloch's friend, Cantor Reuben Rinder of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, commissioned him to write a setting of the Sabbath morning liturgy. The composer took the project very seriously.

I am still studying my Hebrew text. I have now memorized entirely the whole service in Hebrew… I know its significance word by word. … But what is more important, I have absorbed it to the point that it has become mine and as if it were the very expression of my soul. It far surpasses a Hebrew Service now. It has become a cosmic poem, a glorification of the laws of the Universe … the very text I was after since the age of ten … a dream of stars, of forces … the Primordial Element … before the worlds existed. … It has become a 'private affair' between God and me.

It took Bloch four years to complete his Sacred Service (Avodat Ha-kodesh), with most of the work done at his retreat in the Swiss Alps. In 1934 he conducted the first performances in concert halls in Turin, Naples, New York, Milan, and London. Ironically, it wasn't until 1938 that Temple Emanu-El was able to present the work it had commissioned. But perhaps this grand work, with its universal themes, its post-romantic organic conception, scored for large orchestra, chorus, and baritone soloist, was more appropriate for the concert stage than for the synagogue bimah. Bloch himself considered it more a sacred Hebrew oratorio than a Jewish liturgical service. He once said, "I am completely submerged in my great Jewish 'Oratorio,' on an enormous Hebrew text, and more cosmic and universal than Jewish."

Bloch's "enormous Hebrew text" was supposed to be the Sabbath morning liturgy of the American Reform synagogue, as it appeared in the Union Prayer Book. But by setting only the Hebrew texts, Bloch significantly departed from the Reform liturgy, which was designed to be conducted primarily in English. Furthermore, by creating a major work that was to be performed without interruption, the composer left no room for certain key parts of the service, including the Torah reading and the sermon. In this respect, at least, Bloch's Service shares a fate with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis: its scope is too grandiose and its message is too universal for the liturgical function upon which it was based. Indeed, Bloch said that the five parts of the Service "have to be played without interruption, as a unity … like the Mass of the Catholics."

Unifying the Service is a six-note motif: G-A-C-B-A-G, which Bloch weaves with masterful contrapuntal skill and is heard on nearly every page of the score. While the six-note motif may be thought of as representing the universal message of the Service, another, more sinuous melody represents the more personal, the specifically Jewish aspect. This melody is less rigid rhythmically, and more chromatic, evoking the modes of traditional synagogue chant.

The Service opens with what the composer called, "a kind of 'Pastorale'—in the desert perhaps—The Temple of God in 'Nature.'" The voices intone Mah Tovu ("How goodly are thy tents," a traditional prayer recited on entering a synagogue, but absent from the Union Prayer Book), and continue with Barekhu (call to prayer), and the Shema (Jewish Credo) and its blessings. "Here one feels God Himself knows how beautiful life can be made with joy inside, not through external possessions." The movement ends with Tsur Yisroel ("Rock of Israel"), the only part of the Service based on a traditional synagogue melody, a deliciously understated cantorial recitative. Bloch called it a response to "all the misery, the sufferings of Humanity—as represented by a crowd of poor, hungry, persecuted people."

The second movement comprises the central portion of any Jewish liturgy, the Tefillah. Bloch chose to set only the Kedushah (Sanctification), a trope traditionally chanted responsively by cantor and congregation. Here again we sense the composer's universalization of the prayer. He called it, "a dialogue between God and Man, the chorus discovering the law of the atom, the stars, the whole universe, the One, He our God."

The third movement starts with a "silent meditation." The orchestra alone is heard, allowing the audience a moment to formulate their own thoughts, perhaps as a substitute for the liturgical silent Tefillah. Then the choir, a cappella, quietly intones Yihyu Lerotson, the prayer for acceptance that follows the Tefillah. The composer called this section "a silent meditation which comes in before you take your soul out and look at what it contains."

A transition leads to the most majestic section of the liturgy—the service in which the Torah is taken from the ark and paraded through the congregation. Bloch's description is worth quoting in full.

When I read “Lift up your heads, O ye gates and be ye lifted up ye everlasting doors and the King of Glory shall come in,” I could not understand what this was about. It mystified, puzzled and worried me. I was in the Swiss mountains at the time; the day was foggy, the fir trees drooped, the landscape was covered with sadness, I could not see the light. Suddenly a wind came up, the clouds in the sky parted and the sun was over everything. I understood. I felt God was within me at that time in lifting up the clouds. We were in a fog, we could not see the Truth, nor understand God and life. But when the clouds lift from out of our mind and life, and our hearts become as a little child, then the Truth will come in as a King of Glory.

