Three years ago in San Francisco, Ernest Bloch felt ill and worried, and under the pressure of a strong physical strain he composed some of his saddest music. Cantor Reuben R. Rinder, of Temple Emanu-El in that city, conceived the idea that Mr. Bloch should work on a musical setting for the Liturgyâ€”the reformed synagogue service. Cantor Rinder was on his way to the composer’s house one night to start translating the services so that Mr. Bloch would understand the rhythm and accent of the words and phrases when he met with an automobile accident which sent him to a hospital instead.
Yesterday Mr. Bloch sat in his room at the Peter Stuyvesant Hotel, after having just debarked from the Lafayette, which brought him from Europe, and explained to a reporter and his two daughters, Lucienne and Suzanne, how Cantor Rinder’s auto mishap, while unfortunate for the cantor, was a godsend to him.
NOT BEFORE HE UNDERSTOOD
“I looked at the Liturgy,” he said, “and realized that I never would grasp the significance of the soul-stirring words and the magnificent rhythms unless I understood Hebrew. I had a little French-Hebrew dictionary. I took my wife to Switzerland. We rented a cottage near Lugano, and there, after many months of laborious study, I got the meaning of the whole service. Then I wrote the music, but not until I had grasped the significance and symbolism of the whole Liturgy.”
Recognized as one of the greatest contemporary musical masters, known for his “Three Jewish Poems,” “Schelomo,” “Israel,” and “Abodah,” his symphony “America,” and his “Symphony in C Sharp Minor,” Mr. Bloch believes that he has outdone himself in his latest feat of writing a unified, compact score for the Liturgy. And, what is just as important, the nervous illness of three years ago has disappeared. The passion and energy and happiness which he put into his work in Lugano dissipated all his troubles.
Today he is happy, inspired, excitedly enthusiastic about his work.
“The score is completed,” he remarked, and removed 150 pages of music from his valise to show his daughters one of the two complete copies in existence. Handling each page with care and devotionâ€”this represented three full years of his energyâ€”he tried to explain in words what he had done in sounds and rhythms.
HIS GIFT TO THE JEWS
“The old division of music, words and chantings in the Liturgy disturbed me,” he declared. “I wanted unity. I sought to bind people under the spell of a magnificent conception of devotion. It took me more than two years to find the music to use at the end of the services….” Here he began to hum the tune for the edification of his daughters. “But finally I got it. And I have written on my score beneath the title, Havodath Hakodeth, the words ‘Laadath Bene Israel’â€”to the people of Israel. The Liturgy, however, is for the whole world. It is my gift to the Jewish people for them to use as a proof to the world that in this time of anti-Semitism in Germany the Jews have a prayer service so intense and so beautiful that it will soften the soul of humanity, regardless of race or creed.”
If Mr. Bloch can obtain proper support, get a good chorus and a symphony orchestra which he can conduct, he says he would like to present the first rendition of the Liturgy in America.
“But first I want to write a pamphlet and give a few lectures explaining the significance of the work,” he stated. “And the score also must be published before I can do anything about a public concert.”
While in Europe, Mr. Bloch traveled extensively through Italy and was greeted enthusiastically wherever he conducted concerts of his own works. In Turino he conducted a whole Bloch Jewish concert. The press criticisms were excellent; all Italy was thrilled by his compositions. In Florence and Trieste his works were played and Stefan Zweig and other writers wrote him expressing their appreciation. Altogether there were nine concerts of his works in Italy, including two in Rome.
POPE RECEIVES A RABBI FRIEND
Describing Italy’s opposition to anti-Semitism, Mr. Bloch told how the Pope took a subtle slam at Hitler a few months ago.
“In Italy I met the famous old scholar, Rabbi de Fano, head of the rabbinate of Milan. The Pope in his youth had studied Hebrew under Rabbi da Fano, and they were great friends. When Hitler rose into power the rabbi went to the Vatican for an audience with the Pope. The Pope explained that he could not make an official pronouncement against Hitler because the latter was conducting his campaign on racial and political, not religious grounds. But the Pope did the next best thing. The day following the rabbi’s visit there appeared a big story in the Italian press, stating that ‘yesterday His Eminence, the Pope, received at the Vatican his old friend, Rabbi da Fano’.”
Ernest Bloch is undoubtedly the most original and most forceful composer in America today. But he has always insisted that his work is Jewish, not because he selects Jewish themes, but because any theme he would choose would reflect his inner spirit. At one time he explained his convictions in these words:
“A man does not have to label his composition ‘American’ or ‘German’ or ‘Italian’ but he has to be American, German, Italian, or even Jewish at the bottom of his heart if he expects to produce any real music. I, for instance, am a Jew, and I aspire to write Jewish music, not for the sake of self-advertisement but because I am sure that this is the only way in which I can produce lasting music of vitality and significanceâ€”if I can do such a thing at all. I believe that those pages of mine in which I am at my best are those in which I am most unmistakeably racial.”
EUROPE WANTS HIM
His two daughters, Lucienne, a sculptor and artist, and Suzanne, a musician, as well as Mrs. Bloch, have always stood by him in his arduous work. Mrs. Bloch is still in Lugano, Switzerland, living in the tiny house on a hill on the outskirts of the city where her husband did his most recent work. Mr. Bloch intends to return to Europe shortly, unless a concert can be arranged for him here. Italy, France and Switzerland are asking him to conduct symphonies.
Like all famous composers, he has neglected to reap his reward of the material things in life, but in spite of the fact that he cannot afford to live as Hollywood and Broadway would have their geniuses live, he still cares little for money.
“If I can arrange a concert here I would like half of the profits to go to the local unemployed and the other half for the relief of German Jews,” he stated, while his daughters beamed on him, apparently more interested in the fact that their father had brought hom a picture of his old friend, Havelock Ellis, whom he met recently in Europe.