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Schelomo: Rhapsodie hébraïque, for cello and orchestra

Bloch wrote Schelomo with inspiration from Ecclesiastes; the solo cello represents the voice of King Solomon.

Ernest Bloch was born July 24, 1880, in Geneva, Switzerland, and died July 15, 1959, in Portland, Oregon. He wrote Schelomo in 1915-16 after meeting the cellist Alexandre Barjansky, but, the composer having meanwhile moved to the United States, the premiere was given by cellist Hans Kindler with the New York City-based Society of the Friends of Music at Carnegie Hall on May 3, 1917.

The score of Schelomo calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players: cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum), 2 harps, celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 20 minutes.

One afternoon in 1916 Olin Downes, at the time music critic of The Boston Post, visited the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch in New York. Bloch, who had recently arrived from Europe to try his luck in the United States, made a great impression on Downes who described him as “a maniac with blazing eyes, jet-black hair and a face lined with suffering and will and vision.” The composer “sat at the piano, beating it as a madman his drum, and, bawling, singing, shouting, released a torrent of music which poured out of him like lava from a volcano.” The work Bloch played for the astonished critic was Schelomo, a Hebrew rhapsody for solo cello and grand orchestra, in Downes’s words “a torrent of music, bitter, passionate, exalted, and all purple and gold.”

Bloch composed Schelomo shortly before he came to the United States, as the last of his “Jewish Cycle,” a group of works in which he tried to express what in interviews he described as “the soul of the Jewish people.” Growing up in Geneva, Switzerland, Bloch developed little sense of national belonging. In Geneva he studied with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, in Brussels with Eugène Ysaÿe, in Frankfurt with Iwan Knorr, finishing his training in composition in Munich with Ludwig Thuille and Max von Schillings. He admired Debussy and Mahler and wrote music his teachers thought lacked specific national identity. By the time he reached New York, Bloch was ready to present himself as a quintessentially Jewish composer—and this is how American audiences first encountered him. In the United States Bloch also became an influential teacher of composition, giving classes in the Mannes School of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the San Francisco Conservatory, ending his teaching career on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley. His musical style went through several transformations, although it always remained passionate, romantically inspired, and accessible even when critics accused him of modernist harshness.

Despite its title and program, Bloch’s Schelomo is not strictly Jewish or even Biblical. It is a turn-of-the-century Orientalist fantasy in the spirit of Gustave Flaubert’s historical novel Sallambô (1862) and Richard Strauss’s opera Salome (1905), both admired by Bloch. Like Des Esseintes, the protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s decadent novel Against the Grain (1891), Bloch spent hours in front of the paintings of Salome by Gustave Moreau, the inspiration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1891), which Strauss used as the libretto of his scandalous opera. Huysmans recreates the splendor of Moreau’s painting in words. Herod the Tetrarch sits “in the center of the tabernacle,” with “a tiara upon his head,” his face “the color of yellow parchment,” “furrowed with wrinkles, ravaged with age,” his “long beard floating like a white cloud upon the star-like clusters of jewels constellating the orphrey robe fitting tightly over his breast.” Huysmans brings together Moreau’s exotic Jewish princess Salome, the cruel Oriental ruler Herod, and their decadent observer Des Esseintes into one oversaturated image. Bloch absorbed this image in his musical depiction of King Solomon (Schelomo in Hebrew).

The direct inspiration for Schelomo came from Bloch’s meeting with the Russian Jewish cellist Alexandre Barjansky and his sculptor wife Katia Barjansky at the end of 1915. Bloch was so taken by the extraordinary intensity and ardor of Barjansky’s playing that he immediately began to compose a “poem” for the cellist. Moved by Bloch’s Jewish-inspired music, Katia thanked the composer with a wax sculpture of King Solomon that combined Orientalist splendor with spiritual intensity. Bloch saw the figure similar to Huysmans’s exotic Herod: the king sits “on a black velvet throne…dressed in an ample, black and golden gown,” his body “decorated with gold, rings and oriental sumptuousness.” But Solomon is also sober and severe, his “eyes investigating and profound,” his lips “both sensuous and bitter, dominating and resigned,” features Bloch identified with “a Jewish genius.”

Even before Katia’s present, Bloch thought to set texts from Ecclesiastes, the collection of pessimistic thoughts attributed to King Solomon. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,” says Ecclesiastes. Prone to despair, Bloch found wisdom in this bitter message, accepting that since life has no meaning, one has to go through it without hope. Bloch captures this pessimistic tone in Schelomo by the frequent use of descending, chromatic melodic lines that evoke intense lamentation.

