Bruckner’s majestic Symphony No. 7, his most popular, is at the heart of today’s concert. Schelomo, Ernest Bloch’s penetrating meditation on the book of Ecclesiastes, makes up the first half of the program.
(Born 24 July 1880, Geneva, Switzerland; Died 15 July 1959, Portland, Oregon)
First performance: 13 May 1917; New York, New York
Last MSO performance: April 2004; Andreas Delfs, conductor; Matt Haimovitz, cello
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon,
4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam, tambourine, triangle),
2 harps, celeste, strings
Approximate duration: 20 minutes
Based on the esteem of such works as the violin suite Baal Shem, the Three Jewish Poems for orchestra, the Israel symphony, the noble Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service), and the Hebraic rhapsody Schelomo—his best-known opus—Ernest Bloch has come to be known above all as a “Jewish composer.” But that categorization is far too narrow for a man who lived such a diverse life: He was born in Geneva and educated in Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, and Paris; in this country, he taught at the Mannes School of Music in New York from 1917-20 and served as the first director of the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1920-25, becoming a United States citizen in 1924; following this, he headed the San Francisco Conservatory for five years; in the 1930s, Bloch lived in Switzerland and conducted in various European cities, returning to the United States in 1939; he settled in Agate Beach, Oregon for the rest of his life, teaching summer classes at U.C. Berkley until his retirement in 1952.
Schelomo had its genesis in 1915. Living in the relative safety of his homeland, neutral Switzerland, Bloch nevertheless fell into a deep depression over the events of World War I. Turning to the book of Ecclesiastes—traditionally believed to have been authored by King Solomon over 2,000 years earlier—he read the words, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity... I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” These Scriptures spoke compellingly to the composer and he decided to set them to music, but couldn’t determine what language might best suit his rhythmic patterns. A fortuitous meeting with the Russian cellist Alexander Barjansky and his sculptress wife Katya led Bloch to abandon his plans for a vocal work, opting instead to create
a rhapsody for “an infinitely grander and more profound voice that could speak all languages,” the cello.
The Barjanskys had been overwhelmed after Bloch had played some of his Jewish-hued works for them, prompting Katya to jot down a sketch for a statue—her “sculptural thanks” to Bloch, as she put it—which at first was to have been Christ, but eventually became Solomon. The composer named his new rhapsody for the Jewish patriarch, Schelomo being the Jewish form of the name (in its German transliteration). Several years after its premiere, Bloch offered a detailed programmatic description of the piece:
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 not 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 ends 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.
Recommended Recording: Pierre Fournier; Alfred Wallenstein, Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon) U
(Born 4 September 1824, Ansfeld, Upper Austria; Died 11 October 1896, Vienna, Austria)
First performance: 30 December 1884; Leipzig, Germany
Last MSO performance: March 2007; Andreas Delfs, conductor
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 tenor Wagner tubas, 2 bass Wagner tubas, 3 trumpets,
3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussions (cymbals, triangle), strings
Approximate duration: 64 minutes
It’s somewhat startling to realize that the premieres of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 and Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 (2 December 1883) came just over a year apart. For that matter, it’s surprising to note that Brahms—the stalwart holdout of another era, a fancier of the music of Heinrich Schütz and an original subscriber to the Bach-Gesellschaft Edition—was nine years younger than Bruckner—a late-blooming descendant of Austrian peasantry, a life-long auto-didact, and a friend and disciple of Richard Wagner. As Brahms looked to the past for inspiration, Bruckner followed the more “innovative” trends of his idol. (He was at Bayreuth in 1876 for the premiere complete Ring cycle and in 1882 for the first performance of Parsifal.)
Let’s face it: Bruckner’s symphonies are more challenging for the listener than Brahms’s—or even those of their later contemporary Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). And though Bruckner cited Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 as a profound influence—his four main movement types are derived from it (a divergent opening movement, a spacious adagio, a sonata-form scherzo, a large summative finale)—he was likewise influenced by Wagner’s glacially slow harmonic progressions, his lengthy and emotionally fraught melodies, his substantial full-brass pronouncements, and his protracted time scale.
As the British musicologist Deryck Cooke has noted, Bruckner’s symphonies formerly were thought of either as bumbling approaches to the Beethovenian model or as clumsy ill-fated attempts at writing “Wagnerian symphonies.” Nowadays, we recognize Bruckner’s compositional originality and individuality of spirit. In its very essence, sonata form is steadily moving forward, seeking a destination. “But with Bruckner firm in his [Roman Catholic] faith,” says Cooke, “the music has no need to go anywhere, no need to find a point of arrival, because it is already there... Experiencing Bruckner’s symphonic music is more like walking round a cathedral, and taking in each part of it, than like setting out on a journey for some hoped-for goal... No more than a medieval cathedral will Bruckner’s symphonies reveal their majesty and grandeur to the sophisticated and impatient.”
Bruckner’s Seventh is his best-known symphony, one that still speaks with unique directness and that brought the 60-year-old composer immediate, if long-delayed, success. At its Leipzig premiere, conducted by Arthur Nikisch, the ovation lasted a full 15 minutes. Widely circulated, within three years audiences in Munich, Karlsruhe, Vienna, Graz, Hamburg, Cologne, Amsterdam, Chicago, New York, Boston, Berlin, and Budapest had basked in its sublimity.
The lengthy Allegro moderato opens with a spacious cello melody, with each subsequent phrase seeming to grow organically from what has preceded it. There are three important themes, an expansive development section, and a generous coda. (The latter is set above a stubborn pedal-E in the bass, often at odds with the rest of the orchestra.) The transcendent Adagio is a statement of deep spirituality, one that asserts Bruckner’s unflagging belief in God.
It incorporates four Wagner tubas, an instrument Wagner designed for the Ring cycle, here making their first appearance in symphonic music. As Bruckner was completing this movement, Wagner died in Venice on 13 February 1883. After hearing the news, Bruckner wrote the quiet coda—it begins with the quartet of Wagner tubas plus contrabass tuba—”the funeral music for the master” as he called it, in tribute to the man he esteemed above all living musicians.
Dominated by a recurring string motif and a vibrant trumpet theme, the restless scherzo propels us out of church into the open air. The bucolic trio is a bit slower and more transparently scored. Bruckner imbues the finale with thematic ideas that range in character from whimsical to wonderfully bizarre to charmingly straightforward. At the end, the work’s opening cello theme is heard in the final triumphant E major fanfares.
Recommended Recording: Bernard Haitink, Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca)