A visitor, one morning in 1916, to a small ill-furnished room on Lexington Avenue, New York City, was confronted by a man of less than medium height, with eyes that blazed beneath a fine forehead, and a mouth which was a crease of agony. The man was Ernest Bloch. After endless misfortunes he had come to America to conduct an orchestra for Maud Allan. The tour failed. He, fortunately, was left here stranded. It happened that the score he played me, shouting raucously as he assaulted a helpless and tinny upright piano, was that of “Schelomo.” Yelling and pounding, he projected, composer fashion, his music.
No wonder the piano suffered, for this music is wholly orchestral in conception, and nothing less than many instruments could give it vent. The purple and gold of the instrumentation is setting of the somber reveries, the bitter complaints and prophetic denunciations of the solo violoncello. This solo instrument, with its rhapsodic song, is the voice of Schelomo. Schelomo is the Jewish name for Solomon, and it is of Solomon in his glory, his wisdom and his disillusionments that Bloch sings. In so doing he is expressing the dreams of his own Hebrew race, and is the first great Jewish composer to do so. There have been other Jewish composersmany of them. Some were minor figures, or at least figures historically unknown, who contributed to the lore of Jewish religious or folk-music. Others were famous men like Mendelssohn or Rubinstein, whose. music, which might have been grandly racial, was so tinctured and weakened by conventionalizing European traditions that it lost its spiritual identity, and was by so much lessened in force and authenticity. Bloch’s purpose is otherwise. It is his desire to express not only himself but his race, and he has done this in a manner which places him in the front rank of living composers.
Only a few months before Bloch came to America he had met in Switzerland the cellist Alexander Barjansky, to whom the score of “Schelomo” is dedicated, and had seen a wax sculpture by the cellist’s wife, Catherine Barjanska, of Schelomo. A long-bearded figure sits on the throne clad in royal robes that cover the lower part of the body. the face is very old and weary, with deep sunken eyes, hollow cheeks and protruding temples. It is the Kingweary of life, weary of riches, weary of power. Inspired by this sculpture, Bloch composed in a few weeks his orchestral rhapsody, in which, in the words of the Italian critic and musicologist Guido Gatti, “The violin cello, with its ample breadth of phrasing, now melodic and with moments of superb lyricism, now declamatory and with robustly dramatic lights and shades, lends itself to a reincarnation of Solomon in all his glory, surrounded by his thousand wives “and concubines, with his multitude of slaves and warriors be-hind him. His voice resounds in the devotional silence, and the sentences of his wisdom sink into the heart as the seed into a fertile soil; `Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity…. One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever…. He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’ ” Notice the strange instrumental coloring, the wild outcries, alternating with deep black shadows in the orchestra, from which, as from utter solitude and darkness, there sounds the last soliloquy of the ‘cello. This rich, blazing music is fairly flung from the orchestra, and with what fury! At last the passion is spent. The end makes one think of Renan’s speech at the funeral of Turgenieff, when he spoke of those reveries which, through centuries, had amassed themselves about that heart.
Bloch says of his music: “I am not an archaeologist. It is not my purpose to attempt a reconstruction of Jewish music, or to base my work on melodies more or less authentic. I hold it of the first importance to write good genuine music, my music. It is the Jewish soul that interests me, the complex, glowing, agitated soul that feel vibrating throughout the Bible: the freshness and naivete of the Patriarchs; the violence that is evident in the prophetic books; the Jew’s savage love of justice; the despair of the Preacher in Jerusalem; the sorrow and immensity of the book of job, the sensuality of the Song of Songs.
“All this, is in us; it is in me, and it is the better part of me. It is all this that I endeavor to hear in myself and to transcribe in my music: the venerable emotion of the race that slumbers way down in our soul.” And he said also that his setting of certain Psalms, his symphony “Israel,” and his “Schelomo” for cello and orchestra, were highly representative of him “because they come from the passion and violence which i believe to be the characteristics of my nature.”