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America: An Epic Rhapsody (1926)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Inventing America, performed on Sep 25, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In 1916, the 35-year-old Ernest Bloch arrived in the United States full of hope and confidence that he would be able to achieve the recognition that had eluded him in his native Switzerland. He later recalled that the idea of a large-scale work celebrating America had occurred to him as soon as his boat first approached New York Harbor. Yet it took more than a decade for the idea to materialize. In 1927, when Bloch was the director of the San Francisco Conservatory, he entered a competition organized by Musical America magazine. The competition was for a symphonic work by an American composer on an American theme, and Bloch, who had become a naturalized citizen only three years earlier, walked away with the first prize. America had been preceded in Bloch’s output by the monumental choral symphony Israel (1912-16), a tribute to his religious heritage, and was to be followed by Helvetia (1928), five orchestral frescoes celebrating his native country. The three works together constitute a kind of “identity triptych” for this solitary wanderer among twentieth-century composers.

The three movements of America—which Bloch called an “epic rhapsody” —are something of a musical collage made up of a large number of quotations, most of them folksongs. To list them is almost to provide a formal outline of the work: the Native American melodies of the first movement (for which Bloch gave credit to the ethnomusicologist Frances Dinsmore) symbolizes prehistory; an “Old English March” signals the would-be first settlers boarding the Mayflower; the hymn “Old Hundredth” marks their arrival in the new land and their determination to build a new country. Yet the most significant moments are probably those “between the lines.” The work opens in a “primeval mist,” with distant fanfares and improvisatory woodwind solos constantly clashing against the harmonic background. This material will recur several times in the course of the work as a reminder of past tribulations.

“I hear America singing . . .” These famous words by Walt Whitman set the tone for the second movement, which proceeds from an old ballad from the South through “Old Folks at Home” to what Bloch labelled as “Virginia Reels” (but what most listeners will recognize as “Pop Goes the Weasel”). The central portion of the movement is a ferocious battle scene from the Civil War, with four different songs from the era heard simultaneously in the orchestra. The Southern ballad from the opening, and the mysterious motto from the first movement, return, as if lamenting the soldiers fallen in the war. The final movement depicts a grim present and then conjures up the image of a beautiful future. The present is the noisy hustle and bustle of a modern city, complete with car horns and jazzy syncopations (clearly, Bloch had a rather low opinion of jazz). All this hyperactivity leads to catastrophe: an earth-shattering climax marked in the score as “The Inevitable Collapse,” followed by a temporary return to the “primeval mist” from which the music rises to new heights with the concluding anthem. Bloch intended to have the audience sing along with the chorus in this fervent patriotic song.