Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque for Violoncello and Orchestra by Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch (1880–1959) is written from essentially the opposite perspective as Ives’ Second Symphony: Ives was an American-born Christian from rural Connecticut, and Bloch a city-dwelling Jewish immigrant. Bloch first began working on the piece in his home city of Geneva, Switzerland in 1915, shortly before he moved to the United States, and it was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1917. The piece is part of the celebrated Jewish Cycle, a series of works based on traditional Jewish music and texts in which Bloch violated many traditional western compositional conventions in favor of a more direct relationship with Jewish melodies and Eastern styles of music. (For example, he builds many of his melodies on parallel fourths and fifths; a practice that was generally condemned in classical western counterpoint, but is common in traditional Jewish folk music.)
Schelomo – the title being a transcription of the Hebrew version of the name Solomon (שְׁלֹמֹה) – is, on the surface, a musical portrait of the life of King Solomon of the Bible, based on text from the book of Ecclesiastes in which he discusses the apparent meaningless of existence. According to the composer, the solo cello represents the Solomon’s voice, and the orchestra represents “the world surrounding him and his experiences of life.” However, on a deeper level, the music is doubtlessly influenced, like the rest of the Jewish Cycle, by the conditions of Jews in the early 20th century.
During the 1910s, there was no unified Jewish state, and the Jewish people were widely dispersed throughout Europe, especially in the east. At the same time Jews were continuing to struggle with widespread anti-semitism that had been prevalent for centuries. While Bloch was a relatively successful and respected composer in Switzerland and France, he was certainly well aware of the hardships being endured by many Jews at the time he was writing, which may account for the melancholy nature of the music. Bloch said of the composition of the piece, “I was saturated with the Biblical text and, above all, with the misery of the world, for which I have always had so much compassion.”
Many Jewish people emigrated to the US between the late 1880s and the early 1920s. It was towards the end of this period that Ernest Bloch moved to America. While Schelomo could be considered European music, it had a significant effect on American art music, and set the precedent for future composers in the United States, a surprising number of which were Jewish. The music was also pioneering in its use of Jewish musical ideas in a classical setting. The piece is very valuable as a work of art from the perspective of a Jewish immigrant to the US during the early 1900s. Because of the United States’ large population of immigrants, American art music is arguably among the most international and multicultural music there is. Although it doesn’t represent the perspectives of any immigrants besides Jewish immigrants from Europe, Bloch’s great work, Schelomo is a fascinating example of this theme in the music of the United States.
- A few very useful scholarly articles:
- Wikipedia’s article on the topic:
- A performance of the work, with Mstislav Rostropovich and the Orchestre national de France under Leonard Bernstein: