by Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
This evening's concert features two firmly established choral masterpieces of the twentieth century repertoire by two eminent composers whose ancestry and origins permit Switzerland to claim them as her contribution to modern music.
An oft-recurring phrase descriptive of Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) used by various biographers and commentators on his music is "remarkable." The expression aptly sums up aspects of Bloch's career and musical styles.
Although he was born in Switzerland, educated there, in Belgium and in Germany, he is often referred to as an American composer by reason of his naturalization, even though his music bears no discernible American characteristics. Indeed no discernible national features seem to inhere in his quite universal style.
Similarly remarkable is the fact that Bloch's Jewish music, the most famous being the Sacred Service and the Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra called Schelomo, articulates musically his Jewish consciousness verbalized on occasion in his various statements. Eric Blom has noted that the Jewish character of his composition flows not from a superficial adoption of such elements as Hebrew songs and other ready- . made traditional material, but rather that it is such "because his artistic nature fitted him to give expression to the racial currents that flowed in his veins. He does so in a language that is his own and thus his music reflects as much his individuality as his race." Indeed, many of Bloch's other works, such as his opera Macbeth, his America and Helvetia, possess no recognizable Jewish character.
Remarkable too was the fact that Bloch had a number of outstanding American students - Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, and Halsey Stevens to name four - yet he did not impose on them any of his stylistic features. He adhered to no system and has no attachments to any theoretical preconception of school or method.
Perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh), composed between 1930 and 1933, is Bloch's only essay into large choral form. Unique among his own compositions, it likewise stands unique as the only large-scale liturgical composition of the Jewish worship service in the standard repertory comparable in size and stature to its more numerous Catholic and Protestant counterparts.
The Sacred Service requires an accomplished cantor and a sizeable mixed choir. A performance also embraces the spoken role of the rabbi. Frequently the phrases of the cantor are repeated or elaborated by the chorus. The work is in five movements corresponding to the liturgical divisions of the Morning Service as found in The Union Prayerbook for Jewish Worship.
Part One, designated Meditation, dwells on those fundamental aspects of the Jews' inheritance and their relationship to God. Part Two, Sanctification, renders praise to the Almighty while affirming confidence in God as Helper and Merciful. The music for the ceremony surrounding the withdrawal of the Scroll from the Ark as symbolic of God's presence in the congregation constitutes Part Three. Part Four celebrates the return of the Scroll to the Ark and offers the prayer for peace. Part Five opens with an act of adoration and proceeds through the Kaddish or Memorial Service to the closing hymn and benediction.
The overall performance time of the work has some flexibility depending on the solemnity or brevity of the rabbi's invocations.
The cantor's and the choral parts are fixed. These in turn are supported and commented on by a symphony orchestra which Bloch uses deftly and with discreet attention to the often passionate expression of the aspirations and the sublime content of the Old Testament passages utilized. Sacred Service has long been recognized as a remarkable work.
Arthur Honegger's (1892-1955) King David (A Symphonic Psalm in Three Parts), appeared initially on June 11, 1921, as incidental music to a biblical play of that name by Re'ne Morax. Morax had established his "popular theatre" in the village of Mezieres in the canton of Vaud. To celebrate his theatre's reopening after World War I had forced its closure, Morax, upon the advice of the eminent Swiss conductor, Ernest Ansermet, requested Honegger to furnish music for his play. Agreeing to accept this commission, Honegger composed within two months a setting for fifteen instrumentalists. Its success at Mezieres induced him in 1923 to revise and amplify it into a full-scale modern oratorio, the first of his numerous stage works. Together with Jeanne d'Arc au bucher, Le roi David remains among Honegger's best-known and loved compositions.
Honegger was born of Swiss parents in Le Havre, France, March 10, 1892. His musical education was centered in Switzerland and France. Although he stands linked with Poulenc and Milhaud as a member of Les Six, his association with them was rather tenuous. His musical temperament tended toward the production of music less characterized by the fairground and music hall derivatives embraced by Les Six in their revolt against Wagnerian romanticism and Debussean impressionism and more toward a strong liking for grave tragic subjects allowing scope for monumental treatment. Honegger's style integrates within his developed sense of the dramatic and theatrical, significant harmonic and rhythmic invention coupled with directness of expression through the use of a large measure of contrapuntal skill as well as of simple folk-like melodies. This style has evolved out of a masterly combination of disparate international musical elements.
King David comprises in its three parts a narrative survey of and a musical commentary on the high points of the Jewish monarch's life. It commences· with his selection and anointing by Samuel, his defeat of Goliath and the subsequent interaction with the doomed Saul and Jonathan, his flight from Saul's jealousy and his refusal to lay hands on the Lord's anointed when opportunity put Saul in his power. It proceeds to his glorification with the triumphant entrance of the Ark of the Covenant into the new capital, Jerusalem, his lapse into adultery with Bathsheba, the tragic revolt of Absalom, the disastrous results of the census-taking decision, and finally his last testament as he sinks toward Sheol.
The twenty-seven segments, mostly of selected and cogent prose recitation; weave a succinct historical background permitting orchestra, chorus and soloists to take flight as they give expression to a kaleidoscopic interplay of emotion. Indeed, throughout the oratorio, all forces, but especially the orchestra, are used with great coloristic skill. The orchestra furnishes that often barbaric and oriental palette against which the fierce martial scenes are set. With masterly suggestion it depicts the magical evocation of Samuel from the underworld by the Witch of Endor and gives ecstatic expression in dance to the joy of the Israelite processional with the Ark. And it provides accompaniment to the lyrical solos and choral laments in those passages reflective either of David's own reactions to his situation or of biblical judgments on them. King David is an outstanding modern oratorio.