Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Composer, violinist, conductor and teacher, Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), a child protégé who became renowned as “the father of Modern Jewish Music,” is best known for creating a unique Jewish “national music.” His popularity, renown, and admiration in elite music circles were such that many critics considered him the fourth great “B” of classical music (after Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms), and he was awarded several prestigious composition prizes. He wrote a broad range of vocal, instrumental, and orchestral and choral works, all of which evidence a wide variety of influences, ranging from neo-classical and neo-romantic styles to French, Swiss, Chinese, American and Native American folk traditions.

Bloch portrait

Bloch’s Jewish works, which comprise some 25 percent of his entire oeuvre, were primarily written during two periods of his life, the first from 1911 to 1918, which came to be renowned as his “Jewish Cycle,” and the others written between 1923 and 1951. His Jewish Cycle works include:

  • SchelomoHebrew Rhapsody, for violin, cello and orchestra (1915-16), by far his best-known piece;
  • The Israel Symphony (1912-1916), for five solo voices and orchestra, which includes “Prayer in the Desert,” “Yom Kippur,” and “Sukkot;” specific citations to The Song of Songs; and the well-known Haggadah song, Echad Mi Yodea;
  • Trois Poèmes Juifs (“Three Jewish Poems,” 1913), which he wrote while mourning the death of his father, to whom he dedicated the work; and
  • Three Psalms (1914-1917): 114, 137, and 22.

Bloch himself proclaimed that “the Psalms, Schelomo, my Israel Symphony… come from the passion, the violence which I believe to be characteristic of my nature.” Many commentators suggest that leaving Geneva and its rampant antisemitism and moving to New York, where Jews were more accepted, played an important role in Bloch’s development of his Jewish Cycle.

His later notable Jewish pieces include:

  • Baal Shem Suite (1923), for violin and piano (also known as Three Pictures of Chassidic Life, later orchestrated), whose three movements are Vidui (“Contrition”), Nigun (Melody”), and Simchas Torah (“Rejoicing in the Torah”);
  • From Jewish Life (1924) for cello and piano, whose three movements are entitled “Prayer,” Supplication,” and Jewish Song;”
  • Avoda (1929), for violin and piano;
  • Voice in the Wilderness (1936), for orchestra with violoncello obligato;
  • Visions and Prophecies (1936), for piano; and
  • Suite Hébraïque (1951), for viola and piano (later orchestrated).

Bloch was descended from a long line of observant Jews; his grandfather, Meyer, was president of the Jewish community in Lengnau (Bern, Switzerland) and, at one point in his life, Bloch’s father, Maurice (Meyer), a clock merchant, planned to be a rabbi before turning secular. Bloch took Hebrew lessons, had a bar mitzvah, and warmly recalled early childhood memories of Shabbat candles being lit in his home and festival celebrations, particularly Passover. However, after he picked up a violin at age nine, music became his laser-like focus, notwithstanding his father’s strong objections. Later, while studying music abroad, he lost much of his interest in Judaism, although there can be little doubt that he was still influenced by the Hebrew melodies he had heard his father sing. However, things would change in the wake of the infamous Dreyfus Affair.

It is generally known that the Dreyfus Affair and his personal witnessing of Dreyfus’s humiliation are what led a young journalist named Theodore Herzl to the Zionist idea, but few know that the Affair was also the inspiration for Bloch’s renewed interest in Judaism and Jewish music.

As a result of the infamous Affair, many Jews became ardent nationalists, among them Edmond Fleg, who in turn inspired his friend Bloch. Fleg (1874-1963) was a Jewish French writer, thinker, novelist, essayist, and playwright who played a leading role in constructing a modern French Jewish identity, spirituality, and self-understanding that allowed secular French Jews to preserve their Jewish identity. In doing so, Fleg called for an exploration of original Jewish texts as the basis for a modern Jewish identity and established a new literary direction devoted to re-interpreting biblical texts, legends, and liturgies. He believed that all Jews everywhere are connected, an idea that was particularly attractive to Bloch, who had traveled through many countries before finally settling in the United States in 1916.