In his ex post facto program notes, written for a performance in Rome in 1933 when Bloch could finally hear his work with Barjansky as the soloist, he casts the cello as King Solomon and the orchestra as the world that tempts and distracts the tragic figure with lavish colors, barbaric force, and lascivious melodic lines representing the king’s wives and concubines. Schelomo’s subtitle “rhapsody” refers not only to the genre associated with a free musical form, but also to the role of the ancient Greek singer of epic tales, the rhapsodist, played here by the solo cello. Like Strauss in Don Quixote, Bloch assigns expressive soliloquies to the cello, while making the orchestra reflect the hero’s ideas.

The contrast Bloch posits in Schelomo between solo and orchestra is not simply a division of roles but also a conflict between the physical and the spiritual, the Oriental opulence of the external world and the inward, tortured voice of the solo instrument. In his agonizingly torn condition, the protagonist of Schelomo can offer only bitter resignation. However forceful his occasional attempts to tear himself away from the alluring dances, he remains trapped in his sensuous surroundings.

Bloch sets up the conceptual contrast in the cello’s two themes in the introduction: a rhythmically free, descending theme of lamentation and a rhythmically more regular passage, the sinuous melodic line and undulating rhythm of which evoke a languid, exotic dance. The first theme descends three octaves; the second lingers unhurriedly around the same notes. Yet even these two seemingly contrasting themes share important characteristics, indicating that they express two sides of a single personality, one yielding to desperation, the other lost in worldly pleasures.

Even the cadenza that Bloch identified most closely with the personal voice of the cello and its resistance to its surrounding is saturated with Orientalist features. The forceful melodic gestures suggest a desperate effort to fend off temptation. The cello climbs three octaves with immense effort, only to fall back again to the low note from which it began. In the course of the work the cadenza interrupts the flow of the music three times. But, as the work’s concluding pages testify, its final message is not denial but resignation. In the cadenza’s final iteration, the cello’s ascending lines turn downward, supported by the orchestra. Instead of its purported separation from the orchestral material, the cello’s concluding gestures underscore the protagonist’s unbreakable bond with his ostensibly rejected milieu.

The relationship between the solo instrument and the orchestra is not always peaceful. A serious conflict breaks out when in the middle section the cello resists picking up a new melody presented forcefully by the orchestra. The cello yields only after the orchestra hammers out the theme in barbarous fifths in counterpoint to the cello’s cadenza. The orchestral theme first rejected and then accepted by the cello is a melody that Bloch claimed to have heard his father reciting in the mornings. This melody is the only traditional Jewish theme in Schelomo, identified by Alexander Knapp as related to two cantorial extracts, “Blessed are You” and “For You are God.” Both the quotation and its first refutation by the cello remained unexplained in Bloch’s program.

Schelomo, uniquely in Bloch’s oeuvre, ends on a pessimistic note. The only glimmer of hope in the work is a theme played by the violins above shimmering tremolos in the harps, celesta, flute, and bassoon. This is the only theme of Schelomo that Bloch neither repeats, nor combines with other themes nor subjects to motivic transformation. Years later in the pages of his Sacred Service (1930-1933) the same theme stands for Bloch’s longing for universal brotherhood, delivered to humanity by the Jews. In Schelomo this positive message remains a fleeting illusion that highlights rather than neutralizes the otherwise heavy Orientalist colors of the music.

Because of Schelomo’s heavily Orientalist musical language, Jews again became marked for Bloch’s audience as stereotyped Orientals, alternately sensuous, barbarous, and miserable. While the exotic, Orientalist colors that connoted Jewish character to the audience distanced the Jews geographically by placing them in the East, the primitive, barbarous ostinatos that govern the music locate the Jews in the historically distant past of the ancient Hebrews. Bloch’s combination of the Biblical and the Oriental, as Downes later wrote, lent his music “the warmth, the melancholy, the sensuality, the prophetic fervor of Hebraic literature.”

At Schelomo’s premiere on May 3, 1917, in Carnegie Hall, the audience greeted Bloch’s Orientalist fantasy with great enthusiasm. Opinions differed on how seriously one should take Bloch’s repeated claims about the instinctive Jewish spirit of his music. But nobody denied his originality, technical prowess, and, as the critic of the New York Times wrote, “the intense sincerity and the frequently profound and stirring expressiveness” of Bloch’s work. Whether the hero of Schelomo is the Biblical king, some mysterious Jewish essence, or simply Bloch himself remains a puzzle unnecessary to solve to enjoy the music.

Klára Móricz

Klára Móricz is professor of music at Amherst College. She is author of Jewish Identities: Nationalism, Racism, and Utopianism in Twentieth-Century Music (2008) and In Stravinsky’s Orbit: Responses to Modernism in Russian Paris (2020), co-editor of Funeral Games in Honor of Artur Vincent Lourié (2013), and editor of Béla Bartók Complete Critical Edition, vol. 24, Concerto for Orchestra (2017).

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Schelomo featured soloist Jean Bedetti under Pierre Monteux’s direction in April 1923.