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Who Was Ernest Bloch? A Brief Introduction

January 22, 2024
Ernest Bloch in 1917 at a table via Wikimedia Commons

Swiss-born Jewish-American composer Ernest Bloch was born on July 24, 1880, in Geneva. As a child, he studied both violin and composition in Geneva and Brussels with such renowned teachers as Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and Eugène Ysaÿe. His first visit to the United States was in 1916, and, shortly thereafter, he accepted a teaching position at the newly-formed David Mannes College of Music (1917–20). Bloch’s academic career continued as founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music (1920–25) and director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (1925–30). His compositions are principally orchestral works and chamber music, as well as several choral works.

Neoclassical Style

The Neoclassical style was a compositional movement between the World Wars that aimed to return to Classical-era structures and aesthetics such as balance and clarity in response to the exaggerated elements and lack of form found in Late Romanticism; it was a means of composing expressively but with refinement. The term was first applied to Stravinsky in 1923, and a number of composers from this period are also associated with this style, including Bloch (in some of his works).

Notable Works

Schelomo: Hebrew Rhapsody (1915–16)

While traveling in Switzerland, Bloch saw a statue of King Solomon, which sparked his idea for the Hebrew Rhapsody. This is his first use of quarter tones to better represent traditional Hebrew melodies. Of it, he wrote, “It is the Jewish soul that interests me, the complex, glowing, agitated soul, that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible. . . . All this is in me, and it is the better part of me.”

Hiver–Printemps (1904–05)

These poems for orchestra were first received with mixed reactions when they premiered in Geneva but went on to find success as the work was presented elsewhere.

Suite for viola and piano (1919)

This composition was a resounding success at its premiere in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and won the Coolidge Prize. At a performance in Boston one year later, the audience’s enthusiasm was so strong that Bloch took three bows.

Photography

Bloch was a devoted photographer throughout his life. His interest began as a teenager, and he took over 6,000 negatives throughout his life using glass plate, stereo, and film cameras. He took pictures of landscapes as well as portraits which included his family, musicians, and himself.

 

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