Ernest Bloch's Jewish roots played out in his music

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After five years of tracing the Jewish musical experience in Europe and the Middle East, the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival this season will turn its thematic focus to America.

The impact of Jewish immigrant musicians on the musical culture of the United States can hardly be overrated. Their presence in many regards has been a brilliant success, with Jewish musicians invigorating orchestras, imparting knowledge as teachers and composing music for every strata of the American scene.

Immigrant composers, such as Ernest Bloch, made a living in America writing secular classical music and teaching but also continued their Jewish musical traditions. The next generation of Jewish composers born in South and North America, such as Yehudi Wyner and Osvaldo Golijov, has blended the two in their output.

Aron Zelkowicz, festival founder and director, acknowledges the universal nature of Jewish composers' works but has created the festival to draw new ears and deeper thought to these composers' faith-based music. "We take these established composers and perform their explicitly themed Jewish works," he says. In addition to Bloch, Wyner and Golijov, the four-concert festival will perform the music of Ofer Ben-Amots, Meira Warshauer, Simon Sargon and David Schiff. The artist lineup includes famed klezmer performers David Krakauer and Andy Statman and members of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

In Bloch (born in Geneva in 1880 and died in Portland, Ore., in 1959), Zelkowicz could hardly have a more consummate representative of the complex nature of Jewish musicians' experience in America. And with this summer also marking the 50th anniversary of the composer's death, the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival will perform Bloch's "Meditation Hebraique," "From Jewish Life," "Suite Hebraique," sections from "Baal Shem" and "Psalm 114."

Yet, as is the case for many Jewish composers, Bloch's Jewish-themed output does not define the composer.

"It is hard to encapsulate Bloch's views of Judaism and what being a Jewish composer meant," says Kristen Gurdin. The Pittsburgher is a board member of the Ernest Bloch Legacy Foundation, formed in 2008 by the composer's grandson, Ernest Bloch II.

"He certainly drew a lot from Jewish culture, with 'Sacred Service' and [the cello concerto] 'Schelomo' and other compositions. And he was a deeply spiritual man, but he had problems with all organized religions."

Yet when the Schirmer started publishing Bloch's compositions around 1920 with a Star of David emblazoned with the initials E.B., "it was an imprimatur which firmly established for Bloch a Jewish identity in the public mind," writes the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

With the anti-Semitic milieu, this association marginalized Bloch the person even as his compositions were becoming quite popular.

At one time, Albert Einstein served as president of the Ernest Bloch Society (a fan club) and major festivals of his music took place in London in 1934 and 1937.

"He has been dismissed as a Jewish composer, but that is only a part of his output," says Zelkowicz. Indeed, Bloch wrote impressionistic pieces, an opera on "Macbeth" and even a patriotic work, "America." Bloch became a U.S. citizen in 1924.

"He was very proud of being American," says Gurdin. "He was as tied to the country as to his Jewish roots."

Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at . He blogs at Classical Musings at


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