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  • The Birth of a Nation and the Limits of the Human Universal in Ernest Bloch's America
  • Klára Móricz (bio)

On December 20, 1928, six American cities—San Francisco, Ann Arbor, Providence, New York, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles—saw the simultaneous premiere of Ernest Bloch's America, an epic rhapsody that won Musical America's $3,000 prize for the best American symphonic work. 1 Within a week of the premiere, performances followed in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Cleveland. 2 San Francisco, Bloch's city of residence at the time, put on the biggest show. The eagerly anticipated performance took place in the city's Civic Auditorium, which was built in 1915 and housed the Democratic National Convention in 1920. On the occasion of America's premiere, the auditorium accommodated some 10,000 people: every seat was occupied, and hundreds, standing, crowded against the walls. 3 When the last movement came to an end with Bloch's anthem, "America," sung by the Municipal Chorus consisting of 135 adults and 1,000 high school students, the composer mounted the stage and during the audience's enthusiastic cheers he received a laurel wreath acknowledging his achievement. 4 San Francisco was rightly proud of Bloch who, as the winner of a nationwide competition, was celebrated as the most "authentic genius" of the United States. 5

Milton Weil, the editor of Musical America, announced the competition that brought Bloch into the limelight "in the hope and expectation of spurring American composers to the production of one or more really memorable works that will inaugurate a new era in American composition." [End Page 168] Conductors of five major American orchestras formed the jury: Walter Damrosch (New York Symphony), Serge Koussevitzky (Boston Symphony), Leopold Stokowski (Philadelphia Orchestra), Frederick Stock (Chicago Symphony) and Alfred Hertz (San Francisco Symphony). The organizers hoped that the simultaneous performances from coast to coast would give "national currency" to the winning composition, "beyond that which any other American symphony or symphonic work has obtained." The conditions of the contest included the requirement that the contestant be an American citizen, and that the score be submitted anonymously. 6 The jury chose Bloch's America out of ninety-two submitted works. 7

Critics deemed the work a "masterpiece," which, some predicted, would "outstrip anything written" in the United States. Alexander Fried of the San Francisco Chronicle called it "the greatest symphonic work thus far written" in the United States. 8 According to the San Francisco Bulletin, the audience's enthusiastic reception indicated that Bloch's America would "take rank with the best of all times." 9 Lawrence Gilman of the New York Herald Tribune quoted Stokowski's opinion of the work as "noble and masterly," and Hertz's prediction that it might well "become a classic of American symphonic literature." 10 In other words, Bloch achieved a success virtually unprecedented in American concert life. The simultaneous performances by the country's greatest orchestras propelled him into the center of attention. It seemed that Dvořák's efforts to help create indigenous American art music had finally come to fruition. 11 Here was a symphony, composed in the United States, of Beethovenian—or even Mahlerian—proportions, that in addition to narrating America's past, assigned this young nation the lofty mission of becoming the beacon for humanity at large. Not only the scale of Bloch's symphony was Beethovenian, so were its universalistic aspirations, which Bloch embodied in the final hymn's evocation of the Beethovenian concept of the "brotherhood of people," recreated in a specifically American context. By incorporating music of Native Americans, African Americans, and the European settlers into his America, Bloch seems to have realized the utopian dream of American composer Henry Gilbert, who in 1917 predicted that the "folk-songs of the various races" would be fused together by a powerful American spirit, "by a mood of fundamental optimism and heroic valor; a will of accomplishment, laughing at death." 12

Yet the realization of this dream did not come from a composer born and educated in the United States, but, in Gilman's words, from an "expatriated Swiss." As Gilman wrote in a review that deeply offended the composer...


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