Today is the first day of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Jews all over the world celebrate the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem. I want to honour on this day a Jewish composer. I want to honour Jewish scientists and artists and their intellectual output by which they enriched European culture. Among those who brought the light to Europe were the philosophers Baruch de Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn. The poet Heinrich Heine. The physicist Albert Einstein and the political scientists Hannah Arendt and Eric Voegelin. All five pondered in one way or another the fate of mankind and the experience of God and came to different conclusions. All five deeply cared about humanity, its progress, its well-being and searched for the purpose of life.
Though not religious myself, man’s longing for a transcendent element in his life continues to deeply fascinate me, and since Judaism has given birth to Christianism, the dominant religion in my country, it is those two religions that keep my mind busy at the moment. There is so much to learn, so much to admire! Closely related to this is my interest in the issues of assimilation and integration of Jews in Europe and the resurfaced anti-Semitism that Europe witnesses in our days.
Anti-Semitism never really had gone away since 1945, but it had at least gone into hiding. That situation has radically changed. What a madness! Where some stand up for tolerance and show respect for cultural achievements, others revel in resentment and jealousy. They polarize when they should bring people together. Hate speech and demonization triumph over decency and fairness. If the target is not Jewish, it is Arab. Or gay. Or women. Or poor. Or anything else that looks foreign (read: not right) to some of us. Has Europe learned anything from World War II and the Holocaust? From the experience of totalitarian rulers like Hitler and Stalin, supported by fanatic or complacent masses?
A Jewish composer then. Ernest Bloch. In 1924, he wrote a piece for cello and piano called “Meditation hébraïque” and dedicated it to the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. 1924 was an important year for Bloch: He applied for and received American citizenship; many of his compositions reflect a deep affection for his adopted country. He had been born in 1880 in Geneva, he had studied in Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin. He was an excellent violinist, taught by Eugène Ÿsaye among others, a recognized composer and conductor, but it was only in the United States that his career reached its culmination point.
He had sailed to New York for the first time in 1916, he came back a year later. From 1917 he would occupy teaching posts at Mannes School of Music in New York City, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the University of California at Berkeley until he retired in 1951. An illustrious career during which Bloch composed symphonies and symphonic poems, sonatas for violin and piano, for cello and piano, vocal pieces and suites for viola and piano, many with direct references to Judaism.
“Meditation hébraïque” is roughly 6:30 minutes long, but of singular expressive force. I can listen to it again and again. It has been recorded the cellist Raphael Wallfisch and the pianist John York.
© Charles Thibo