Déjà Review: this review was first published in July 2005 and the recording is still available.

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
America (An Epic Rhapsody for Orchestra) (1926-27) [50:03]
Suite hébraïque (1951/53) [12:40]
Hagai Shaham (violin), Lučnica Chorus
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Dalia Atlas (America)
Atlas Camerata Orchestra/Dalia Atlas (Suite)
rec. 2001, Concert Hall, Slovak Radio, Bratislava, Slovakia (America); Haifa, Israel (Suite)
Naxos 8.557151 [63]

I must confess that I have never allowed myself to be moved or struck by the music of Ernest Bloch. I think it may go back to hearing a performance of Schelomo many years ago. I did not like it in the least, however I cannot really recall why. Since then I just seem to have avoided Bloch’s music: I have never heard any live performances and have missed the opportunity of listening to him on the wireless or CD.  I know that it is ridiculous. I have long known that Bloch is a great composer, but it just did not occur to me that after some 35 years I may actually enjoy some, if not all, of his music.  Now all this has changed.

The present recording is an eye opener to me. I love it! It is fantastic, gorgeous, exciting and brilliant, fun, tuneful and moving – all rolled into one. Where has it been all my life! I do not know if there are any other recordings of this work available. My two databases, Arkiv and Crotchet only refer to the present version. Of course there may be deleted CD or vinyl releases out there, but for this listener at any rate this is the one and only recording.

Why is this great Epic Rhapsody so good? Why do I recommend you to buy it today? Let’s just look at it in detail and perhaps this will lead to a conclusion.

Ernest Bloch’s America was composed in 1926/27 for a competition. The magazine ‘Musical America’ was offering a prize of $3000 for a new orchestral work. And that was a deal of money over eighty years ago. Apparently ninety-two manuscripts were submitted to the judges (I would love to read the list!). The judges included some big names in the musical world of the day: Frederick Stock, Walter Damrosch, Serge Koussevitsky, Alfred Hertz and the redoubtable Leopold Stokowski. Bloch was apparently selected by a unanimous vote. In addition to the handsome prize, the work was to be performed simultaneously in the conductors’ home bases. So the first performance(s) was/were held in Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Bloch has written that the idea had first occurred to him when he arrived in New York Harbour back in 1916. He wanted to compose an anthem that “should rightfully belong to and reflect the country for which it might stand.” Of course his musical friends were somewhat lukewarm about the project. However the idea stuck in the composer’s mind. It was not until 1925 that Bloch began to study the ‘Father of Modern Poetry’, Walt Whitman, that the idea resurfaced. Perhaps aware of a number of Whitman settings for chorus and orchestra, Bloch was inspired to write an anthem on the Whitman-esque words “America, America!/Thy name is in my heart/ My love for thee arouses me/to nobler thoughts and deeds.”  Soon the plan for the three movement epic settled itself in the composer’s mind. The work was completed in 1927 and is dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman whose visions “have upheld its inspiration”.  The inscription to the score also has these words – “This symphony has been written in love for this country; in reverence for its past, in faith for its future.” Whitman is also quoted, “O America, because you build for mankind, I build for you.”

There are two things to note about this work. First of all it is a ‘symphony’ in all but name. Bloch himself refers to it as such. And secondly it is a ‘musical commentary’ on the history of the United States. The method that Bloch uses to realise that purpose is by the implicit and often explicit use of ‘National’ tunes that have had a lasting impact on Americans of all generations.

There are three movements to this ‘Rhapsody’. The first presents to the listener the Native Americans and the early life of the country. This is followed by musical reference to the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers and their early settlements: both the struggle and the hardship are well felt in the music. The second movement reflects the most devastating period of American history – the Civil War between the Union and the Confederate States. The third movement is all about the United States of the ‘present’ day – that is 1926, of course! Bloch presents all the noise and turbulence and pizzazz of the Jazz Age. Not forgotten, of course, are the poverty and the prosperity. At this time the great reconstruction of America had begun, notwithstanding the depression. It was the time when buildings reached higher and higher into the Manhattan sky. The work finishes with a great anthem to the country sung by full chorus.

I feel that the programme notes could have been a little more generous in general, and in particular with their description of the references and programme (it is quite definitely ‘programme music’). I do not hesitate to provide more detail that may help the listener enjoy this great work.

The opening section is prefaced by “…1620 – The Soil – The Indians – (England) – The Mayflower – The Landing of the Pilgrims.”  The work commences with a tune given to solo bassoon to the accompaniment of tremolo strings. This theme is reputed to have an ‘Indian’ character. There are suggestions of an ‘English March’ played by the trumpet. This is followed by what commentators have referred to as the ‘Call of America’ theme. Part of this music is derived from the closing anthem – which was supposedly the first part thought out by Bloch. There is a section that is headed in the score – Struggles & Hardships – which appears to have had its source in an old sea shanty. This gives way to another quote from the ‘anthem’ given fortissimo followed by a direct quotation of the great hymn ‘Old Hundredth’. Yet, in spite of all the energy of what has gone before this movement ends softly and with due peace.

