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Ernest Bloch

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

A violinist himself, Ernest Bloch composed only one full-blown concerto, a triumph of heart and intellect. The work sings with all the passion of his masterpiece Schelomo and still shows a master musical planner at work. That more violinists haven't taken it up is a mystery. It makes a tremendous effect.

Despite its quite modern and individual idiom, the concerto owes quite a bit to Richard Wagner and Bruckner in its handling of thematic material. With his use of leitmotif, Wagner almost single-handedly invented a method of composition based on short musical gestures that could be joined together and even sounded simultaneously. This brings enormous unity to a work and is the real power of leitmotif as a method of construction. Still, Wagner built his music around story, rather than traditional musical forms. His example, even in the purely instrumental Siegfried-Idyl, begs the question whether one can extend the method to construct, say, a sonata movement. Anton Bruckner's symphonies answer that question affirmatively, even though in overall form, they're simpler than Johannes Brahms' symphonies.

In this concerto, as well as in most of his other mature works, Bloch applies Wagner-like cells to build structures which, like Bruckner's, still relate to traditional musical architecture. Unlike Bruckner's, Bloch's design is complex: Bloch manipulates at least twenty of these musical cells to construct and to vary the concerto's themes. Most of the cells appear in every movement. For Bloch, however, complexity is not an end. The concerto, above all, moves the listener.

The first movement, as long as some violin concertos, lays out most of the basic musical matter in a form equivalent to sonata allegro. From the opening fanfare and slow introduction, the violin alternately strides grandly and heroically through the musical landscape or meditates upon it, as if remembering far-off times. A bittersweet lyric section allows the violin to sing.

The second movement, written almost without the orchestra strings, seems to stop time through its remarkable 100 bars. Although not specifically a Jewish-inspired work, this section reminds me of Moses Looking across Gilead, where he can never go. Here is both serenity and regret.

In the last movement, Deciso, the violin not only muses over previous movements, but also gets to dance to a hard-won, bell-ringing affirmation. Listen to it, and wonder why it's so seldom played.

Copyright © 1995 by Steve Schwartz.