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Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Ernest Bloch
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Salute to Slatkin/Yo-Yo Ma, cello Sun., Jun. 29, 2008, 7:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Ernest Bloch was born Swiss and died an American, having spent more than half of his life in the United States, where was director, successively, of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory during the years 1920-1930 and subsequently taught at the University of California at Berkeley for a dozen years. While he did not neglect either the country of his birth or his adopted land in his compositions (among which are the "symphonic fresco" Helvetia and the "epic rhapsody" America), it is primarily as a composer of "Jewish music" that Bloch is remembered, on the stgrength of such works as as the Three Jewish Poems for orchestra, the violin suite Baal Shem, the Israel Symphony, the majestic Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service for the Sabbath) and—probably the best-known of all his compositions--Schelomo, which he termed a "Hebraic Rhapsody."

Bloch acknowledged the Jewish strain in his music—even in the Viola Suite, for which he had a sort of scenario based on his imagination of Bali!—but he pointed out that it was a matter of spirit, of personal feeling, rather than anything to do with folklore. In a sense, he invented his own "Jewish music," just as Sibelius invented his own "Finnish music," out of his own personal style. There is nothing anonymous or "generic" in such a work as Schelomo, and not a single bar that might be called impersonal.

The work came into being in a time of adversity. In 1915 the family business in Geneva was close to bankruptcy and Bloch himself failed to land a conductorship he had sought. He found himself drawn to the Book of Ecclesiastes, with its famous passage, "I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of the spirit. . . . Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." He thought of setting that text to music, but no European language seemed to suit his rhythmic patterns and he hadn't sufficient familiarity with Hebrew. The idea for the present work came from a meeting with the cellist Alexander Barjansky and his sculptress wife.

As Bloch played portions of various unpublished compositions for them in 1916, Mrs. Barjansky began working on a statue which at first was to have been a Christ but eventually became King Solomon. As she worked on her sculpture Bloch worked on his musical interpretation of Ecclesiastes, which he intended for Alexander Barjansky, and completed it within a few weeks. Since Solomon is thought to have been the author of that book, Bloch named his composition for him, Schelomo being the Hebrew form of the name. He wrote that he had no descriptive intention in composing this music, but he provided a fairly detailed scenario several years after the premiere:

"One may imagine that the voice of the cello is the voice of King Solomon. The complex voice of the orchestra is the voice of his age, the world, his experience. There are times when the orchestra seems to reflect his thoughts, just as the cello voices his words. The introduction, which contains the form of several essential motifs, is the plaint, the lamentation . . . a soliloquy. " . . . The mood changes, but the atmosphere of pessimism almost despairs. . . . There are rhythms of languorous dances—a symbol of vanity? The rhapsody says, 'I have tasted all of this . . . and this too is vanity.'

"The orchestra enlarges on the main theme. It becomes rich, as though Solomon's wives and concubines would displace these thoughts. He enters into their seductive dance. . . . Here is the exotic panoply or the Oriental world: 'I am the King! The world is mine!'
" . . . This strange motif of the bassoon, which later permeates the orchestra, is it the priests? At first Solomon seems to withstand it. Soon he joins in. . . . Is it the crowd? Their prayers? Again one hears their lament, their unrest growing fevered, anguished . . .
The tumult is appeased. Solomon alone meditates. A shudder of sadness, a gesture of despair, 'All is vanity.' The orchestra leaves this world to enter into a vision . . . where live again peace and justice. Solomon drifts into the dream, but nor for long. The splendors of power and the throne topple like tarnished fanes into ruins. Here Solomon thinks through the orchestra; as the cello cries imprecations the orchestra magnifies his thoughts. . . . 'Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.'

"Even the darkest of my works end with hope. This work alone concludes in a complete negation, but the subject demands it! The only passage of light falls after the meditation of Solomon. I found the meaning of this fragment 15 years later, when I used it in the Sacred Service. The words are words of hope, of an ancient prayer that one day men will acknowledge their brotherhood and live in harmony and peace."

This work's inclusion in this evening's concert celebrates the prominence of the cello and cellists in the orchestra's history. Alexander Barjansky, the cellist for whom Bloch composed Schelomo, did not perform it until 1933, when he appeared in Rome, with the composer conducting. Bloch himself also conducted the actual premiere, some sixteen years earlier (May 13, 1917), with a young Dutchman named Hans Kindler, who was at that time principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Kindler subsequently achieved celebrity as a soloist and as a conductor; he founded the National Symphony Orchestra in 1931 and was its music director until 1949. His successor, Howard Mitchell, was also a cellist; he came directly from the Curtis Institute to the NSO and became principal cellist under Kindler. Rostropovich, in the course of his career, performed Schelomo as both cellist and conductor. In the present concert Mr. Slatkin realizes a long held wish to perform the work with Yo-Yo Ma, who has been a frequent soloist in his concerts, but not until now in Schelomo.