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Program Notes & Synopses

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Bloch: Concerto Grosso No. 1

Bloch: Concerto Grosso No. 1


627 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2016 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Concerto Grosso No. 1
Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)
strings, piano

Composed 1925. First performance: 29 May 1925, Hotel Statler, Cleveland. Walter Scott, piano. Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra conducted by Ernest Bloch.

I. Prelude
II. Dirge
III. Pastorale and Rustic Dance
IV. Fugue

What do you do when your students openly question your curriculum? If you’re Ernest Bloch, you put your money where your mouth is.

The founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music encountered skepticism from his students regarding the usefulness of “old” techniques (such as tonality and classical form) when writing music in the 20th century. Rather than merely debate the issue academically, the composer chose to prove his point by composing a new work using these techniques in a modern way.

At the first rehearsal, the school orchestra played through this new piece with evident enthusiasm, leading Bloch to shout triumphantly, “What do you think now? This is tonal! It just has old-fashioned notes!”

Don’t judge those students too harshly, though. To us, the idea that traditional forms can be used in new ways may seem obvious, but it was anything but a foregone conclusion at the time. In the first decades of the 20th century, music was undergoing changes every bit as revolutionary as those occurring in European politics. Composers seeking new methods of expression had stretched tonality to a breaking point. Aesthetics based on the atonal serialism of Arnold Schoenberg to the ascetic neoclassicism of Igor Stravinsky battled for artistic legitimacy, and it was fashionable to dismiss traditional harmony and classical forms as obsolete. In such an environment, young composers no doubt found the study of 17th- and 18th-century musical techniques a quaint notion.

However, Bloch’s point was not that new works should be created exactly in the style of older ones, but that new and exciting music could evolve by combining aspects of various musical techniques—an idea Stravinsky began to explore five years earlier in Pulcinella.

The composer structured his new piece as a concerto grosso, a musical form which had not been in regular use for over 150 years. Bloch infused this baroque structure with the rhythmic and melodic sensibility of the romantics and the polytonal harmonies of the early 20th century, filtered through the Jewish identity which had characterized so much of his own music to this point. Though, as Bloch enthused, it was just “old-fashioned notes”, the result was something entirely new.

The Concerto Grosso begins with a prelude of grand, dramatic statements reminiscent of Handel’s contributions to the genre, though the harmonies have been expanded with hints of Strauss and the Russian romantics. A dirge follows, suffused with ethereal textures that wouldn’t seem out of place in the world of Debussy or Ravel. The Swiss folk dance melody of the third movement brings a new perspective to the baroque fondness for including dance music in concert suites.

What would a “baroque” piece be without a fugue? In the final movement, Bloch out-Bachs Bach, presenting a five-voice fugue updated for 20th-century ears. As in the third Brandenburg Concerto (which you may have heard us perform two years ago), Bloch juxtaposes solo strings against the rest of the orchestra, allowing him to juggle musical textures between three groups: solo strings, section strings, and piano (an update to Bach’s harpsichord).

Once he’s off and running, Bloch manipulates the initial theme with all the contrapuntal techniques popular with Bach and his friends—sequences (repeating small gestures on different pitches), inversion (“flipping” a theme upside down), augmentation (drawing the theme out with longer notes), and stretto (“interrupting” one voice with another entrance before it has finished its line). Listen carefully, and you’ll hear the opening theme from the Prelude return as the piece comes to a joyously triumphant conclusion.

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