4.9. Ernest Bloch, orchestral composition ‘Schelomo’ (1916)

In 1912, the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch completed Psalm 114, *Chapter 4.7 the first piece of what would become his Jewish Cycle (1911-1918), consisting of three psalms (22, 114, and 137), and three orchestral pieces: Symphonie “Israël”, Trois poèmes juives (“Three Jewish Poems”), and Schelomo. The latter is the most famous work of this cycle. In 1914, when Bloch began to work on Schelomo, it was to be a composition for voice and orchestra, inspired by Eccl. 1:2-9, a Bible passage which reflected his mood at the outbreak of World War I: “2 Utter futility! All is futile! . . . 4 One generation goes, another comes, / But the earth remains the same forever.” Bloch’s acquaintance with the cello player Alexander Barjansky in 1915 gave this work-in-progress a new impulse: “Suddenly I thought I will not be a servant to the Ecclesiastes; instead of a singer limited by a text, of a voice however vast and profound, I would write for the violoncello.” *Bloch, Program Notes for Schelomo. In Kushner, The Ernest Bloch Companion 35.

Schelomo, Rhapsodie hébraïque pour violoncelle et grand orchestre (“Solomon: Hebrew Rhapsody for Violoncello and Large Orchestra”) belongs to the genre of the rhapsody, which calls up associations with recited poetry from Antiquity and which in music is a loose, episodic form. There is no strict division of roles between the solo instrument and the orchestra. “If one likes, one may imagine that the voice of the solo cello is the voice of the King Schelomo. The complex voice of the orchestra is the voice of his age… his world… his experience. There are times when the orchestra seems to reflect his thoughts as the solo cello voices his words.” *Bloch and Heskes, Ernest Bloch: Creative Spirit 50.

The composition with a duration of approximately 22 minutes has three sections, flowing into each other without interruption. The first section is built largely on a melancholic theme (from the beginning to No. 1) and a dance-like, lush theme (No. 1, mm. 1-7); these themes are interrelated by their many falling minor 2nds and appear not only in the solo part, but also in the orchestra. Bloch himself as well as a number of musicologists—Alexander Knapp, David Kushner and Klára Móricz—refer to Ecclesiastes in their comments on Schelomo; however, they do not mention two other texts from the Past, which may have been decisive for the Present of Bloch’s composition: 1 Kings 1-11 and Deut. 17. The former is the history of Solomon’s kingship, while the latter depicts the ideal image of a king; as the theologian Patrick D. Miller puts it: “In the Deuteronomic ideal of human rule, the ʾiš or ‘one’ whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on it continually, is the king. The ideal ruler therefore is the model Israelite.” *Miller. Quoted in Grant, The King as Exemplar 68. Ecclesiastes, however, gives a picture of the almost manic and depressive elements in Solomon’s behavior, his desire for wealth and pleasure and his melancholic skepticism respectively. The former is found in Eccl. 2: “I ventured to tempt my flesh with wine, and to grasp folly, . . . I multiplied my possessions”; the latter in Eccl. 1: “What real value is there for a man / In all the gains he makes beneath the sun? . . . The eye never has enough of seeing, / Nor the ear enough of hearing.” 1 Kings 9-11, by contrast, gives a more dynamic idea of Solomon and depicts the rise and fall of his reign. After one of Solomon’s greatest accomplishments, the building of the Temple, God admonishes him in 1 Kings 9:6-7: “if you and your descendants turn away from Me and do not keep the commandments [and] the laws which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will sweep the House which I have consecrated to My name; and Israel shall become a proverb and a byword among all peoples.” Towards the end of his reign, Solomon is unfaithful to the God of Israel, as described in 1 Kings 11:4-6. According to Móricz, Schelomo makes “no sharp distinction . . . between the disillusioned, morally tormented hero and the barbarous Oriental milieu that torments him[.]” *Móricz, “Sensuous Pagans and Righteous Jews” 487. This is true; Bloch’s composition is in accordance with 1 Kings, where Solomon himself creates the “Oriental” milieu, and enjoys his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, who seduce him to sympathy for other gods.



Ex. 3. Ernest Bloch, Schelomo: No. 16, mm. 1-8. (Clarinet in B♭). Reproduced by permission of Dover Publications, Inc.

