In the Shadow of War

In the Shadow of War (BIS-1992 SACD) – liner notes

BLOCH, Ernest (1880–1959)
Schelomo, Hebrew Rhapsody for cello and orchestra (1916)

BRIDGE, Frank (1879–1941)
Oration, Concerto Elegiaco for solo cello and orchestra, H180 (1930)

Hough, Stephen (b.1961)
The Loneliest Wilderness, Elegy for cello and orchestra(2005)

Steven Isserlis cello
[Bloch, Bridge] Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Hugh Wolff
[Hough] Tapiola Sinfonietta / Gábor Takács-Nagy
Two world wars: as we travel further from them in time, their hold on our imaginations remain as powerful as ever; but it seems to me that we imagine the two wars in very different ways. Whereas the horrors of the second war tend now to be represented in vivid, shocking images, it is the grey hopelessness, the mindless, irreplaceable waste, the searing regret for a tragedy that might have been avoided, that characterise our view of the 1914–18 conflict. Its echoes still reverberate, almost a century on – nowhere more powerfully than in the art evoked by its despair. Music, along with everything else, was changed forever by the conflict; but the reactions of different composers to the horrors around them varied considerably. Some turned to their art as the only escape open to them, creating works seemingly untouched by the outside world; others used music as a form of protest, clearly expressing their revulsion. Ernest Bloch and Frank Bridge belong firmly in the latter camp.

Despite being sheltered in the comparative safety of his homeland, neutral Switzerland, Bloch was plunged into deep depression by the events overtaking the world; for him, the outlook for humanity was best summed up in writings dating from more than 2,000 years earlier – the book of Ecclesiastes. Here the author, traditionally supposed to be King Solomon himself, gives vent to the ultimate despair: ‘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 and vexation of spirit.’ The book spoke strongly to Bloch, and he conceived the idea of setting it to music. However, there was a problem: in the languages Bloch understood – French, English and German – the words lost their power; and he had never learnt Hebrew. This dilemma was solved by a visit Bloch received in the autumn of 1915 from the strikingly tall Russian cellist Alexander Barjansky, along with his diminutive sculptress wife Katya. Bloch was deeply moved by Barjansky’s playing; in response, Bloch demonstrated some of his Jewish-hued works (at that time completely unknown and unappreciated) to the Barjanskys, who were overwhelmed. Mme Barjansky jotted down a sketch for a little statue – her ‘sculptural thanks’ to Bloch, as she put it. Bloch abandoned his plans for a vocal work, and set about transforming his sketches into a rhapsody for ‘an infinitely grander and more profound voice that could speak all languages’ – the cello. While he worked feverishly, Mme Barjansky created her statue, which she called ‘King Solomon’. Similarly, Bloch named his rhapsody Schelomo – Hebrew for Solomon.

Schelomo is an extraordinary work, in which Bloch seems almost to have created a new musical language – albeit one inspired by the spirit and sound of traditional Jewish music dating back thousands of years. Looking back in 1938, he wrote: ‘In my work termed “Jewish”, I have not approached the problem from without – by employing melodies more or less authentic (frequently borrowed from or under the influence of other nations)… No! I have but listened to an inner voice, deep, secret, insistent, ardent, an instinct much more than cold and dry reason, a voice which seemed to come from far beyond myself, far beyond my parents… It was this entire Jewish heritage that moved me deeply, and was reborn in my music.’ Of Schelomo specifically, he was to write: ‘I was saturated with the Biblical text and, above all, with the misery of the world.’ Schelomo is therefore, not surprisingly, a tragic work – but far from ascetic; its exotic, vibrant colours are deeply sensual. Later, Bloch would be accused of having produced music suitable for a Hollywood ‘epic’; a glance at the dates, however, shows that it was the other way round – Schelomo seems to have influenced many film composers.

The work opens with a sigh of pain, followed by an accompanied meditation from the narrating solo cello. Writing many years later, in a programme note on which the following description is closely based, Bloch tells us that ‘one may imagine the voice of the solo cello is the voice of King Schelomo. The complex voice of the orchestra is the voice of his age… his world… his experience… “Vanity, Vanity – all is Vanity”… The cello cadence then puts this pessimistic philosophy into words.’

Following this soliloquy, a voluptuous new motif on the violas appears (1’58); we hear rhythms of languorous dances, suggestions of the rich world of Schelomo, with his wives and concubines, his slaves, pomp and treasure. ‘I am the King! This is my world!’ Schelomo is seduced – but then comes revulsion, with the return of the opening motif (4’19). Undeterred, the orchestra breaks into a vast tutti (‘Tumult, Barbaric splendour, Power’) – to which Schelomo responds with despair: ‘And of all this? Nothing, nothing.’

The third section (8’48) introduces a new theme, a motif that Bloch’s father used to sing in Hebrew. ‘Is it the call of the muezzin? This strange motif of the bassoon, which later permeates the orchestra, is it the priests?’ (Not contradictory, but rather less exalted: Zara Nelsova – who recorded Schelomo under Bloch’s baton, playing the cello used in the present recording – reported that Bloch had told her that he used to hear his father singing this theme in the bathroom. Perhaps that also explains its urgent intensity.) After some resistance, Schelomo joins in (10’16), the music becoming fevered, leading into another impassioned tutti. ‘Is it Schelomo? Or the crowd? The maddened crowd hurling blasphemies against the Universe?’ As the tumult dies down, we hear a ‘shudder of sadness’ (14’06), followed by another of Schelomo’s tragic meditations: ‘I have seen it all… I too knew hope… it is become barren, sterile.’

