Bloch’s Suite Hébraïque – Edward Schenkman

For my final blog post, I wanted to write about one my favorite viola pieces of all time: Suite Hébraïque, by Ernest Bloch. I have a strong attachment to this piece and was fortunate enough to play the first movement with the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra as a senior in high school.

One of the most interesting facts about Ernest Bloch that I discovered while playing his piece was that he was not in fact Jewish. His composition style was, however, influenced by Mahler, who was Jewish, which is why much of Bloch’s music incorporates Jewish elements. One example is his use of augmented seconds that appear throughout the Suite Hébraïque, which are characteristic of klezmer music.

Suite Hébraïque was composed for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations as a token of appreciation for a concert in Bloch’s honor. There were originally five separate pieces: a rhapsody, three processionals, and a meditation. The publisher released the processional and the meditation as separate pieces and combined the other three into what is now the Suite Hébraïque.

The first movement is written in an improvisatory style that conjures up a gypsy-like atmosphere. A cadenza-like passage in the middle marks the emotional climax of the piece, which slowly winds down to a resigned conclusion. The second movement opens with a march rhythm from the harp and pizzicato strings, which ushers in the viola with a confident Phrygian melody. The third movement, another processional, was renamed Affirmation and is characterized by sprightly dotted rhythms and frequent use of augmented seconds.

This first solo performance with an orchestra was an incredible experience for me. I learned that the anxiety that I felt leading up to the performance only enhanced the energy and musical connection I felt on stage. I hope to one day perform this masterpiece with a more informed perspective and improved technical ability.

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