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Piano Sonata, Op. 40, (1935)

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Ernest Bloch
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center and Pro Musica Hebraica Present: An Evening of Jewish Music and Poetry: Evgeny Kissin Mon., Feb. 24, 2014, 7:30 PM
© James Loeffler

By birth, Ernest Bloch was a Swiss Jew. By temperament, arguably, he was a Russian. Renowned as one of Europe and America's leading 20th-century composers, Bloch's was a restless soul. He bristled at what he perceived to be a parochial label of "Jewish composer." As he wrote, "Why should I be bottled, labeled, compelled to eat kosher all my life?" Yet over the course of his career, he repeatedly gravitated to Jewish themes in his work, including his famous Baal Shem Suite and Avodat Kodesh (A Sacred Service) cantata. Even when he did not mark pieces explicitly Jewish, they often make heavy use of trademark modal elements and expressive accents drawn directly from the East European Jewish musical vocabulary.

Bloch's path into a life of music was not preordained. Though he studied in various cities across Europe in his early years, he dutifully entered his father's business in 1904. Composing was strictly a side interest until World War I. Then, as his fame began to grow, he left Europe for the United States, where he began a very successful career. He spent much of the 1920s attempting to define his place in American music. But by the early 1930s, he had begun to swing back towards his Jewish roots.

Though Bloch's music was known and much admired by the Russian Jewish musicians of 1910s Russia, he did not necessarily return the favor. He insisted on eschewing folklore as the basis for his Jewish compositions. "It is not my purpose, nor my desire, to attempt a reconstruction of Jewish music or to base my work on melodies more or less authentic," he wrote. "I am not an archeologist." Instead, he claimed to turn inward to his own inner Jewish voice, "a voice which seemed to come from far beyond myself, far beyond my parents-a voice which surged up in me on reading certain passages in the Bible."

In spite of his protestations, Bloch's proud, self-conscious Jewish musical voice does, in fact, owe quite a bit to traditional Jewish music of Eastern Europe. A case in point is the Piano Sonata. The work freely mixes jazz harmonies, complex syncopation á la Gershwin, and jagged rhythms with sharp melodic attacks and dramatic leaps. Even hints of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition appear in passages where the bass rumbles in contrast to the ruminative midrange figures and upper-range splashes of color. Critics have often noted the ferocity and even anger in the writing of this piece. It would seem to be the farthest thing from a sentimental ode to his Jewish roots. Yet the scalar movements up and down the scale known in classical music as Phrygian share features of the traditional Jewish Ahavah Rabo mode found throughout East European Jewish music. Hence the piece suggests a divided soul, torn between conscious attraction to his heritage and a fierce desire to break free of all constricting boundaries.

The first movement, marked "stately and energetic," introduces a three-note motif, an ascending fourth followed by ascending major second, which provides much of the piece's thematic material. The agitation and passion yield to a beautiful, calm "Pastorale" second movement. A slow meditation on the disassembled elements from the first movement, this portion probes delicately at the melodic line, while clouds of extended harmony waft in and out. The final movement turns dark once again, even cynical. With a violent march-tempo and abundant thick chords, it veers at times into a modernist grotesque. The dissonant deconstruction of the work's themes concludes with a closing passage marked "misterioso," in which Bloch sounds a short pattern of bell-like octave notes in the upper register on top of a slow ascending and descending pattern in the bass. The piece dies off into an ambiguously quiet ending. It might be the quiet of a soul finally at peace or the resignation of a soul in defeat.