Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Music of the Soul

Born in Geneva on July 24, 1880, Ernest Bloch was a world famous Jewish composer. Seven of his works are known, collectively, as the “Jewish Cycle.” Bloch was raised in a home awash with tradition, but his actual Jewish education, and general involvement with Jewish life, ended after his Bar Mitzvah. His family, however, had a musical history rooted in Jewish life. His grandfather had been a ba’al tefillah (prayer leader), and his father sang in the choir of the Lengnau Synagogue.

Bloch’s training in musical composition took place throughout Europe, in Switzerland, Belgium and Germany. However, he is considered an American composer, as most of his career was spent in the United States, where he moved in 1917. He taught at numerous music schools throughout his career and then settled in Oregon in 1943.

Among the compositions included in the Jewish Cycle were the Trois poèmes juifs (1913); Israel, for five solo voices and orchestra (the Israel Symphony); Schelomo -- Hebrew Rhapsody, for cello and orchestra (1915–16); Baal Shem Suite (1923), for violin and piano (later orchestrated); From Jewish Life (1924), for cello and piano; Méditation hébraïque (1924), for cello and piano; Avoda [Abodah] (1929), for violin and piano; and several pieces written for different Psalms.

Bloch’s life is a fascinating case of the force of the Jewish soul. While there was not much Judaism in his life, he was continually drawn to Judaism. Bloch once wrote about a particular service he had attended on Shabbat during Passover: “And what music! Neither organ, nor instruments, nor choir. Everyone his own orchestra. I heard the most bizarre things: Chants, surely 3000 or more years old... Everything was vibrant, living, creating an extraordinary atmosphere. I dissolved with emotion. I was ashamed -- ashamed to be so far away from the truth! Proud however still to be part of it.”

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