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Reviewed by:
  • Ernest Bloch Studies ed. by Alexander Knapp and Norman Solomon
  • Peter Tregear
Ernest Bloch Studies. Ed. by Alexander Knapp and Norman Solomon. Pp. liii + 257. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2017. £75. ISBN 978-1-107-03909-4.)

Ernest Bloch (1880–1959) is an exemplar of the twentieth-century composer for whom artistic and national identity were never fixed concepts. Best known today for a series of works based on Jewish liturgical and cultural themes, he also composed music in most of the major forms of Western art music (symphony, sonata, string quartet, etc.) but did so just as the centrality of those forms was dissolving under the pressures of post-tonal musical modernism. Bloch was also a significant teacher; pupils include Roger Sessions and Randall Thompson. Scholarly interest since his death has been intermittent, but now, as a more open and inclusive understanding of twentieth-century music and musical identity becomes the norm, his life and music are attracting renewed attention. Alongside the revival of the International Ernest Bloch Society in London in 2009, and the formation of similar organizations in Israel and Switzerland, this book is one conspicuous, and welcome, sign of it.

As the title might suggest, Ernest Bloch Studies does not try to provide a new comprehensive biography or compositional survey but rather seeks to highlight key themes of recent research, as well as provide some helpful up-to-date research tools such as a chronology and catalogue of published and unpublished works. These are, in turn, prefaced by a series of short essays that serve to supplement pre-existing biographical studies. The first, by Ernie Bloch (the composer's grandson), offers us a view of the composer as a family man in the latter years of his life. We learn just how significant was the munificence of the Rosalie and Jacob Stern family in San Francisco that enabled the University of California at Berkeley to offer Bloch a personal chair in composition. The terms of their gift to the University allowed him not only to dedicate himself to composition for the next decade but also to live wherever he wished. Bloch had at first chosen to return to Europe but the outbreak of the Second World War forced his return to the relative safety of the west coast of the United States. In 1941, he moved to Oregon to be near his newly married son. There began a period of great compositional fertility (the Oregon years are the particular focus of David Z. Kushner's contribution to this volume), but also self-doubt, in part caused by his considerable distress when, after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the war came to threaten his safety there too.

A more fundamental source of his self-doubt lies in Bloch's complex, and often contradictory, relationship to his Jewish heritage. In 1917, as Norman Solomon observes in his introductory essay, Bloch had 'proclaimed his aspiration, as a Jew, to write Jewish music, because he was sure that this was the only way in which he could produce music of vitality and significance' (p. 4). If so, it was a short-lived moment of confidence.

Klára Móricz's contribution to the volume, entitled 'The "Suffering and Greatness'' of Ernest Bloch: Concepts of the Composer as Genius', explores his equally troublesome inheritance of nineteenth-century ideas of the composer as prophet. We learn that Bloch may well have modelled his conception of his own musical greatness on Romain Rolland's composer novel, Jean Christophe. She compares his self-conception with that of Richard Wagner, 'another expert in suffering' (p. 27), noting that 'geniuses are not alienated only because, Bloch believed, society rejects them', but also because they 'feel part of a highly selective, privileged few' (p. 28). Other influences on the composer's sense of self included the British sexologist and social reformer Havelock Ellis (1859–1939) and the pioneering sociologist of crowd behaviours, Gustave le Bon (1841–1931). Both helped nurture in Bloch an awareness of his own state of exile and exclusion, a sense that was only to be amplified by the impact of two world wars on western European culture, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1477-4631
Print ISSN
0027-4224
Pages
pp. 136-138
Launched on MUSE
2018-06-05
Open Access
No
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