I must confess that
I have never allowed myself to be moved or struck by the music
of Ernest Bloch. I think it may go back to hearing a performance
of Schelomo many years ago. I did not like it in the
least, however I cannot really recall why. Since then I just
seem to have avoided Bloch’s music: I have never heard any live
performances and have missed the opportunity of listening to
him on the wireless or CD. I know that it is ridiculous. I
have long known that Bloch is a great composer, but it just
did not occur to me that after some 35 years I may actually
enjoy some, if not all, of his music. Now all this has changed.
The present recording
is an eye opener to me. I love it! It is fantastic, gorgeous,
exciting and brilliant, fun, tuneful and moving - all rolled
into one. Where has it been all my life! I do not know if there
are any other recordings of this work available. My two databases,
Arkiv and Crotchet only refer to the present version. Of course
there may be deleted CD or vinyl releases out there, but for
this listener at any rate this is the one and only recording.
Why is this great
Epic Rhapsody so good? Why do I recommend you to buy
it today? Let’s just look at it in detail and perhaps this will
lead to a conclusion.
Ernest Bloch’s America
was composed in 1926/27 for a competition. The magazine ‘Musical
America’ was offering a prize of $3000 for a new orchestral
work. And that was a deal of money over eighty years ago. Apparently
ninety-two manuscripts were submitted to the judges (I would
love to read the list!). The judges included some big names
in the musical world of the day: Frederick Stock, Walter Damrosch,
Serge Koussevitsky, Alfred Hertz and the redoubtable Leopold
Stokowski. Bloch was apparently selected by a unanimous vote.
In addition to the handsome prize, the work was to be performed
simultaneously in the conductors’ home bases. So the first performance(s)
was/were held in Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and
Bloch has written
that the idea had first occurred to him when he arrived in New
York Harbour back in 1916. He wanted to compose an anthem that
“should rightfully belong to and reflect the country for which
it might stand.” Of course his musical friends were somewhat
lukewarm about the project. However the idea stuck in the composer’s
mind. It was not until 1925 that Bloch began to study the ‘Father
of Modern Poetry’, Walt Whitman, that the idea resurfaced. Perhaps
aware of a number of Whitman settings for chorus and orchestra,
Bloch was inspired to write an anthem on the Whitman-esque words
“America, America!/Thy name is in my heart/ My love for thee
arouses me/to nobler thoughts and deeds.” Soon the plan for
the three movement epic settled itself in the composer’s mind.
The work was completed in 1927 and is dedicated to the memory
of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman whose visions “have upheld
its inspiration”. The inscription to the score also has these
words – “This symphony has been written in love for this country;
in reverence for its past, in faith for its future.” Whitman
is also quoted, “O America, because you build for mankind, I
build for you.”
There are two things
to note about this work. First of all it is a ‘symphony’ in
all but name. Bloch himself refers to it as such. And secondly
it is a ‘musical commentary’ on the history of the United States.
The method that Bloch uses to realise that purpose is by the
implicit and often explicit use of ‘National’ tunes that have
had a lasting impact on Americans of all generations.
There are three
movements to this ‘Rhapsody’. The first presents to the
listener the Native Americans and the early life of the country.
This is followed by musical reference to the landing of the
Pilgrim Fathers and their early settlements: both the struggle
and the hardship are well felt in the music. The second movement
reflects the most devastating period of American history – the
Civil War between the Union and the Confederate States. The
third movement is all about the United States of the ‘present’
day – that is 1926, of course! Bloch presents all the noise
and turbulence and pizzazz of the Jazz Age. Not forgotten, of
course, are the poverty and the prosperity. At this time the
great reconstruction of America had begun, notwithstanding the
depression. It was the time when buildings reached higher and
higher into the Manhattan sky. The work finishes with a great
anthem to the country sung by full chorus.
I feel that the
programme notes could have been a little more generous in general,
and in particular with their description of the references and
programme (it is quite definitely ‘programme music’). I do not
hesitate to provide more detail that may help the listener enjoy
this great work.
The opening section
is prefaced by “…1620 - The Soil – The Indians - (England) –
The Mayflower – The Landing of the Pilgrims.” The work commences
with a tune given to solo bassoon to the accompaniment of tremolo
strings. This theme is reputed to have an ‘Indian’ character.
There are suggestions of an ‘English March’ played by the trumpet.
This is followed by what commentators have referred to as the
‘Call of America’ theme. Part of this music is derived from
the closing anthem – which was supposedly the first part thought
out by Bloch. There is a section that is headed in the score
– Struggles & Hardships - which appears to have had its
source in an old sea shanty. This gives way to another quote
from the ‘anthem’ given fortissimo followed by a direct quotation
of the great hymn ‘Old Hundredth’. Yet, in spite of all
the energy of what has gone before this movement ends softly
and with due peace.
