Bloch – Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody for Solo Cello and Large Orchestra

by Max Derrickson

Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody for Solo Cello and Large Orchestra

Ernest Bloch
(Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1880; died in Portland, Oregon in 1959)

Ernest Bloch’s was a two-fold career, that of teacher and composer. He cast a major influence upon the musical education scene in America, beginning with a post at New York Mannes School of Music in 1917, and then successive directorships at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory, and then, until his retirement in 1952, a teaching post at the University of California at Berkeley.  His compositions were equally well received.  At the height of his career, between the 1920’s and ‘40’s, he was being heralded as the [. . .] composing in almost every Classical genre, drawing from diverse and eclectic inspirations, although from the late 1900’s onward Jewish melodies informed more and more of his music.

One of his earliest Jewish-music inspired works was Schelomo, begun in 1915 while Bloch was still in Switzerland.  It was a time of war that rattled the consciences of the Western world, [. . .]  He turned to the book of Ecclesiastes for meaning and chose this famous passage as the basis for his new work:

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity… I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold,all is vanity…”

These words were written by, as legend tells us, King Solomon, whose name in Hebrew (transliterated in German) is Schelomo.  Those words captured for Bloch [. . .]  to write Schelomo for “an infinitely grander and more profound voice that could speak all languages” – the cello.  Work progressed rapidly thereafter and Schelomo was completed in 1916.

The work is structured in three large sections featuring solo cello soliloquies.  As Bloch wrote later, the cello was essentially the voice-mind of Schelomo, and the orchestra his world around him.  He described further:

“The complex voice of the orchestra is the voice of his age . . . his world . . . his experience. There are times [. . .].”

Bloch’s writing is melodically potent and haunting for both solo and orchestra, and he did this by exploiting [. . .] Bloch creates a vivid musical picture.  As if sitting by the fire and allowing his mind to ruminate under the endless night sky, Schelomo finishes his lamentation and [. . .] woodwinds swirl upward like a dazzling array of sparks – the disruption calming into [. . .]:  “…all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” 

The ending is dark and serene, as though Schelomo has [. . .] – Bloch brilliantly translated that ancient text into modern sound.