Bloch’s original language

This week, having Sibelius 2 and Schelomo on my desk at the same time has been a fascinating contrast.

Although his music sounds like no one else’s, Sibelius’ technique is a logical outgrowth of the method of working with motivic cells perfected by Beethoven and Brahms. It takes to an extreme the ideal of everything in the piece evolving organically out of what is presented first. In the case of the 2nd Symphony, the three-note cell that opens the piece becomes the seed of all that is to grow and develop in the piece- much like the famous beginning of Beethoven 5. Sibelius not only reveals every imaginable melodic outgrowth of that cell, he also shows that the ways of working with the idea can become ideas in and of themselves- starting off the beat (as the opening does) or starting on the beat (as the first woodwind statement does) becomes an idea in its own right to be developed and played with. Rigor is the name of the game- there is nothing allowed that is not essential, integrated and organic.

What a shock it is then to open the score of Schelomo. On first glance, where everything in Sibelius seems to be taut, integrated, concise and unified, Bloch seems to be burying the audience in melodies. To our puritanical classical-trained analytical eye, it looks a little decadant. Instead of giving us a tiny piece or pieces of musical DNA and letting them grow and develop without adding new materials, Bloch is constantly adding new materials. In each section of Schelomo, he adds at least one new theme.

More interestingly, on the surface at least, Bloch’s themes tend to be long, and he rarely fragments them down to their smallest units as would Sibelius or Beethoven.

So where does this approach come from? One might look to the leitmotif approach of Wagner for a comparison, although the idea of the most Jewish of composers modeling his technique on the most anti-Semitic of composers seems painfully perverse. However, like Wagner’s leitmotif’s, Bloch’s themes each seem to possess an instantly recognizable character. Where Beethoven might transform a motive into something totally different in character and expression from the original, Bloch tends to use his themes to remind us of ideas, persons, events- transforming them would seriously undermine the structure of the piece.

Another model might be Liszt with his language of thematic transformation, but Bloch’s treatment of his ideas is so much more subtle and artful than most of Liszt’s large scale works as to be incomparable. Bloch may have taken ideas from Liszt, but not technique. Richard Strauss? For all Strauss’s genius, he was not an innovator- one does not take from Strauss, because he took his tools from Mendelssohn, Brahms and Wagner. What makes Strauss unique is his incomparable technique, which remains un-copy-able and un-copied. (Of course, Don Quioxte does offer some very interesting parallels- did Bloch know it?)

Is it possible then, that Bloch is actually creating something quite original here? In addition to creating a new melodic language, is he also creating a new formal aesthetic?

Look at how unusual the relationship between the soloist and orchestra is. Schelomo is most definitely not a concerto, so to expect the relationship between cello and orchestra to be similar to a Romantic concerto would be naïve. If we take Bloch’s clue and establish the cello as Solomon, as a character in a drama, the use of the orchestra becomes clearer. If the cello is Solomon, the orchestra (again, as in Wagner) is everything else- all of the forces of life brought to bear on the protagonist.

One of the distinctive features of the piece is the large and dramatic tutti’s throughout the work. Not only do these fulfill the function of delineating areas of the form, they also advance the drama. After each one, we are aware that the character of the protagonist has been changed- damaged, hardened, wounded, aged. Each time Solomon begins to speak after a tutti, we hear him closer and closer to accepting his final, painful truths.

It is not unusual to speak of the relationship between orchestra and soloist as being adversarial, but this sense in which one changes the other in such powerful ways is quite unusual. The best comparison I can think of is the slow movement of the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto- in that it is the soloist who forever changes the orchestra. Here, vast forces change Solomon in painful ways.

I’ve gone on too long, but I also want to point out that there is also a deeper level of organic development in Schelomo worth understanding- something that takes his music far beyond the cinematic. While he does not work in small cells like Brahms or Beethoven, Bloch is careful to use the principals of developing variation in building each of the 11 themes in the piece (at least one of which is introduced in each section of the work, right up to the  final section, a blatant violation of sonata principles). Starting with the first idea- a rising half step, he organically develops that idea into a theme. The second theme builds from the same materials, even the same notes (A Bb A), the third inverts its shape (D C# D), the fourth begins with a leap then continues with a combination of the rhythm of the second theme and the inversion that begins the third.

As each of these themes establish themselves they coalesce into something that Bloch does not ever attempt to dissect or dismantle. Instead they become a fabric of ideas, experiences, feelings and personae familiar to us, whose appearance (like Wagner’s leitmotifs) have some intrinsic meaning to the listener aside from any programmatic implications.

Bloch was careful not to give us a program, but to let us respond instead to those intrinsic forces in the score. All we know is that the piece is about King Solomon, what he feels, fears, understands and believes, as expressed by the cello, and what he faces, as expressed by the orchestra.


UPDATE- A few perceptive readers noticed that I completely ignored Bloch’s distintive harmonic/melodic language and his orchestration in this post. That’s to be expected- what I was trying to get at was a sense of how he works with his materials as opposed to what they are.

However, his use of materials reminds me of his Swiss-ness- there’s a sense of him walking a fine line between Strauss and Ravel and Debussy in his orchestration. His often imitated “Jewish” melodic style and harmonic vocabulary was his own creation- often imitated in film music, but you can also hear the influence of Debussy in his use of harmony as a coloristic rather than fucntional device.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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5 comments on “Bloch’s original language”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    Just to hammer home my point…..

    Think of the basic developmental tools of most Classical and Romantic music- imitation, sequence, diminution, inversion, agumentation, retrograde….

    Bloch almost completely turns his back on all of these- althogh there is one them which is organized as a sequence, he never rarely treats any of the themes with any of these tools.

    The interesting exception appears to be what I call Th viii (first heard in the oboe 8 after figure 16)- this theme gets essentially cut in half and treated with quite a bit of imitation, but even here, you could look at this as an example of Bloch transforming a melody into an ostinato and back again…..


  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Back in Bloch

  3. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Great article on Ernest Bloch from the Oregonian

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