BIOGRAPHY

(b Geneva24 July 1880d Portland, OR, 15 July 1959). American composer and teacher of Swiss origin. He studied in Geneva with Albert Goss and Louis Etienne-Reyer (violin) and Jaques-Dalcroze (solfège and composition) before leaving, at the suggestion of Martin Marsick, to study in Brussels. There he took lessons from Eugène Ysaÿe (violin), Rasse (composition) and Franz Schörg (violin and chamber music), at whose home he lived from 1896 to 1899. He then went to study in Frankfurt with Knorr (1899–1901) and in Munich with Thuille (1901–3). After a year in Paris (1903–4), during which time he absorbed the French Impressionistic style, he returned to Geneva, married Margarethe Augusta Schneider, and entered his father’s business as a bookkeeper and salesman of Swiss tourist goods. Meanwhile, he kept his hand in music by composing in piecemeal fashion, conducting orchestral concerts in Neuchâtel and Lausanne (1909–10) and lecturing on aesthetics at the Geneva Conservatory (1911–15). A high point of this period was the première of his lyric drama, Macbeth, at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, on 30 November 1910.

Bloch went to the United States in 1916 with the encouragement of Alfred Pochon, second violinist of the Flonzaley Quartet, as conductor for a tour by Maud Allan’s dance company. When the tour collapsed, he accepted a position at the newly formed David Mannes College of Music in New York, teaching theory and composition there and also privately (1917–20). He was thus able to bring his wife and three children, Suzanne, Lucienne and Ivan, to America. The successful première of his String Quartet no.1 by the Flonzaley Quartet on 31 December 1916 led to performances of his orchestral works in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. He conducted his Trois poèmes juifs with the Boston SO in March 1917 and Schelomo, with Kindler as the cello soloist, at a concert sponsored by the Society of the Friends of Music in New York in May of the same year. Following additional successes in Philadelphia, where he conducted a programme of his ‘Jewish’ works with the Philadelphia Orchestra in January 1918, he signed a contract with G. Schirmer, who published these compositions with what was to become a trademark logo – the six-pointed Star of David with the initials E.B. in the centre; it was an imprimatur which firmly established for Bloch a Jewish identity in the public mind.

Bloch expanded his contact with American life by conducting Renaissance choral music with amateur singers at the Manhattan Trade School, teaching the fundamentals of music to children in Joanne Bird Shaw’s experimental summer school in Peterboro, New Hampshire, and discussing art and life with such figures as Julius Hartt. In 1919 his Suite for viola and piano (or orchestra) won the Coolidge Prize, quickly earning a place in the viola repertory.

Bloch served as founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music (1920–25), where he conducted the student orchestra, taught composition, established masterclasses and courses for the general public, and proposed such radical reforms as the abandonment of examinations and textbooks in favour of direct musical experience, with study rooted in the scores of the great masters. However, the trustees continued to favour a practical curriculum and a more traditional approach to music education, and this eventually led him to resign. (It was in Cleveland, in 1924, that he became a naturalized US citizen.) He then accepted the directorship of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (1925–30), during which time he was awarded the Carolyn Beebe Prize of the New York Chamber Music Society for his Four Episodes for chamber orchestra (1926), the first prize in a contest sponsored by Musical America for his epic rhapsody in three parts, America, and a shared RCA Victor Award for his homage to his native land, Helvetia.

During the 1930s Bloch lived mainly in Switzerland, composing such works as Voice in the Wilderness, the Piano Sonata, Evocations for orchestra, the Violin Concerto and, most importantly, the Sacred Service, with which he began his second European period. He conducted his works in various European cities, and returned briefly to the USA to conduct the Sacred Service in New York in 1934. Major festivals of his works were held in London in 1934 and 1937, the latter in connection with the founding of an Ernest Bloch Society, with Albert Einstein as honorary president, and Alex Cohen as secretary. Macbeth was revived in Naples in Italian translation in March 1938, but only three performances were given owing to Mussolini’s deference to a visit from Hitler. Because of growing anti-Semitism and also because he wished to retain his American citizenship, Bloch returned to the USA and, in 1940, assumed a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught summer courses until his retirement in 1952. The Berkeley duties fulfilled an obligation he owed the institution, which, in conjunction with a grant from the Stern family had enabled him to compose in Europe from 1930 to 1939 freed from the responsibilities of teaching.

In his later years, during which he lived reclusively at Agate Beach, Oregon, he was the recipient of numerous honours, including the first Gold Medal in Music (String Quartet no.2), from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1947) and the Henry Hadley Medal of the National Association for American Composers and Conductors (1957). He continued to compose in a wide variety of genres, and to pursue his lifelong hobbies of photography and mushroom collecting, and his newer interest in collecting and polishing agates. In 1958, suffering from cancer, he underwent unsuccessful surgery; he died a year later. In 1968 an Ernest Bloch Society was formed in the USA through the efforts of the composer’s children.

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