In 1906, Bloch wrote a letter to Fleg in which he proclaimed, “I have read the Bible… and an immense sense of pride surged in me. My entire being vibrated; it is a revelation… I would find myself again a Jew, raise my head proudly as a Jew.” In a subsequent letter to Fleg written in 1911, he expressed his new artistic manifesto:

I notice here and there themes that are without my willing it, for the greater part Jewish, and which begin to make themselves precise and indicate the instinctive and also conscious direction in which I am going. I do not search to produce a form, I am producing nothing so far, but I feel that the hour will come… There will be Jewish rhapsodies for orchestra, Jewish poems, dances mainly, poems for voices for which I have not the words, but I would wish them Hebraic. All my musical Bible shall come, and I would let sing in me these secular chants where will vibrate all the Jewish soul… I think that I shall write one day songs to be sung at the synagogue in part by the minister, in part by the faithful. It is really strange that all this comes out slowly, this impulse that has chosen me, who all my life have been a stranger to all that is Jewish.

In a 1916 interview with the Boston Post, he explained:

Racial consciousness is something that every great artist must have. A tree must have its roots deep down in its soil. A composer who says something is not only himself. He is his forefathers! He is his people! Then his message takes on a vitality and significance which nothing else can give it, and which is absolutely essential in great art. I try to compose with this in mind. I am a Jew. I have the virtues and defects of the Jew. It is my own belief that when I am most Jewish I compose most effectively.

Bloch described how his reawakened Judaism drove his composition:

I do not propose or desire to attempt a reconstruction of the music of the Jews… It is rather the Hebrew spirit that interests me – the complex, ardent, agitated soul that vibrates for me in the Bible; the vigor and ingenuity of the Patriarchs, the violence that finds expression in the Books of the Prophets, the burning love of justice, the desperation of the preachers of Jerusalem, the sorrow and grandeur of the Book of Job, the sensuality of the Song of Songs. All this is in us, all this is in me, and is the better part of me. This is what I seek to feel within me and to translate in my music – the sacred race-emotion that lies dormant in our souls… It is the Jewish soul that interests me, the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible: the freshness and naiveté of the Patriarchs, the violence of the books of the Prophets, the Jew’s savage love of justice, the despair of Ecclesiastes, the sorrow and immensity of the Book of Job, the sensuality of the Song of Songs. It is all this that I strive to hear in myself and to translate in my music – the sacred emotion of the race that slumbers deep in our soul. I have done nothing more than to listen to an inner voice, a voice that seemed to come from far beyond myself, which surged up in me on reading certain verses of the Bible.

Bloch very publicly held himself out as a Jew, including on the covers of the publications of his music by the Schirmer company, where he pointedly centered his initials at the center of a Magen David, a ubiquitous and broadly familiar Jewish symbol. He maintained that his turning to Jewish music was more an internal instinct, what he called “an inner voice”:

In my work termed “Jewish” – my Psalms, Schelomo, Israel, Trois Poemes Juifs, Voice in the Wilderness – I have not approached the problem from without by employing melodies more or less authentic (frequently borrowed from or under the influence of other nations) or “Oriental” formulae, rhythms, or intervals more or less sacred!

NO! I have but listened to an inner voice, deep, secret, insistent, ardent – an instinct much more than cold and dry reason, a voice which seemed to come from far beyond myself, far beyond my parents… a voice which surged up in me upon reading certain passages in the Bible, Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, The Prophets… This entire Jewish heritage moved me deeply; it was reborn in my music. To what extent it is Jewish or to what extent it is just Ernest Bloch, of that I know nothing. The future alone will decide.

