Ernest Bloch Biography

(One of the Greatest Swiss Composers in History)

Birthday: July 24, 1880 (Leo)

Born In: Geneva, Switzerland

Ernest Bloch was a Swiss-born American composer, celebrated not only for his works on the post-Romantic traditions, but also for his compositions on the Jewish cultural and liturgical themes. His works were acknowledged to be innovative and inventive. He is widely recognized as a successful composer whose works were appreciated and enjoyed all over by people of all ages. Bloch is also considered by many of his admirers to be the fourth ‘B’ of the Bach, Beethoven and Brahms quartet. An active wanderer and an explorer, he possessed the supreme qualities of a great composer, using romantic idioms in most of his works and writing in varied styles throughout his life. Ernest Bloch did not care about fashion or traditions of his time. Instead, his interests were inclined towards the expression of his individuality, ideas, philosophy, truthfulness, intellect and ethnicity. His compositions had the balance of all the expressions and music was the most authentic language of his life. He was very much influenced by folk music and adopted the 12-tone technique and coloristic quartertones in his compositions, which was greatly appreciated by his listeners.

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Quick Facts

Died At Age: 78

Family:

Spouse/Ex-: Marguerite Schneider

children: Ivan Bloch, Lucienne Bloch, Suzanne Bloch

Born Country: Switzerland

Composers Swiss Men

Died on: July 15, 1959

place of death: Portland, Oregon, United States

City: Geneva, Switzerland

More Facts

education: Conservatory in Brussels, Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt

Childhood & Early Years

Ernest Bloch was born on 24 July 1880, in Geneva, Switzerland. His father, Maurice Bloch, was a well-to-do watch maker. His mother’s name was Sophie Bloch nee Braunschweig. He was possibly their only child.

Although his parents were not much musically inclined, Ernest developed an early interest in music. At the age of nine, he started studying violin with Louis Theophile Rey, concurrently composing a few violin melodies.

At the age of ten, he made a formal vow to become a musician, ritualistically burning the piece of paper on which he had written his vows on a mound of stones. Around this time, he might have also studied solfeggio and eurhythmics with Émile Jacques-Dalcroze.

At sixteen, he moved to Brussels, where he studied with Eugène Ysaÿe, remaining with him for next three years. Alongside, he also studied composition with François Rasse. String Quartet in G Major (1896) and Cello Sonata (1897) is possibly the only surviving works of this period.

In 1900, after completing his studies with Ysaÿe, he moved to Germany. There in Frankfurt, he studied composition with Iwan Knorr, concurrently taking private lessons with Ludwig Thuille in Munich. It was during this period that he started working on his First Symphony in C♯ minor, completing the work in 1902.

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Career

In 1903, Ernest Bloch moved to Paris, where he met Claude Debussy. It was during this period that he wrote his first published work, Historiettes au Crépuscule for mezzo-soprano and piano, which shows Debussy’s influence on him.

In February 1904, while still in Paris, he started working on his second orchestral work, Hiver-Printemps. But very soon, he decided to return to Geneva, where he started working on his only opera, Macbeth. Based on a libretto by Edmond Fleg, the work was completed in 1906. 

Concurrently while composing Macbeth, he continued to take up other projects, completing Hiver-Printemps in March 1905, conducting its first performance in Geneva on January 27, 1906. In the same year, he started working on Poèmes d'Automne for mezzo-soprano and orchestra.

In 1909-1910, Ernest Bloch conducted symphonic concerts in Lausanne and Neuchâtel. Subsequently on November 30, 1910, Macbeth was premiered by the Opéra-Comique in Paris. In 1911, he became a professor at the Geneva Conservatory.

It was during 1910s that he started writing music with specifically Jewish aspects in subject matter. Three Jewish Tone Poems (1913); Prelude and Psalms 114 and 137 (1912-1914); Psalm 22 (1914); Israel: Symphony with voices (1912–1916); and Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque (1916) are some of the works of this period.

In 1916, Bloch accompanied dancer Maud Allan as a conductor on his trip to the USA. Although the trip was a failure and they had to return soon, his works were highly praised, opening new avenues for him.

In USA

In 1917, Ernest Bloch returned to the USA, this time as a teacher of composition at the David Mannes School of Music, New York City, remaining there till 1920. Concurrently, he continued to work on his own, composing pieces like Suite for viola and orchestra and Suite for viola and piano during this period.