The fourth movement was inspired by the ceremony of returning the Torah to the ark. It ends with Ets Chayim Hi, which Bloch called a “peace song.” Indeed, Bloch ends the movement with ten repetitions of the word “sholom.”

The fifth and final movement is the most daring of the Service, and took Bloch the longest to compose. It begins with a recapitulation of the pastoral mood of the opening, after which the cantor and choir sing the Reform “Adoration,” based on the traditional Oleynu prayer. Now for the first time Bloch introduces the English text of the Union Prayer Book, to be recited by the “minister” over the orchestral interlude. Yet this “spoken voice” part is notated with specified pitches and rhythms. The chorus returns (in Hebrew) with the explosive conclusion to the Oleynu prayer. “Then there is a terrible crash, as if suddenly poor, fleshy man thinks of himself, his fears—death.” The minister returns to recite, in English, a prologue to the Mourners’ Kaddish. But in place of the expected Kaddish, the chorus recapitulates the Tsur Yisroel from the end of the first movement. Bloch called this “the supplication of mankind, its cry towards God for help, for an explanation of this sad world—the reason for our suffering.”

After an ominous silence—from very far away—out of time—out of Space—above Time and Space, a kind of collective voice rises, mysteriously—Is it the key—the answer—the explanation? This is the beautiful poem, Adon Olom—a philosophy or metaphysics, which outgrows all creeds, all religions, all Science…

Bloch found himself at an impasse here. How was he to end this great work of his?

When I saw the last small violet in the field, dead, after giving everything it could, I too thought I was never going to finish [my] work. The last twenty-five measures took me two years to write. I wanted something lyrical, a joy for the people. Two years of groping in the darkness it took to deliver the message to the people: the conquering of death, life, suffering with the highest sense and in the highest proportion.

The concluding hymn of the Union Prayer Book (Eyn Keloheynu)did not provide Bloch with the answer he was seeking. In its place, he substituted the hymn that appears in the Reform liturgy as the conclusion for the Sabbath evening service. Adon Olom was his answer. But this was not to be the typical setting of Adon Olom, sung rather mindlessly by the congregation as a strophic hymn. Bloch is probably the only composer who has dared attempt a literal setting of this cosmic poem. This is not functional liturgical music. With dramatic gestures Bloch paints an eerie picture of a world “before any living being was created,” and then a world “after all things shall cease to exist.” He then applies a more comforting brush to “He is my God, my living Redeemer, my comfort in time of sorrow…the LORD is with me, I shall have no fear.”

Then after the orchestra and chorus give this message of faith, hope and courage, we must send people back to their routine of living, cooking, laundry and so on. Thus, the priest gives a benediction, the chorus answers, “Amen,” and they leave.

It is a whole drama in itself. … For fifty minutes I hope it will bring to the souls, minds and hearts of the people, a little more confidence, make them a little more kind and indulgent than they were and bring them peace.

Last year an informal search yielded a startling discovery: Bloch's Sacred Service had not been performed in concert in Boston since Zamir's last presentation of the work in 1994. Why isn't the Sacred Service performed more often? Perhaps its blood is too rich for most synagogues. Perhaps it appears too exotic for most symphonies and choral societies. As we were making plans for our anniversary concert, I knew that the Sacred Service had to be on the program.

For further reading:

Bloch, Suzanne and Irene Heskes. Ernest Bloch, Creative Spirit: A Program Source Book. New York: Jewish Music Council of the National Jewish Welfare Board, 1976.

Fromm, Herbert. On Jewish Music. Bloch Publishing Co., 1978.

Knapp, Alexander. "The Jewishness of Bloch: Subconscious or Conscious?", Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 97 (1970-71), 99-112.

Móricz, Klára. “Jewish Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Art Music.” Ph.D. dissertation, The University of California, Berkeley, 1999.

Schiller, David Michael. Bloch, Schoenberg, Bernstein: Assimilating Jewish Music. New  York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Strassburg, Robert. Ernest Bloch. Los Angeles: California State University, 1977.

Ward, Seth. "The Liturgy of Bloch's Avodath Ha-Kodesh." Modern Judaism 23:3 (October 2003), 243-263

ComposersAyan Sanyal