4.7. Ernest Bloch, cantata ‘Psalm 114’ (1912)

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), born in a religious Jewish milieu in Geneva, had as a young man ambivalent feelings about Jewish congregational life: “I have for a long time wished to go to the synagogue but the recollection of those fellows who, on Yom Kippur, read the Tribune—something I remembered from the age of ten, remains with me still. It seems as though that sort of thing hasn’t changed. . . . I would really like to take part in ‘the community’ but I’m afraid of finding everything except the Jewish spirit which I am looking for.” *Letter to Edmond Fleg, January 24, 1912. In Kushner, The Ernest Bloch Companion 32. In the Bible he did discover that spirit, but he found his knowledge of Hebrew too limited to compose music to Hebrew words and therefore, he often used translations made ​​by the poet Edmond Fleg (1874-1963). And yet, Bloch wrote to Romain Rolland: “French constricts me—it is not my language; I need something brutal and terrible and implacable, that sounds the depths of the human heart; and I believe that it is Hebrew,” and he added an indirect allusion to the shofar: “since it is in Hebrew that the ten commandments were thundered in the storm at Sinai.” *Letter to Romain Rolland, November 23, 1911. In Schiller, Bloch, Schoenberg, and Bernstein 17. Bloch refers to Exod. 19:19: “The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.”

Nevertheless, he responded enthusiastically to the French version of Ps. 114 which Fleg made ​​at his request. It indeed has an energetic rhythm: “Arrachée par Iahvé *“Snatched away by Jahveh,” a translation which assigns a passive role to the Israelites. / Au pays d’esclavage, / Les enfants de Jacob / Sortent de Mizraïm.” However, Fleg’s text is not a translation, but an adaptation, *The piano-vocal score states: “Adapté de l’hébreu” (“Adapted from the Hebrew”) whose last four verses differ considerably from the original. In the Hebrew text, these verses are spoken by the same narrator and The Jewish Study Bible renders them as follows:

5 What alarmed you, O sea, that you fled,

Jordan, that you ran backward,

6 mountains, that you skipped like rams,

hills, like sheep?

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,

at the presence of the God of Jacob,

8 who turned the rock into a pool of water,

the flinty rock into a fountain.

Edmond Fleg, however, puts v. 7 into the first person plural, adds quotation marks, and turns the monologue into a dialogue between the people and Nature: “C’est que nous tremblons devant l’Éternel! / C’est que nous voyons le Dieu d’Israël!” (“Because we bow down in fear of the Lord! / We behold the Lord, the Lord of Israel!”) *English translation of Fleg’s words by Waldo Frank, in the piano-vocal score of Psalm 114. Furthermore, he deletes v. 8, the verse in which God gives a new proof of His omnipotence.

As mentioned already in Chapter 4.6, Ps. 114 is part of Hallel (“Praise”), a group of six Psalms (113-118), *The Koren Siddur 732-43 recalling the deliverance of the Jewish people at critical times in its history. It is recited on Pesaḥ and some other holy days, but not on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, which are days of judgment rather than of national remembrance. Ps. 114 presents a composer with an unusual challenge, because it is neither a traditional hymn, nor a lament, nor a hymn of thanksgiving. The psalm celebrates the deliverance from Egypt with the crossing of the sea, the river and the mountains, which is not reported, but indicated by metaphors and emphasized by ironic, rhetorical questions to the personified sea, river and mountains.

Bloch decided not compose archaizing music: “I do not propose or desire to attempt a reconstruction of the music of the Jews. . . . It was rather the Hebrew spirit that interests me—the complex, ardent, agitated soul that vibrates for me in the Bible.” *Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 3 760. Bloch uses “Hebrew” with its ethnic connotations instead of “Jewish” with its rather religious connotations.

Psaume 114 pour soprano solo et grand orchestre (“Psalm 114 for soprano and large orchestra”) is a march. Its pace, slow crescendo and trumpet fanfares bear a certain resemblance to the central section of Fêtes (“Feasts”), the second of Debussy’s three Nocturnes (1900). Bloch’s march in a tempo of 92-96 BPM takes on a light character through its eighth-note triplets and eighth-note octave leaps in the bass; fluency is enhanced by the use of short motives rather than drawn-out melodies. The provocative questions to the sea, river and mountains are falling melodic lines with a dramatic accompaniment of tremolos and broken chords, and after each question high instruments play a cantillation as by a cantor, an elegant expression of the self-confidence of the people of Israel.

