America: an Epic Rhapsody

About this work

In 1915, the 35-year old Bloch left war-torn Europe for a first visit to the United States and fell in love with the country at first sight - he described his impression as 'like being in another planet' -. Less than a year later, when he was arriving to New York harbor, he had the idea of writing an american symphony. He had already in his portfolio Israel, and Schelomo, but unlike these works that do not include folk material, he wanted his American symphony to feature popular songs, "indian songs, southern songs, The Old Folks at Home, Hail Columbia" as he put it. It took him ten years "to absorb America" before he could write the work. He recognized that the problem of including a lot of well known material in a work is to find something to give it unity, and he conceived an anthem on which the whole piece is based, from the opening phrase in bassoon and lower strings, to the very ending, where the anthem appears in full, with a chorus singing the text he provided himself. The work is in three movements. The first, Poco lento, is entitled "1620" and includes the sections The Soil - The Indians - England - The MayFlower - The Landing of the Pilgrims. It is based in a chain of indian melodies as well as the Old Hundred psalm. To the ear, however, it seems to offer a steady musical line that inhabits the same spiritual land as Schelomo and Israel, although the Concerto Grosso No.1 is also strongly suggested in passing. The second, Allegretto, "1861-1865" comprises Hours of Joy - Hours of Sorrow. The material quoted here includes The Old South Ballad, The Old Folks at Home, Hail Columbia, John Brown's Body, Dixie, and Pop Goes the Weasel, as well as the reappearance of some of the themes of the first movement. The third, Allegro con spirito, entitled "1926" has two sections, The Present, and The Future. The first is symbolized by elements of blues and ragtime, the second represented by the concluding Anthem. Perhaps it is fair to say that this would have been a very successful work but only from the point of view of the people who are not overly familiar with the tunes. To the mainstream of serious music lovers, it is impossible to prevent a feeling of unrest when the orchestra breaks into Pop Goes the Weasel or Yankee Doodle. Consequently, this is one of the most neglected of the main symphonic works of the composer.