The second movement has the following note – “1861-1865 – Hours of Joy – Hours of Sorrow.” There is also another quotation from Walt Whitman – “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…. Each singing that belongs to him or her, to no-one else … singing with open mouth their strong melodious songs.”

The movement begins allegretto with a ‘Southern’ tune on the English horn. After an allusion to ‘The Call of America’ there comes a Black American song, Row after Row, then a dreamy lullaby, Old Folks at Home. We also hear Pop goes the Weasel and Hail Columbia. After a considerable climax a Creole song is played on the oboe. Before long we hear a number of hints of Civil War songs including John Brown’s Body and The Battle Cry of Freedom. The anthem subject makes itself heard quite forcefully before the movement dies down into sadness and reflection.

The last movement is headed “1926 … The Present – The Future.” Again a quote is made from Walt Whitman –“As he sees the furthest he has the most faith.” Here we are in a different sound-world. There is an immediate syncopated version of the ‘Call of America’ motif. The music looks towards dance with its rhythm and vitality.  We hear Black American tunes which are maybe a suggestion of Jazz?  The next section of this movement is titled ‘The Turmoil of the Present’. There is a great churning climax followed by a collapse into the opening music of the first movement.  There is development before the Old Hundredth makes an appropriate return. The ‘Call of America to the Nations of the World’ theme makes itself felt again and after a huge apotheosis, the work concludes with the anthem sung rather simply by the chorus and accompanied by the orchestra. In amongst the singing, can be heard a quotation from Yankee Doodle. A moving moment and also a great hope for the future!

One little mystery to unravel. I am unable to find the source of the words used in the final anthem. I had thought at first that they were most likely to have come from the pen of Whitman. However a brief search of the Leaves of Grass did not reveal their source. I wonder if it is a pastiche by Bloch himself? However the words quoted in the CD booklet do not seem to be quite the words sung. I wonder why? Perhaps it is just a little indistinct? Furthermore Bloch imagined that the audience would join in with this concluding anthem, perhaps becoming a pseudo ‘National Anthem?’ This did not seem to happen.

So what are we to say about this epic paean of praise to America, the adopted land of Ernest Bloch?

The first thing is that this music does not depend on the programme. If you wish to, forget it entirely. OK, it is true that the quoted tunes may be a little unsettling but the symphony does work as absolute music. Listening in this way would be unfair to the composer’s intentions. He wrote that he aimed to express in musical terms a credo for all mankind. He talked of the “common purpose of a widely diversified race ultimately becomes one race, strong and great.” To do this he has created a résumé of history. Ultimately the programme is important. I suppose it is much less subtle in achieving its aims than Dvořák’s New World Symphony which adopts a more philosophical approach.

Of course the work had its critics. And I suppose any work that is symphonic and used snatches of national or folk songs will always put people off that are more cerebral in their musical tastes. But I could not help being reminded of Charles Ives as I listened. Of course there are none of the adventurous primitivisms of Ives, but there is the enthusiastic use of America’s great heritage of song. And the use of jazz and even car horns nods towards George Gershwin and his thoughts about Paris.

This is a great work that achieves what it sets out to do; a description of the epic history and the sense of destiny that has been the nature of the American Dream for many years.  And what is more the music is extremely interesting, attractive and moving into the bargain.

I am going to say less about the Suite hébraïque as this is much more in the public domain than the Epic Rhapsody. Arkiv CD database lists some seven versions of this work. I am not in a position to compare the present recording to the other versions. However the words that spring to mind are haunting and nostalgic. Bloch uses traditional Jewish melodies in this work. However the composer does point out that he has “absorbed them to such a point that it may be difficult for future musicologists to determine what is traditional and what is Bloch.”

Listening to this music one is not really conscious of this being a catena of tunes. I am not an authority on Jewish folk tunes, but what does come across is the melancholy that I would associate with Hebrew Melodies.

The work was originally written in 1951 for violin and piano, but was orchestrated the following year. The work’s genesis was a result of the composer’s gratitude to the Covent Club of Illinois organising a Bloch Festival to celebrate his 70th birthday.

The Suite has three contrasting movements – Rapsodie (sic), Processional and Affirmation.

Whether this is a great work or just a fine one is a matter of opinion. However, I found it moving and it held my interest for the twelve minutes of its length. The playing was measured and quite rhapsodic and well supported by the Atlas Camerata.

The main recommendation here is for the Epic Rhapsody. This is a stunning work that may well do much to make Bloch’s name better known to a wider range of listeners.

John France

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