Piano Quintet No. 1
The son of a Swiss businessman catering to tourists, Ernest Bloch was almost a tourist himself in his musical training. After studying violin and composition in Geneva, his hometown, Bloch went to Brussels for a few years, continuing to emphasize violin and composition. He then spent four years in Frankfurt and Munich, followed by a year in Paris, before returning to Geneva to join his father’s company as a bookkeeper. He continued to compose, however, and had his only opera, Macbeth, premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1910.
Bloch also worked as an orchestral conductor, and in 1916 he joined dancer Maud Allan’s company on a U.S. tour as its conductor. The tour failed, but after returning to Geneva, Bloch used his new U.S. contacts to land a teaching job at the recently founded Mannes College of Music in New York. From that point his career burgeoned rapidly, in both concert and academics. Bloch had Schelomo, the “Hebrew Rhapsody” for cello and orchestra that remains his best-known work, premiered in New York in 1917, signed a publishing contract with G. Schirmer, and in 1920 became the founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music; he became a U.S. citizen in 1924.
In his five years in Cleveland, Bloch concentrated on chamber music. He wrote his boldly original First Piano Quintet in 1921-1923, and his own movement markings provide capsule descriptions of the work. The first movement, Agitato, is indeed agitated, a neo-Classical form filled with surging power and anxious quarter-tone detailing. Its restlessness is firmly directed, however, to clear architectural and expressive ends.
“Mistico” is also quite appropriate for Bloch’s eerie middle movement, both for the mystical nature of its haunted melodies and the sonic mist he conjures from tolling chords, ostinatos, thin strands from the upper strings, and harmonic chiaroscuro. “Art is the outlet of the mystical, emotional needs of the human spirit,” Bloch wrote, “it is created rather by instinct than by intelligence; rather by intuition than by will.” (Opposition to the educational reforms this credo led him to propose in Cleveland led to his resignation, but he again landed on his feet, directing the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for five years after leaving Cleveland.)
The sprawling, muscular finale is everything we might expect from an Allegro energico in this context. Bloch generates terrific waves of ostinato energy, but he also returns to slithery quarter-tones in places and rests in exotic, fading raptures at the end.