Ernest Bloch

1880 1959

Ernest Bloch

Composer • Violin


Ernest Bloch was a Swiss born American composer of the twentieth century. He did not create any new schools of thought for music as a whole, but he found his own voice and used it through a variety of compositional styles. He was also a teacher and inspiration for a new generation of composers.

Ernest Bloch was born on 24 July 1880 in Geneva. His father was a successful clock maker, including cuckoo clocks. He studied violin in Geneva with Louis Rey and composition with Emile Jacques-Dalcroze. In the 1897 he left Switzerland for Brussels to study at the Royal Conservatory. In Belgium his composition teacher was François Rasse and he continued his violin training under Eugene Ysaÿe and Franz Schörg. In 1900, on the advice of his teacher, he left for Frankfurt to study with Iwan Knorr.  The next few years would take him to Munich and Paris for further study, though it was in Frankfurt the he grew the most musically. While writing throughout his academic career, Bloch did not publish any of his works.

In 1904, Bloch married Margarethe Schneider, to whom he was engaged since 1901. They had their first child in 1905, while Bloch was working on his opera Macbeth. The next year however would begin a test of their marriage when Bloch fell for the poet Béatrix Rodès, with whom he had a relationship until the end of the year, a divorce narrowly avoided.  1907 saw Bloch searching for a place to present his first opera. After providing hearings for colleagues in Paris, the director of the Opéra-Comique agreed to stage the premiere. Its first production in 1910 was not well received and the composer retreated to Geneva to recover. There was, however, one enthused audience member, Nadia Boulanger, who would become a lifelong friend of Bloch and his daughter.

In 1916 he travelled to the United States with the Maud Allen Dance Company. The company went bankrupt and he was left in Ohio. In America though, he found success as a conductor and composer. His works were performed in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, among many other major cities. In 1922 he began to doubt his desire to stay in America, but a visit to Washington DC and the Library of Congress took him to their music collection. The vast collection showed him a previously unseen side of his soon-to-be adopted country and in 1924 he gained American citizenship.

He became the director of the San Francisco Conservatory in 1925, but in 1930 he returned to Europe. He spent a decade travelling and conducting his works, but the rise of Nazism sent the Jewish Bloch back across the ocean. At the outbreak of World War II he settled in Agate Beach, Oregon. He became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, where he would teach until 1952.  On 15 July 1959, Ernest Bloch died of cancer.

Bloch spent twenty years trying to express his Jewish identity through music. He set Psalm 114 for soprano and orchestra andBa’al Shem Suite. His Trois Poemes Juifs (Three Jewish Poems) was written in 1913 in memory of his recently deceased father. The piece is part of his “Jewish Cycle” that also included his “Israel” symphony andSchelomo. The piece is made up of the Danse, Rite, and Cortege funebre movements. The three sections displays Bloch’s talent for orchestration. The piece does not show a specific image, but does give a range of emotional colors. 

In 1920, Bloch founded a music school in Cleveland. While successful, Bloch’s time there was riddled with conflict with the school’s benefactors. HisConcerto Grossowas written at the end of his tenure, in response to his students’ opinion that such a piece could still be written. His students rehearsed his Prelude to theConcerto Grosso with great enthusiasm. The rest of the piece, for string orchestra with piano obbligato was completed in 1925. While drawing on classical techniques long established, it is unmistakably twentieth century.

Baal Sham for solo violin and orchestra was written by Bloch as a testament to his cultural, rather than religious, sense of being Jewish. Meaning “Master of the Name”, it refers to the father of the Hassidic movement, Israel of Miedziboz, Poland. The piece was written for Swiss violinist André de Ribaupierre, whom Bloch had hired to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Music. It is in three movements:Vidui, Nigun, and Simchas Torah. The work draws both on virtuosic playing and a folk-dance style. The Yiddish flavour is shown with his quoting of a wedding song,Di Mzinke Oisgegeben. The work was orchestrated by Bloch in 1939 at the request of his publisher.

Ernest Bloch’s left a large catalogue of compositions that is still being performed around the world. He helped establish one of the important American conservatories, the Cleveland Institute of Music, as their first director. He felt a connection with his adopted homeland, leaving his musical manuscripts and personal papers to the Library of Congress in Washington. He was well respected during his lifetime, with some going so far as to say he was the fourth “B” after Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. His many honours included membership to the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome, the Gold Medal in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and many honorary degrees.

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