With this 1913 work, Ernest Bloch inaugurated his so-called "Jewish cycle," which included the "Israel" Symphony and his most popular work Schelomo. The piece consists of three movements: Danse, Rite, and Cortege funebre. On the one hand, Bloch constructs each movement with his usual mastery. He creates and combines many little cells into constantly-transforming related themes and achieves true symphonic unity. On the other hand, he is also a magnificent orchestrator. The work has as much color as a Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov or Ottorino Respighi tone poem. This duality makes it difficult to get an emotional "fix" on the work. Further, unlike most tone poems, its main impulse is neither pictorial (like Respighi) nor dramatic (like Richard Strauss), but philosophic.
Bloch always denied he was a musical archeologist. Outside of an emphasis on the augmented second, characteristic of cantorial melody, these poems are not particularly "Jewish." Indeed, Bloch wrote them shortly after his father's death.
Bloch describes the Danse as "somber, mystical, languorous," although to me only "mystical" applies. A nervous, passionate theme announced at the beginning, shoots through the entire movement in orchestral colors that Bloch would later use to suggest the glory of King Solomon's court. Indeed, all three poems sound forth with thematic adumbrations of the masterpiece Schelomo. Of the Rite, Bloch wrote, "This music is more emotional, but there is something solemn and distant, as in the ceremonies of a cult." The opening, the most pictorial passage in the work, conjures up the vision of a long, solemn procession, but it quickly moves to music of great consolation – as if to suggest the healing power of ritual. The last movement, Cortege funebre, continues the mood of the second, but gradually grief overpowers ritual until the orchestra seems to howl. The foment subsides to a mutter, out of which comes yet another song of acceptance and serenity which proceeds to a noble close.
Copyright © 1995 by Steve Schwartz.