The Composer's Eye by Carlo Piccardi

The composer’s eye

Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Ernest Bloch is important not only because of his Swiss origins – he was born in Geneva in 1880 – but also, here in our region, because of the four intensely creative years that he spent at Roveredo, in the as yet uncontaminated setting of the Valle Capriasca.  He arrived there in 1930, seeking the tranquillity necessary for the composition of his Jewish sacred service, Avodath Hakodesh. On 26 October 1930 he wrote to his friend Edmond Fleg:

[…] those were desolate peregrinations, from Paris and Geneva – a dead city – to Zurich, to Grisalp, where I had a two weeks of truce, and an intense wish to die, so that I could at least have a decent death, amid the rocks and the forests, where I can be myself… but my time had not yet come, - it seems[,] and I had to go back down to Gunten, where the sublime countryside is defiled by the noise of itinerant factories, cars, motorcycles, motorboats, jazz, radios etc… and abominable tourism everywhere – these people who see nothing, feel nothing, and go on and on, also at high speed […]
After many inns, and stomach aches from food that had been fiddled with, and visiting all the villages – nothing is prepared for the winter, here, which they say is harsh – we hunted up a house, far from Lugano, almost in the mountains – superb country! – chestnut forests, silence, but with no conveniences […]
From my window, I see, below, 12 km. away, the Lake of Lugano, the mountains, the reddish woods, and the terrible north wind that makes the fir trees in front of the house creak.

The truth is that this was the ideal place for what was for him, at that point, more than a temporary flight from the big cities.  In America, to which he had moved in 1916, he had grasped the energies that propelled that nation in its messianic mission of emancipation.  In 1926 he had dedicated to it his epic rhapsody of the same name (America), which was enormously successful, but at the same time he had become aware of the limitations imposed on man as the price to be paid for the machine and technical progress. When he felt an urgent need to free himself from ties that had begun to imprison his free spirituality, he even directed his desire to escape towards the mythical shores of the Pacific and thought of ending his days beyond the boundaries of the civilised world – in Tahiti, Bali, or the Marquesas Islands. Following the internal urge that had caused him, in 1928, to write a homage to his native country – to the divine majesty of its mountains, which dominate the great symphonic fresco Helvetia, thanks to the monumentality of a sonic order that towers timelessly over man – he turned his attention to what he already knew from the experiences of his youth.  (He made a middle-of-the-road choice, however: not the steepest and wildest Alpine areas, but the gentler slopes under the tepid sun of the southern pre-Alps.)  Roveredo seemed, above all, to be a real balcony from which to look at Italy, which, more than any other European country, had paid attention to his music through innumerable prestigious performances, Indeed, the first biography of Bloch, by Mary Tibaldi Chiesa, was published in Italy, thanks to her frequent visits to the Val Capriasca – visits that significantly connected his aesthetics to the natural and human countryside:

Roveredo Capriasca, the pleasant little corner of Ticino where he has chosen his home (a simple little house, hidden among the trees, with a garden sloping down towards the valley and, at the bottom, the glittering mirror of the Lake of Lugano), the gentle, delightful countryside, the profound silence, far from the anguished tumult of noisy cities, have exercised gentle power and a beneficent fascination on the musician’s spirit.  Deep, ancient roots, ancient ties to the past, have been reconnected in him.

Bloch’s first biographer did not fail to quote him directly, and his words demonstrate a fundamental principle that predestined him to choose that site:

“Ever since childhood, I have felt the fascination of nature and especially of the mountains, and this love has never waned.  I have always drawn the deepest comfort from it, an intimate sense of peace, a feeling for eternal things that surpass man and the fragility of the moment.”

