Schelomo: A Hebraic Rhapsody

Composer: 

            Ernest Bloch (not to be confused with the philosopher, Ernst Bloch) was born in Switzerland, and studied music in various European countries before moving to the United States in 1916.   He lived the rest of his life here, except for a return to Switzerland during the 1930s.   In addition to a distinguished career as a composer, he was a music administrator, leading the Mannes School of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  Possessed of a remarkable intellect, he was wide-ranging in his extra-musical interests, especially that of photography.  While his musical style is firmly founded in late Romantic, Central European traditions, his peripatetic intellectual interests inspired an impressive variety of compositions.  On the one hand, his large corpus of works includes symphonies, string quartets, and concertos, and other works that are more or less traditional in their tone and style. 

            But, on the other, there is also a wealth of compositions that reflect, among other influences, impressionism, Wagnerism, American Indians, the Civil War, Black spirituals, San Francisco’s Chinatown, and, of course, the Swiss Alps.  The world was his oyster.  But, today, he is indelibly connected, and most known, for the works that loosely constituted his “Jewish Cycle.”  Born of Jewish parents, by his thirties be began to explore his religious heritage and immersed himself in a search for both his personal and musical identity.   The result was a half dozen or more of seminal works that reflected this passion.   Among them are:  “Three Jewish Poems” for orchestra, settings of Psalms for solo voice and orchestra, the Israel symphony, Suite Hébraïque for viola and orchestra, the choral Sacred Service for the Sabbath, and several others.   But, one of the most known and respected of these is Schelomo, for solo violoncello and orchestra.

            Subtitled “Rhapsodie Hébraïque for Violoncello and Orchestra,” very simply the work is a musical expression of the tragic, tormented, and despairing thoughts of the old King Solomon—“Schelomo” being Hebraic for “Solomon.”  Originally, Bloch had conceived of the work as one for solo voice and orchestra, but the practical reality was he didn’t know Hebrew sufficiently well to do a creditable job of it.  However, he happened to meet a ‘cellist whose style of playing inspired Bloch to substitute the crepuscular, meditative capabilities of that instrument for the human voice.  Bloch’s direct interest early on was not so much in the character of King Solomon, as it was in the dark message of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Bloch and his family were not doing well at the time, and in his depressed state of mind, found a kindred spirit in the immortal words of the first chapter:  “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”  And all the rest of this chapter of pessimism writ large.  These are the words of Solomon, of course, and thus the title of Bloch’s composition.  And coincidently, at the time, the wife of the incident ‘cellist, had sculpted a wax figurine of Solomon, and Bloch dedicated the work to the statue.

            Schelomo was completed by 1916 and given its première the next year, in a Carnegie Hall concerto of Bloch’s music.  Its musical style, of course, contains elements that reference what are to be perceived as “Jewish”, Semitic, or Middle Eastern musical memes or clichés, such as “gapped” scales, certain augmented intervals, and the like.  Other essential traits include cantorial repeated notes, and florid, chant-like melodic embellishments.  Bloch’s signature “snap” rhythm (TAH-dah) is everywhere, as well as a fondness for the interval of a fourth, which evokes the sound of the shofar.   But, essentially, these are only building blocks.  

            The essence is the marvelous dramatic expressivity of the ‘cello in bringing the humanity of the old, brooding, world-weary king to life.  Bloch is clear in indicating that the conceit of the work is a dialogue between the king and the world with all of its complexity and contradictions.   The orchestra, of course, is the world and the interplay of thoughts and emotions is between them is masterful.  And yet, notwithstanding this clear, extra-musical “story, ” Block unifies it all with identifiable musical motifs, contrasting sections, and a sense of direction that sustains the architecture of it all.  There are suggestions of priests, concubines, and sensual dances—a welter of “Oriental” exoticism.   There are three subtle divisions of the work, the first presenting several themes, emphasizing the blandishments of his wives and concubines, with his rejection of them in the guise of a cadenza, which occurs three times.  It builds to a climax of enticement, leading to the second section and the sound of a shofar of an alternative philosophy—first heard in the celesta and the solo bassoon.  Dreams and visions come, and go. The orchestra reasserts itself and the climax of the piece occurs here.   The last section is a lament of despair, while the orchestra rages in vain, and the ‘cello ends quietly in a total capitulation to the futility of life.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan