I am a Jew. I strive to write Jewish music not as a means of self-affirmation, but because it is the only way I have to create viable music...
These words of the composer expressed in the above epigraph in precise form reflect the indisputable concept that drove the founders of the greatest national composition schools. Only a composer who can express the spirit of his own people to absolute perfection can count on universal interest and win international acclaim.
Having been born and grown up in Switzerland in the heart of Europe, Ernest Bloch (1880 –1959) received a well-rounded musical education in Geneva (studying composition under Émile Jacques-Dalcroze and violin under Louis Rey), Brussels (composition under François Rasse and violin under Eugène Ysaÿe), Frankfurt am Main (composition under Iwan Knorr) and Munich (composition under Ludwig Thuille). His highly promising debuts in Paris (the opera Macbeth at the Opéra Comique, 1910) and Geneva (Symphony in C Sharp Minor, conducted by the composer, 1915) were given favourable reviews by such leading critics as Pierre Lalo and Romain Rolland... In his early works, Bloch is still clearly influenced by Richard Wagner and Claude Debussy. But it was at this very time that the composer’s art underwent a decisive change when he turned to his national roots: “I am interested,” he said later “in the Jewish soul, this complex, ardent and perturbed soul the vibrations of which I feel running throughout the Bible... All of this is within me and it is my spiritual essence.”
In such pieces as Deux Psaumes for soprano and orchestra (1912 – 14), Trois Poèmes juifs for orchestra (1913) which was dedicated to his father’s memory and Psaume 22 for baritone and orchestra (1914), Bloch displays something of his national character. By late 1916 he had completed Schelomo – a Jewish rhapsody for cello and orchestra – and Israel – a symphony for solo vocalists and orchestra. Chronologically this coincided with Bloch’s arrival in America: in a foreign land and without friends or money, in just a few months the composer had enchanted both the American public and highly acclaimed musicians of the New World.
In the rhapsody Schelomo (Solomon) Bloch makes no attempt to quote from actual folk songs. He recreates their spirit, improvisational nature and rhapsodic form. In the cadenzas the cello solo imitates expressive synagogue singing (so-called cantillations). The capricious melodic patterns and character grace notes (adornments and ornamentation) give the work a vividly expressed national character.
In his poetical dedication to the memory of Mstislav Rostropovich who had performed Schelomo, the poet brilliantly captured the essence of Bloch’s music:
... Your name, Lord,
Set to the voice of strings,
Sharp, like a thousand-year-old wine,
The ardent male call of the cello...
Poems of the Sea (1922 – 1923) was written by the composer at the time when he was Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music. In these poems we can hear echoes of Bloch’s youthful piano opus At Sea. The three-part cycle, initially written for piano, was orchestrated by the composer one year later. Both its concept and the names of the parts (Waves, Chanty, At Sea) hint at Debussy’s symphonic sketches in La Mer. And the numerous oriental character features of Bloch’s music bring to mind the Russian “musical East”, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schéhérazade in particular.
There is perhaps no piece of music that is surrounded with as many legends and mysteries as Mozart's Requiem.
A man dressed in black
Bowed respectfully, commissioned a
Requiem from me, then disappeared.
My man in black gives me no peace
Day and night.
The mysterious story of the man in black and the Requiem formed the basis for Pushkin's short tragedy Mozart and Salieri, written in 1830. The same theme was also the central feature in Milos Forman's sensational film Amadeus a century and a half later. The mystique of the legend was largely instrumental in the film's success, as it was in the popularity of the great composer's unfinished work (it was completed by Sussmayr from Mozart's sketches), though the true circumstances of the commission became clear quite soon afterwards.
The mysterious stranger, presented in Pushkin's work as "a vision of the grave", was no more than the servant of Count Walsegg, a great lover of music who played several instruments reasonably well. The count was not content with his fame as a performer – he particularly wished to gain renown also as a composer, but did not have the requisite ability. However, his ingenious inventiveness helped him to overcome this "insignificant" difficulty. He anonymously commissioned works from leading composers for large sums of money, then passed them off as his own. The "creative" idea of the Requiem came to him on the occasion of the anniversary of his wife's death.
Contrary to the legendary version, Mozart was in no hurry to start work on the commission. After agreeing to take it because of his acute need of money, he put it off in the hope of earning money from a composition by himself, not from somebody else, and only seriously started work on the Requiem when he was confined to bed by his fatal illness. This illness became the cause of rumours about Mozart's violent death, and played a cruel joke on the outstanding opera composer and teacher Antonio Salieri, who has gone down in history only as the poisoner of his brilliant rival. In fact, it is hardly likely that Salieri was responsible for Mozart's death, though it is certainly true that they had fallen out.
The Requiem, written for soloists, choir and orchestra, is a setting of the traditional Latin text and develops the traditions of the oratorios of Bach and Handel, whose scores Mozart studied attentively. The composer's operatic experience can be felt in the solo, choral and orchestral passages. Its brilliant expressiveness has guaranteed the success of the Requiem on the concert platform, and Mozart's interpretation of the movements has become a yardstick that continues to have an influence on composers to this day (Slonimsky's Requiem).