While Bloch is best known for his Jewish works and he was unabashedly proud of his Judaism, he did not want to be known solely as a Jewish composer and, in fact, an over-emphasis on Bloch’s Jewish work (as in this article) often misses the greater breadth of his oeuvre, which includes many important “non-Jewish” works. Yet many, if not most, musicologists – who are generally and justly mystified that so many of Bloch’s award-winning masterpieces that were standards in the repertoires of the greatest conductors and performers of his time are now rarely, if ever, performed – maintain that his “Jewish musical soul” was so integral a part of his essence that his Jewish musical style infuses even his non-Jewish music.

In Schelomo, a Hebraic Rhapsody for cello and orchestra, Bloch evokes with warm emotion the formerly coarse and bare land of Eretz Yisrael, now made verdant by Jews working their land. His music, which boldly attempts to blend the characteristics of eastern-oriental music with Western music forms, evokes the image of King Solomon as the ultimate in royalty and all his roles as king, including battle-tested warrior; prophet; poet and author of Shir HaShirim, Kohelet, and Mishlei; and builder of the first Beit HaMikdash. According to Bloch, a major theme of the piece is the lamentation that “vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” which he characterizes as “an emotional, nearly a physiological reaction.” The work includes shofar blasts, particularly the teruah, tekia, teruah; a motif he says his father sang in Hebrew; and a famous section called Gemorah Niggun (the “Talmudic Melody.”)

Perhaps Bloch’s greatest, and most ambitious, Hebrew liturgical work was Avodat Kodesh (“The Sacred Service, 1933). In 1929, he was excited by a commission from his friend, Cantor Reuben Rinder of (Reform) Temple Emanuel in San Francisco, to write a complete Shabbat morning liturgical service:

I am still studying my Hebrew text. I have now memorized entirely the whole service in Hebrew… I know its significance word by word… But what is more important, I have absorbed it to the point that it has become mine and as if it were the very expression of my soul. It far surpasses a Hebrew Service now. It has become a cosmic poem, a glorification of the laws of the Universe… It has become a “private affair” between God and me.

Bloch considered his Avodat Kodesh, which took him four years to complete and constituted a major development in the sacred music genre, to be more a sacred Hebrew oratorio than a Jewish liturgical service and, indeed, it was far more suited to the concert stage that a synagogue bimah.


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In this incredible July 1, 1936, handwritten letter to Ben Naim Pine, a violinist and Poalei Tzion leader also known for gathering material in Eretz Yisrael, Bloch discusses his views of Eretz Yisrael, the Diaspora, and Jewish history:

Excuse me for the delay in answering your kind letter of April 6th. Poor health, too much correspondence, and steady work, in spite of all, account for it. Furthermore, the question you ask me is so important and so complex that it is impossible for me to answer it properly…

My views, in this regard, would have no value at all, for this great Cause… First of all, I have not been in Palestine myself and cannot judge with equity the real conditions and happenings there; reports are all conflicting and more or less biased by preconceived ideas or the temperament of those who discuss these questions – I know that many people talk and lecture and proclaim things about Palestine and the Jews, in America, especially… But, it seems to me that all previsions are premature… It is impossible, honestly, and scientifically, to foresee what can happen, what will happen… Nature is slow, very slow, according to our own, human, estimate of time. It has taken thousands of years to shape man… And one cannot create “artificially” such conditions that can modify man’s way of reacting so quickly…

Of course, here again, we have to deal with one of the biggest and most important problem[s] of Mankind… to know what is due to heredity and to the “Milieu” – environment – and thus far, th[ou]gh I am much preoccupied by this problem, and studying it in several books of Biology, I do not think that an accurate answer can yet be given – Russia, for instance is making a huge experiment now, and accomplishes tremendous things – But it is too early to judge, in a fair way.

How far can a people be modified by his [sic] environment? A very delicate and arduous question… and very intricate. In Germany, and in Italy too, tremendous changes take place. But to know exactly what will be really, deeply, changed, requires more than one generation.

