Ernest Bloch, Israel Symphony

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born July 24, 1880, in Geneva, Switzerland
Died July 15, 1959, in Portland, OR
Composed from 1912 to 1916
Premiered on May 3, 1917, at Carnegie Hall conducted by Bloch
Approximate performance time: 31 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 4 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, low tamtam, triangle), 1 celesta, 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, female chorus, and bass vocal soloist

Between 1904 and 1913, Ives composed a monumental ‟Holidays Symphony” that portrayed four major American holidays. His contemporary, Ernest Bloch, younger by six years, embarked on a somewhat similar project in 1912, setting to music some of the major Jewish holidays. (His original title for the work was Fêtes juives; it was the famous writer Romain Rolland who suggested the definitive title.) World War I broke out while Bloch was working on his symphony, and within a year of its completion, the composer moved from his native Switzerland to the United States, where he would spend most of his life. He conducted the first performance of his Israel Symphony in New York on May 3, 1917.

Bloch’s quest for a musical expression of his Jewish identity took center stage in his life during the 1910s. These were the years where he composed his most frequently performed work, Schelomo for cello and orchestra, among other Jewish-inspired pieces. The idiom he created in his so-called ‟Jewish cycle” was largely independent from Jewish traditional music. Instead, Bloch relied mostly on his intuition in addition to some scattered childhood memories, constructing an imaginary identity where Biblical inspiration is intermingled with the image of the prophetic artist who represents the Jewish people but at the same time remains distinct from the people. Thus, Bloch’s concept of Jewishness is built upon the opposites of individuality and community, of simultaneously belonging and not belonging. (Musicologist Klára Móricz writes fascinatingly about Bloch’s contradictions in her 2008 book Jewish Identities.)

The elements of Bloch’s Jewish style include short motifs consisting of simple, repeated intervals without a strong rhythmic pulse that evoke, if not actually replicate, the liturgical recitative of the synagogue. He works with these short motifs in a grand symphonic manner, elaborating them extensively and orchestrating them sumptuously.

The Israel Symphony is in three movements. The first, ‟Prayer in the Desert,” is the shortest of the three; it sets the stage for the two more elaborate statements to follow with a meditative opening melody that is developed in a solemn manner. The second movement, ‟Yom Kippur,” surprises with its wild dissonances and angular rhythms, presumably representing the sins for which Jews have to atone on this highest of the high holidays. The ‟wild” theme contrasts with a more lyrical second idea suggesting heartfelt repentance. Bloch’s vision of this day of judgment unfolds with great dramatic power; the lament of the sinner begging for forgiveness is strikingly portrayed by a plaintive oboe solo introducing an intensely emotional slower section, from which we once again awaken to the horrors of that fearsome day. The movement ends with a moment of quiet prayer. (In an uncanny coincidence, the three-movement structure of the Israel Symphony—brief slow introduction, dynamic fast movement, introspective finale—almost completely mirrors that of Ives’s Second Set.)

In the Jewish calendar, Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, comes only four days after Yom Kippur. Unrelated in their origins, the two holidays are nevertheless connected by their temporal proximity as the austere day of atonement is followed by a celebration of life. In contemporary observance, the eight days of Sukkot are marked by happy family gatherings in sukkot or tents especially built for the holiday, with roofs made of, or decorated with, different kinds of fruit and green leaves. But in ancient Israel, it was a solemn festival where sacrifices were offered at the temple in Jerusalem, with pilgrims from all over the country in attendance.

In Bloch’s representation of Sukkot, we hear the voices of the ancient pilgrims in peaceful and heartfelt melodies played by solo violin, harps, and woodwinds, rising to a majestic climax where the solo voices (first two sopranos and two altos, followed a little later by the bass) enter: ‟Adonay, my Elohim, hear my prayer, Alleluia…” The recitative singing at one point grows more elaborate and melismatic, but the ending returns to a simpler style as the prayer turns increasingly from public worship to internalized, private expression.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.