In 1919, while he was still with David Mannes School of Music, the San Francisco Symphony gave two of the earliest performances of his Schelomo. The performance was highly praised by multiple critics, making him well-known in USA.

In December 1920, he was appointed the first Musical Director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, a post he held until 1925. Meanwhile in 1923, he received invitation to join San Francisco Conservatory of Music and in 1924 became a naturalized citizen of America.

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While in Cleveland, he composed more than twenty works, one of which was Concerto Grosso No. 1. He wrote it in 1925 after his students complained about "the inadequacies of tonality in shaping the music for the next century." However, his greatest achievement of this period was Piano Quintet No. 1, written in 1923. 

In 1925, he left Cleveland Institute of Music to join San Francisco Conservatory of Music as its Director, remaining with it 1930. It was during this period that he wrote America, an Epic Rhapsody (1926-1927) as a tribute to the country he had now become a citizen.

In 1930, he returned to Switzerland, where he composed, among others, Avodath Hakodesh (Sacred Service). Some other important works of this period were Baal Shem for violin and orchestra, Voice in the Wilderness, Symphonic Poem for orchestra, Concerto for violin and orchestra, Evocations, Symphonic Suite etc.

In 1939, he once again returned to the USA and settled down in Agate Beach, a small coastal community in Oregon. However, the events of the war affected him so much that he stopped working for some time.

From 1940, he started giving summers courses at the University of California, Berkeley. Concurrently, he continued to compose, writing pieces like Suite Symphonique;  Concerto Symphonique for piano and orchestra; Scherzo Fantasque for piano and orchestra;  Concertino for flute, viola and string orchestra;, String Quartet No. 2 etc.

In 1947, he co-founded the Music Academy of the West, a classical music-training program, in Montecito, California. Soon, his influence became so widespread that in 1952 he was appointed Professor Emeritus at Berkeley and this was despite the fact he was never a full-time faculty at the university. 

In spite of his age, he continued to work, composing as many as twenty outstanding pieces in 1950s.  Among them more noteworthy are Suite Hébraïque, Suite Modale for flute and piano, Concerto Grosso No. 2 for string orchestra, four(three) String Quartets(2), Symphony in E-flat, Sinfonia Breve, Piano Quintet No.2 etc.

He continued to work till the very end, finishing Two Last Poems for flute solo and orchestra, Suite(2) No 1 for violin and solo, and Suite(2) No 2 for violin and solo in 1958, leaving another work, Suite for viola solo unfinished at his death in 1959.

Major Works

Ernest Bloch is possibly best remembered for his Jewish series, which include works like Israel Symphony (1916), Trois poèmes juifs (1913), the tone poem Schelomo (1916), the suite Baal Shem (1923) etc. However, his aptitude for writing music appropriate to Jewish themes and liturgy is best reflected in Avodath Hakodesh (1930-1933).

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He is also equally famous for his neoclassical works, which reflects post-romantic traditions. Among them are Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1925), Quintet for piano and strings (1923) etc.

Another of his important work is America, an Epic Rhapsody. An orchestral piece written in honor of his adoptive country, it consists of three movements entitled '1620', '1861-1865' and '1926', covering the history of the United States.

Awards & Achievements

In 1919, Bloch won the Coolidge Prize for his Suite for Viola and Piano. It was followed in 1926 by Carolyn Beebe Prize for Four Episodes for Chamber Orchestra; in 1928 by the Musical America Prize for America, an Epic Rhapsody, and in 1930 by the Victor Prize  for Helvetia.

In 1947, he was awarded the first Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1952, he received two New York Music Critics’ Circle Awards for String Quartet No. 3 and Concerto Grosso No. 2

In 1937 he was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1943 of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1904, Ernest Bloch married Marguerite Schneider, at that time a young German music student. The couple had three children: Ivan (born 1905), Suzanne (born 1907) and Lucienne (born 1909). Among them Suzanne followed her father’s footsteps and taught harpsichord, lute and composition at the Juilliard School in New York.

Possibly in 1958, he was diagnosed with cancer and died of it on July 15, 1959 in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 78. His mortal remains were cremated and ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean near his home in Agate Beach.

On February 9, 2009, his home in Agate Beach was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Additionally, Ernest Bloch Place and The Bloch Memorial in Newport; and Ernest Bloch Memorial Wayside in Agate Beach area continue to bear his legacy.

The Ernst Bloch Prize, established in 1985, is a science and literature prize that is awarded every three years by the Ernest Bloch Center and the city of Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany.

See the events in life of Ernest Bloch in Chronological Order

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