In the second section of Schelomo, which begins at No. 16 (cf. Ex. 3), the mood changes. There is a pianissimo in the high strings, a well-known opera effect to suggest sacredness, as used by Wagner in the preludes to the first acts of both Lohengrin and Parsifal. The empty 5ths in the second violins are played tremolo and that is an opera effect as well, announcing a dramatic event. Preceded by the clarinet, that supplies the first two notes, F♯3-A3 (real pitch), the bassoon plays a motif—actually a series of four related motifs on the pitches F♯3-A3; A3-B3-A3; A3-D4-A3; and A3-D♯4-C4 respectively—which differs markedly from the lush themes from the first section and which has received little attention in analyses of Schelomo. “I cannot describe the next episode,” Bloch states. “This strange motif of the bassoon which later permeates the orchestra. Is it the priests?” *Ernest Bloch: Creative Spirit 51. The “next episode” is shown in Ex. 3. Other composers, too, use the bassoon as a shofar substitute, *for example Giulio Castagnoli in Shofar. Chapter 4.58 and moreover, this bassoon motif in Schelomo reveals a striking similarity to the shofar motif after No. 7 in Bloch’s Psalm 114, No. 7, mm. 2-4, *Chapter 4.7, Ex. 2 where its meaning is explained by the following sung words: “Because we bow down in fear or the Lord! We behold the Lord, the Lord of Israel!” Bloch’s “strange” motif represents God, the Stranger par excellence and the authority, whose “authoritative word” comes from higher spheres. As Bakhtin puts it: “[t]he authoritative word, . . . is given (it sounds) in lofty spheres, not those of familiar contact. Its language is a special (as it were, hieratic) language.” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 342. These lofty spheres are evoked here by the pianissimo-playing violins with their empty 5ths, and the shofar motif is the musical expression of God’s admonition to King Solomon to bow down to Him.

While the violins hold their drone, in No. 16, mm. 9-15 the oboe introduces a theme which is related to the shofar motif because of its tone repetition and upward 4th leap; it is very different from the themes in the first section, because it has no fluency, but instead, a stuttering staccato. It does not sound lushy or melancholic, but rather functional. “It is a motif my father sang in Hebrew;” states Bloch, “I don’t know the meaning of the words. Is it the call of the muezzin?” *Ernest Bloch, Creative Spirit 51. The background of this remarkable question might be an “Orientalist” concept of music, in which Bloch makes no distinction between Jewish and Islamic religious song. Alexander Knapp discovered the similarity of this oboe melody with the words “who has made us holy through His commandments” in traditional Jewish prayers. *Knapp, The Jewishness of Bloch 104. He could have added that these words, sung by Bloch’s father every morning, originate from the Morning Blessings in the Siddur: “Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe, / who has made us holy through His commandments, / and has commanded us . . .” followed by the commandments regarding the ẓiẓit (corners of the prayer shawl), the tefillin (phylacteries), the washing of the hands and the study of Torah. *The Koren Siddur 4. Klára Móricz points out that the oboe melody is the only traditional Jewish melody in Schelomo. *“Sensuous Pagans and Righteous Jews” 482.* Bakhtin’s statement that the internally persuasive word is “half-ours and half-someone else’s” *Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel” 345 applies to this melody: it is half of Jewish tradition and half Bloch’s father’s, or half of Bloch’s father and half of the composer himself. In the following confrontation with the themes from the first section, the prayer theme—as the oboe melody may be termed—takes on a different character and “degenerates;” Móricz calls it “barbarous,” *“Sensuous Pagans and Righteous Jews” 482 which is an appropriate qualification. Although it appears together with themes from the first section, it does not so much apply to Solomon’s increased wealth, for in that case, Bloch could have used an even lusher orchestration. Instead, he uses an well-known method of suggesting the exotic, “barbaric” East: parallel 4ths and 5ths. In its new shape, the prayer motif seems to allude to Solomon’s transgression of the Covenant by his worship of other gods. In No. 32, the increasing tension leads to a crisis and in No. 32, m. 4, the shofar motif appears for the first time since the exposition, this time not restrained but with overwhelming force in the trumpets: unison, fortissimo, and pronunziato. The unusual musical term pronunziato (“pronounced”) here denotes an eminently “authoritative” word, that is, God’s judgment of Solomon. In 1 Kings 11:11-12, it reads as follows: “Because you are guilty of this—you have not kept My Covenant and the laws which I enjoined upon you—I will tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. But, for the sake of your father David, I will not do it in your lifetime; I will tear it away from your son.”

After the conflict in the second section has come to a crisis, the third section brings no new themes; it is dominated by melancholy, sadness and skepticism, occasionally interrupted by passionate passages. In the two last measures of Schelomo, the motif of the “lofty spheres” in the high strings returns in the low strings and winds; the cello part remains on the dominant and does not come to rest on the tonic. This is the musical representation of the “sum of the matter” in Eccl. 12:14: “when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments!” The main tension in Schelomo, that between Solomon and God, is represented, on the one hand by the wealth and melancholy themes from the first section, and on the other hand by the shofar theme from the second section, with Solomon’s prayer theme in an uncomfortable middle position.


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