At last, the new section (16’24) brings a ray of light and hope. ‘The orchestra leaves this world to enter into a Vision… where live again peace, justice.’ But alas, not for long. Schelomo’s despair returns (17’46) and in a final tutti, the orchestra magnifies his thoughts, the concluding cadence disintegrating like splendours toppling into ruins (19’39). Schelomo is left in the silence, his last utterances leaving us in unrelieved darkness. ‘Vanity, Vanity, all is Vanity.’

What different characters Bloch and Frank Bridge must have been! If in Schelomo we feel the Old Testament prophet beating his breast, demanding that we share in his sufferings, in Bridge’s Oration (‘Concerto Elegiaco’) one senses that the music has been drawn by deep inner pain from an unassuming, withdrawn figure. Bridge, a convinced pacifist (a conviction he was to pass on to his student Benjamin Britten), was horrified by the futile devastation of the war; it transformed both his personality and his music. It is interesting to compare Oration with another work for cello inspired by the Great War, Elgar’s concerto. Written in 1919, Elgar’s masterpiece is a poem of regret, a universal elegy for the world he had known, written in a comparatively conventional form. Oration, written in 1930 (though not performed until 1936), is utterly different; it takes us, almost cinematically, into the mud and slaughter of the battlefields, cries of brutal suffering forming a musical protest.

In the case of Schelomo, we have Bloch’s own words to describe the ‘story’ of the piece. Alas, we have no such testament from Bridge. However, for me the narrative tone of Oration is every bit as vivid and precise as that of Schelomo, each episode of the huge one-movement structure evoking a specific image. So I shall dare to provide a similar commentary to Bloch’s, with the proviso that it is my own strongly-held view of the work (although I should add that some of my ideas – then less fully-formed – were confirmed when, many years ago, I mentioned a few of them to the work’s first performer, Florence Hooton).

The opening portrays the bleakest of landscapes; out of this dark world, the voice of the cello enters – narrating, as in Schelomo; it is no great king talking to us here, however, but rather ‘the unknown soldier’ grieving over his fate, and that of his comrades. The line builds passionately, culminating in a screaming descent of running thirds – men hurling themselves into enemy fire (2’49). The narrative tone established, we hear a sinister figure – the leaden march of doomed soldiers (3’12), a forlorn prayer chanted over them. The march approaches, ever closer, now joined by the protesting voice of the solo cello. And then (5’19): battle commences, the spurts of action alternating with passages of exhaustion, until the charging soldiers overwhelm the cello, and the tutti presses on without him (7’19). As the battle dies down, the lone cello returns (7’52), quietly conversing with a mourning oboe; this leads to a calm, tragic lament (9’20) – a commentary on the futility of the conflict. And thus ends the first main section.

The second part opens (11’22) with material from the opening soliloquy, now more restless, fearful. The march returns briefly (12’20), and soon thereafter we are plunged again into violent conflict (12’52). It recedes and we hear the lament again; this time a lonely flute hovers above. A cadenza follows, a series of questions and fragments, alternating between heroism and despair. (Could this be the conflict between patriotism and pacifism that must have tortured Bridge himself?) Heroism triumphs – or is it necessity? (18’40) Again the soldier is thrust into battle; we hear the lament, ever more insistent (20’28), before it is thrust aside by the violence. Now the march returns, grimmer, heavier and even more menacing than before (21’46). The soldier re-enters (23’08); but it is clear that he has been mortally wounded. As the cello line falls and weakens, various themes are heard in fragments – the soldier’s life passing before his eyes. The march disappears, and he is left alone, his final desolate thoughts fading into empty nothingness.

This was the original ending, and a bleak one it would have been – as dark as that of Schelomo. But some three months later, Bridge added an Epilogue, which transforms the effect of the whole work (and makes a serious challenge to the codas of the Elgar and Dvořák concertos for the title of most beautiful ending to a cello concerto). A solo horn and harp break the silence (26’46); from this magical mist, a lilting, drifting melody is heard, high up in the violins. The cello joins in, and the music winds down to an utterly peaceful conclusion in D major. The soul of the soldier has ascended to heaven.

As if to illustrate the vivid hold that the First World War still has us on us today, we conclude this disc with a piece written in 2005 by my great friend, the British pianist and composer Stephen Hough. The piece was originally conceived for bassoon and orchestra; but when Stephen and I played it through he decided (with apologies to bassoonists) that the lyrical, reflective nature of the work would be perfect for the cello. The Loneliest Wilderness was inspired by the poem My Company by Herbert Read (1893–1968), containing the following lines:

But, God! I know that I’ll stand
Someday in the loneliest wilderness,
Someday my heart will cry
For the soul that has been, but that now
Is scatter’d with the winds,
Deceased and devoid.
I know that I’ll wander with a cry:
‘O beautiful men, O men I loved,
O whither are you gone, my company?’

As Stephen has written: ‘The concerto is based on two main musical motifs: the interval of a descending fourth, appearing both as a simple skeleton and as a descending scale of four notes, and a rising chain of thirds.’ Its introvert, essentially English nature has something in common with Oration; curiously, though, the musical language, with its recurring augmented seconds, seems to me to have a strong Jewish flavour to it, recalling Schelomo. But surely the strongest bond between all three works is their tragic inspiration – the most terrible, senseless conflict the world has ever known.

© Steven Isserlis 2012