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The Jewishness of Bloch's genius

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November 24, 2016 23:22

Whether a composer desires it (like Joseph Achron) or not (like Mendelssohn), once a composer is labelled "a Jewish composer" it tends to stick. And here's the funny thing. The Swiss composer Ernest Bloch- perhaps the most labelled Jewish composer of them all - both fits into that category and he doesn't.

He produced work after work that was linked to his Jewishness. The Israel symphony, Schelomo, the Baal Shem suite, Suite Hebraique, Avodath Hakodesh, From Jewish Life - the list goes on. But in fact most of these were produced within a particular space of time. Like Picasso, he had his rushes of enthusiasm, and most of these came from what we might call his "Jewish period". There was a great deal of other material that was inspired by other things, among them Shakespeare (his opera Macbeth), the Far East, his adopted home in America.

So what does all this say about his attitude to Jewishness - something that he once called the area in which he believed he could "achieve vitality and significance" - and what does my intoxicated reaction to his extraordinary music say about my own identity as a secular Jewish musician?

I suspect we can learn a lot by looking at his very early music, before the Jewish phase. In the upcoming concert at Central Synagogue, I'm playing one of those first pieces, the little-heard Sonate and, like much of his music from that time, it doesn't actually sound much like Bloch at all. It's a piece that seems to breathe in the impressionism of Debussy, Richard Strauss, some of the English composers, you name it. So we hear someone who is obviously highly gifted but not sure in which direction to go. That's when the Jewish period hit, and from then on it's Bloch and no other. So, somehow, he had found, through a huge identification with Judaism that consumed him - around the time of the First World War - a framework that brought forth his first masterpieces and a true sense of who he was and what he wanted to say.

Later came his interests in the Far East and all sorts of other allusions, some of that music is quite austere and far from the folkloric style of the Jewish period. But my guess is that the Jewish works, that very personal connection, somehow opened him up spiritually and that lasted for the rest of his life.

When I first heard Bloch's music at the age of nine I was hooked

I'd go further. Bloch's Jewish music doesn't quote traditional Hebrew songs or the like - the kind of thing that Bartok or Kodaly were doing in Hungary. What Bloch came up with was new.

It was almost as if he had set his mind and soul upon creating a new canon of Jewish music. And given that he was doing this in the era between the Dreyfus Affair and the rise of Nazism, perhaps it was a creative surge that was part of that doomed struggle to place Jewish culture at the heart of European society.

I can relate to this - my own grandparents were part of the intellectual, bourgeois German community who found it impossible to understand what was really happening politically. And Bloch expresses, in his way, a sort of freedom, a total openness to what Jewish music can be. I wonder whether the reason he didn't return to Jewish music in any huge way is because he couldn't come to terms with the way that dream - of secular Jewish freedom within Europe - came crashing down around him.

As for me, I first heard Bloch's music at the age of nine. I was immediately hooked. It was so exciting, I didn't really know why but I just knew that this is what I wanted to play. And it has been a lifelong obsession for me.

He expresses my own identity. The way musicians sound is our paint and, especially as a string player, the sound you make is your identity. Someone once said to me, "Everything you play sounds like Bloch's Schelomo" - a backhanded compliment perhaps but there is something in that piece, Bloch's greatest.

An inner strength, a sense of survival, with an ability to cope with all sorts of situations through life. It is epic and yet inward and tender, all the things that I experienced growing up in a secular Jewish family. It's never about wailing or feeling sorry for yourself; it's much more a kind of fervent fury, the indignation of a people that are constantly pushed down but come back larger than life. That's Bloch, that's Schelomo, that's me.

So playing that wonderful work in particular - alongside the Sonate and various other pieces that Bloch would certainly have known and may well have meant something to him - at Central Synagogue, should be something special indeed. We will learn more about Bloch, about his Jewishness. And perhaps I'll learn a little more about myself.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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