For the Jews the problem is still more complicate[d]… Our “national” life is perhaps a myth. Long before the “Diaspora,” Jews were scattered a little everywhere. Perhaps in this lie[s] their force. They had to get adapted. Man has enormous power of adaptation. It is probably on account of this sad fate – to have no fatherland – that the Jews survived. It has been, on the other hand, a terrific handicap – No continuity – No peace – No roots – Always wander, change, re-adapt oneself. It has been my own tragedy.

To answer really your question would require a knowledge of Biology, of History, of Economics, that I do not possess at all… A man like Chayim Weizman [sic] would be much more qualified… But I wonder whether he, himself, could give you any precisions… Like these who know much, he must be rather skeptical and reticent…

Bloch Israel stamp (1995), featuring a portrait of the artist and a musical except from his Schelomo.

Bloch hoped to be invited to visit Israel but, for whatever unfortunate reason, the visit never happened. Nevertheless, there is a renewed interest in his work in Israel, which honored him with a stamp in 1995 (see exhibit), and a walkway in Haifa between Disraeli and Sinai Streets is named for him. According to the Ernest Bloch Society, some of his melodies, written at the beginning of the 20th century – including particularly Trois Poèmes Juifs and the Israel Symphony – foreshadow, with an amazingly prophetic power, several Israeli melodies and styles from the 1960s.


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Few people know that Bloch was also an accomplished photographer, a passion that began early in his teens and through which medium he further exhibits his extraordinary compositional skills. According to the Ernest Bloch Society website, “His photographs ranged from self-portraits to pictures of his family, musicians, rural folk, and many diverse landscapes… [and] showed a dedication to technique as well as an eye for light, composition, and a sensitivity to human expression.”

Bloch’s first photos, made when he was a 17-year-old music student in Brussels, were mostly self-portraits, scenic countrywide shots, and photos that captured peasant farmworkers tending their fields. He had been composing and photographing for twenty-five years before meeting and befriending the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, through whom he began to understand photography as an art form. He made over 6,000 negatives, which evidence the same control and dedication that characterized his musical work, and he developed his own plates and films.

Two great photographers: Ansel Adams’s letter to Bloch.
Adams famously commented, “The photographic negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print is the performance.”

Bloch also enjoyed a long friendship with Ansel Adams, arguably the greatest scenic photographer of all time, and, intriguingly, his black-and-white scenic photographs are very similar in style and tone to Adams’s work. In the very rare and fascinating July 2, 1954, correspondence to Bloch exhibited here, Adams displays not only his keen friendship with the composer, but also how Bloch’s music inspired Adams in his photographic work:

I was playing the Kindertotenlieder of Mahler this morning, and was in a rather reflective mood when your letter came. I was deeply touched by it, and I, too, began to recall the past years…

You may not have any recollection of it, but you considerably influenced the course of my work; I recall showing you some mountain photographs – at the time I was trying for dark skies and super-Wagnerian shadows – and you said something pointed about the lack of the feeling of Light in the pictures – “Mountains are Light!” you said. Well, that had quite an effect!!!

I have a very strong urge to come and see you and photograph you! Not the usual kind of photography – all “planned” and stiff – but to do you in terms of what Stieglitz called the “equivalent” image. Your love of nature, your proximity to the sea, the details of scores, hands, eyes, light in the window, the little things of nature and the big sky – all these things can be woven into a pattern of expression and symbolic feeling…

I am sending herewith a reproduction of an image you may like; I think you may have received it in 1950, as you are on our list. But here is another one, anyway…

Original Bloch autographed musical quotation labeled “For the Mother!”

Bloch also regularly corresponded with Stieglitz and artist Georgia O’Keefe, whom he visited at their home in Santa Fe. A small collection of his photos is on exhibit at the Western Jewish History Center of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, in Berkeley, California, and most of his 6,000 negatives and 2,000 prints, along with photographs by Adams and famed photographer Edward Weston, may be seen at the Ernest Bloch Archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].