In that setting he managed to create a spiritual, virtually sacred, relationship with nature; the mineral and vegetable world took on a symbolic value for him:

[…] after two days of solitary walks, in spite of the snow that is again beginning to fall, I was able at last to speak to the trees, the rocks, the flowers, and they replied to my heart…  This is an area of incomparable beauty… no cars, no tourists, no traffic; everything is perfectly harmonious, the scenery is most varied (every walk leads me to another land), the houses are in old stone, picturesque and alive (I will soon send you some photos), the people, all of them farmers, young and old, all simple, real, ambitionless, content with their happy fate, reserved, proud, the best Swiss, perhaps the best people I have met. (Letter of 3 May 1931, to Ada Clement)

Within this animistic relationship Bloch developed an attraction that became virtually organic with the help of photography; photos document for us the degree to which he had penetrated an uncontaminated reality, unaltered by man. He even gave composers’ names to his photographs of trees, insofar as he found a similarity of feeling or form.  “Beethoven” was what he called the image of an isolated, knotty, massive, twisted tree that seemed ready to detach itself from the constrictions of its roots; “Mozart” was a slender tree, with thin branches and with leaves silhouetted against the sunlight, which outlined a harmonious composition; “Debussy” was the name of a birch photographed against the light, with wind-blown leaves that reflected the sun’s rays – a vibrating image in a close-up meant to limit the view of its myriad branches, thus communicating the feeling of an open form.

The other day, I discovered a great valley, a real forest of fir trees, which are very rare here, where birch trees and chestnut trees abound.  I stopped; I stretched out on the ground.  I began to take pictures of one tree and then another… amid a disturbing silence.  And, all of a sudden, one would have said that the soul of each tree was warming my heart and, in reality, communicating with me.
It was a highly emotional moment; I wept!  I myself had become a tree!  Which is much better than being a man. (Same letter to Ada Clement)

As a result of what was truly a hermit’s life, interrupted only by professional trips for concerts, especially in Italy (as, for instance, the Bloch Festival organised by Tibaldi Chiesa in Milan in 1931), he never developed a relationship with Lugano’s cultural life.  Nor were there performances of his works there – in part because he departed in 1934 for Paris and then for Châtel in Upper Savoy, before the activities of the orchestra of the Italian Swiss Radio (RSI) had been completely organised.  Nevertheless, in 1935 the orchestra performed his Concerto Grosso No. 1 (6 April) and Four Episodes for chamber orchestra (5 December), on a programme conducted by Leopoldo Casella and with commentary by Giulio Confalonieri (“Avant-garde demonstration at the Lugano studio”); the concert also included Stravinsky’s Suite No. 2 and chamber works by Martin, Martinů, Fauré, Debussy, Roussel, Milhaud, Caplet and Walter Lang. On 11 February 1937, Guido Agosti played, for the RSI’s microphones, the piano sonata that Bloch had dedicated to him. The Four Episodes were often broadcast by Radio Monteceneri, particularly on 16 October 1936, on a programme entitled “Works by writers and composers who have lived in Ticino”; it included the intermezzo from d’Albert’s Tiefland and opera excerpts by three Italian composers – Catalani, Puccini and Leoncavallo – who had spent long periods in the canton; it was a sort of act of adoption by a region that gave birth to many important exponents of the visual arts but never to a significant composer.

Thus it is with special gratitude that we mark the anniversary of the death of a composer who occupies an original and undeniable place in the history of twentieth-century music, thanks to his rethinking of his Jewish origins within the framework of an aesthetic that was rooted in late Romanticism but that pointed towards the realities of the new century.

Carlo Piccardi

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of death of the great composer, I thought to honour Ernest Bloch with the execution of three of his compositions, in agreement with Martha Argerich herself:

11th June    Schelomo (soloist Mischa Maisky)

21th June    Violin-Sonata nr. 1 (Renaud Capuçon, Walter Delahunt)

                    Piano-Quintet nr. 1 (Lylia Zilbestein, Alissa Margulis, Lucia Hall, Lyda Chen,
                    Mark Drobinsky)

The reason for this celebration is related to the fact that Ernest Bloch spent 4 years of his life (1930-1934) in our region, namely Roveredo / Capriasca near Lugano, where he composed one of his masterpieces (Jewish sacred service, Avodath Hakodesh).


In relation of the general program of our festival [this] article of mine about this period of Bloch’s life will be published.

It will be illustrated with some photos taken by Bloch of nature and the villages of this region; a number of these photographs were given to the association "Ricerche musicali nella Svizzera italiana," when there was the idea of founding an association in Lugano in memory of Ernest Bloch.


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