The second movement
has the following note – “1861-1865 – Hours of Joy – Hours of
Sorrow.” There is also another quotation from Walt Whitman -
“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.... Each singing
that belongs to him or her, to no-one else ... singing with
open mouth their strong melodious songs.”
The movement begins
allegretto with a ‘Southern’ tune on the English horn. After
an allusion to ‘The Call of America’ there comes a Black American
song, Row after Row, then a dreamy lullaby, Old Folks
at Home. We also hear Pop goes the Weasel and Hail
Columbia. After a considerable climax a Creole song is played
on the oboe. Before long we hear a number of hints of Civil
War songs including John Brown’s Body and The Battle
Cry of Freedom. The anthem subject makes itself heard quite
forcefully before the movement dies down into sadness and reflection.
The last movement
is headed “1926 ... The Present – The Future.” Again a quote
is made from Walt Whitman –“As he sees the furthest he has the
most faith.” Here we are in a different sound-world. There is
an immediate syncopated version of the ‘Call of America' motif.
The music looks towards dance with its rhythm and vitality.
We hear Black American tunes which are maybe a suggestion of
Jazz? The next section of this movement is titled ‘The Turmoil
of the Present’. There is a great churning climax followed by
a collapse into the opening music of the first movement. There
is development before the Old Hundredth makes an appropriate
return. The ‘Call of America to the Nations of the World’ theme
makes itself felt again and after a huge apotheosis, the work
concludes with the anthem sung rather simply by the chorus and
accompanied by the orchestra. In amongst the singing, can be
heard a quotation from Yankee Doodle. A moving moment
and also a great hope for the future!
One little mystery
to unravel. I am unable to find the source of the words used
in the final anthem. I had thought at first that they were most
likely to have come from the pen of Whitman. However a brief
search of the Leaves of Grass did not reveal their source.
I wonder if it is a pastiche by Bloch himself? However the words
quoted in the CD booklet do not seem to be quite the words sung.
I wonder why? Perhaps it is just a little indistinct? Furthermore
Bloch imagined that the audience would join in with this concluding
anthem, perhaps becoming a pseudo ‘National Anthem?’ This did
not seem to happen.
So what are we to
say about this epic paean of praise to America, the adopted
land of Ernest Bloch?
The first thing
is that this music does not depend on the programme. If you
wish to, forget it entirely. OK, it is true that the quoted
tunes may be a little unsettling but the symphony does work
as absolute music. Listening in this way would be unfair to
the composer’s intentions. He wrote that he aimed to express
in musical terms a credo for all mankind. He talked of the “common
purpose of a widely diversified race ultimately becomes one
race, strong and great.” To do this he has created a résumé
of history. Ultimately the programme is important. I suppose
it is much less subtle in achieving its aims than Dvořák’s
New World Symphony which adopts a more philosophical
Of course the work
had its critics. And I suppose any work that is symphonic and
used snatches of national or folk songs will always put people
off that are more cerebral in their musical tastes. But I could
not help being reminded of Charles Ives as I listened. Of course
there are none of the adventurous primitivisms of Ives, but
there is the enthusiastic use of America’s great heritage of
song. And the use of jazz and even car horns nods towards George
Gershwin and his thoughts about Paris.
This is a great
work that achieves what it sets out to do; a description of
the epic history and the sense of destiny that has been the
nature of the American Dream for many years. And what is more
the music is extremely interesting, attractive and moving into
I am going to say
less about the Suite hébraïque as this is much more in
the public domain than the Epic Rhapsody. Arkiv CD database
lists some seven versions of this work. I am not in a position
to compare the present recording to the other versions. However
the words that spring to mind are haunting and nostalgic. Bloch
uses traditional Jewish melodies in this work. However the composer
does point out that he has “absorbed them to such a point that
it may be difficult for future musicologists to determine what
is traditional and what is Bloch.”
Listening to this
music one is not really conscious of this being a catena of
tunes. I am not an authority on Jewish folk tunes, but what
does come across is the melancholy that I would associate with
The work was originally
written in 1951 for violin and piano, but was orchestrated the
following year. The work’s genesis was a result of the composer's
gratitude to the Covent Club of Illinois organising a Bloch
Festival to celebrate his 70th birthday.
has three contrasting movements – Rapsodie (sic), Processional
Whether this is
a great work or just a fine one is a matter of opinion. However,
I found it moving and it held my interest for the twelve minutes
of its length. The playing was measured and quite rhapsodic
and well supported by the Atlas Camerata.
The main recommendation
here is for the Epic Rhapsody. This is a stunning work
that may well do much to make Bloch's name better known to a
wider range of listeners.
see also Review
by Rob Barnett