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On the Horizon: Ernest Bloch's “Sacred Service”

- Abstract

NOW that Ernest Bloch has passed his seventieth birthday, many musicians look back on his career with a sense of unfulfilled promise, expressed most clearly, and with a touch of cruelty, in the remark of one well-known American composer: “Isn’t it amazing what a disappointment Bloch has turned out to be?”

To understand this attitude, one must go back to the circumstances in which America became acquainted with Bloch. He came to the United States first in 1916 as conductor of an orchestra accompanying the dancer Maud Allen. In his thirty-six years he had already earned a small reputation in Europe: mostly in Paris, where his opera Macbeth was produced in 1910 with all the concomitants of a minor scandal, and in Switzerland, where he was born and at whose Geneva Conservatory he taught for several years; but American musicians were quite unaware of his existence. The Allen tour collapsed, and Bloch found himself stranded in a cheap furnished room in New York. From there he stretched out his feelers, got in touch with some of the younger composers, played his scores for them on a battered piano, and because of the unusual melismatic-Oriental aspects of most of his music (exemplified in the constant repetition of certain basic note-patterns) was hailed as a prophet of uncharted musical courses. Stravinsky and Schoenberg were then quite unknown on these shores; and to a young generation in quest of music beyond the traditional Wagnerisms then prevalent in our concert life, Bloch’s simple declamatory music, strongly infused with medieval and Oriental melodic turns, looked like an important revolutionary step. It was not long before Bloch became a musical culture hero of America. There is today a whole generation of composers, including such men as Roger Sessions, Douglas Moore, Randall Thompson, Frederick Jacoby, and George Antheil, whose musical education was guided by him.

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