In Bloch’s Psalm 114, the Present is directed by the Past in two ways: directly by the verses from the psalm of the same name and less directly by a transformation of the original shofar blasts. The ram’s horn does not appear in the words of Psalm 114, though the receding mountains are compared to skipping rams. Bloch does not quote traditional shofar blasts; instead, he transforms or suggests them. First, in repeated rhythmic figures with alternating dotted eighth notes and thirty-second triplets, in the prelude after Nos. 1 and 2 and in the postlude after No. 10; second, with the upbeat rhythms on leaps to long, high notes, for example in No. 2, m. 6 to God’s name Iahvé and in No. 8, m. 3 to God’s name l’Éternel (“The Eternal;” “vor dem Herrn” in Ex. 2); and third, with empty 4ths and 5ths in both melody and accompaniment, just as in the whole prelude. This sixteenth-note upbeat and the empty 4ths and 5ths are combined in the heavy brass chords shortly before and after No 1.

A similarity between Bloch’s Psalm 114 and the liturgical system of 100 shofar blasts is found in the number three, which occurs in the rhythm with its many triplets, and in the tripartite form with its instrumental prelude, vocal middle section and instrumental postlude. This postlude is an intensified version of the prelude, just as the “standing blasts” in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service with their “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, raised and honored, uplifted and lauded be the name of the Holy One” are an intensified repetition of the “sitting blasts” with their “Blessed are You, LORD our God.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor: sitting blasts: 496, standing blasts: 640.

The biblical Ps. 114 consists of four strophes with different characters, which the biblical scholar Samuel Terrien *Terrien, The Psalms 766-70* describes as follows: I (vv. 1-2): Judah’s and Israel’s missions; II (vv. 3-4): the dancing insecurity of Nature; III (vv. 5-6): satirical humor on Nature’s fright and confusion: and IV (vv. 7-8): submission before the Sovereign. In v. 7: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord” *Tanakh Translation the psalm takes a sudden turn; according to Terrien, “the text abandons the tone of mockery and adopts the style of military command or of prophetic condemnation.” *Terrien, The Psalms 769. This turn would have offered an excellent opportunity to bring the shofar into action, because “military command” and “prophetic condemnation” are prominent applications of the instrument. However, as mentioned above, Fleg changes the narrative perspective before v. 7, turning the last strophe into the answer of the mountains and the river Jordan to the people: “C’est que nous tremblons devant l’Éternel!” (“Because we bow down in fear of the Lord!”). In spite of Fleg’s problematic adaptation of the psalm, this turn is the climax in Bloch’s composition. Between the rehearsal marks (not the verses) 7: “why turnest thou about?” and 8: “Because we bow down in fear of the Lord!” the hitherto rather static composition takes on a dynamic character. This is achieved in four ways: first, in the tempo, by drastic accelerations (No. 7, m. 1) or delays (No. 7, m. 4); second, rhythmically, by polyrhythms, quarter-note triplets in the bass and a quintuplet as a kind of shofar blast; third, melodically, by an increasing interval in these three shofar motifs; fourth, harmonically, by a long chromatic prolongation of the dominant, in contrast with both the harmonically extremely simple prelude and postlude, which are built on the drone of the shofar 5th. Just as the harmonically static prelude suggests the internally persuasive discourse of the people relying on God’s guidance, the musical dynamics at Nos. 7 and 8 suggest the recoil of the sea, the river and the mountains for God’s authoritative discourse.
Bloch psalm-1

Ex 2. Ernest Bloch, Psalm 114: No. 7, m. 1 – No. 8, m. 3. Original French words: “C’est que nous tremblons devant l’Éternel!” English version: “Because we bow down in fear of the Lord!”

Bloch’s use of Ps. 114 contrasts sharply with Bialik’s use of the same psalm in his poem And it shall be when the days grow long… *Chapter 4.6. Instead of frustration about the waiting for the Messiah, there is joy about the fulfillment of a promise; instead of weariness, there is energy; instead of repetition, there is a turn; and instead of yawning on the banks of the Jordan, the people see the Jordan run backward, allowing them to march right through the Promised Land. This is not astonishing, given the fact that Bialik’s poem is about the difficult situation of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement, whereas Bloch’s cantata was composed in the relatively prosperous and safe Switzerland.

With regard to the musical use of shofar blasts, there is also a great contrast with Edward Elgar’s oratorio The Apostles. In 1903, Elgar introduced the shofar on the concert stage, where it blew traditional shofar blasts. *Chapter 4.5. In 1912, Bloch took two steps forward: in Psalm 114, he did not quote any traditional shofar blasts, but departing from shofar motifs, he composed shofar blasts of his own invention and did not work according to the letter but rather to the spirit of tradition. Psalm 114 was the first of a series of religiously inspired works that Bloch composed in the years 1911-1918 and were to be called Jewish Cycle; the most famous of the works is Schelomo for cello and orchestra, the subject of Chapter 4.9.


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