The Story of a Sculpture (Crucifix)

THE STORY OF A SCULPTURE

By Suzanne Bloch and Ivan Bloch

 

[As found on pp. 26-28 of  “ERNEST BLOCH: Creative Spirit, A Program Resource Book”  prepared by Suzanne Bloch in collaboration with Irene Heskes, 1976, Jewish Music Council of the National Jewish Welfare Board.]

 

Ernest Bloch has been known as a Jewish composer, a voice expressing the proud heritage of Israel. Yet always visible on a wall in Bloch’s home, wherever he lived there was an almost life-size wooden carving; Christ on the Cross! In the vastness of Bloch’s last home in Agate Beach, Oregon, overlooking the Pacific, “the Christ” dominated the living room not so much by its physical presence as by the deep aura of its meaning in Bloch’s life.

 

Very few people have really known the true symbol which this figure represented for Bloch. Some expressed surprise at what they termed an anachronism - - a Jewish composer with a crucifix? Others took it as a pose, a sardonic expression of Bloch’s universality. In the course of his life zealots wrote him letters calling him a traitor and a renegade. They did not know the story, the reason why he kept “this Christ.”

 

In the Spring of 1903 at a festival of Swiss and German music in the town of Basle, there was given a performance of two movements from a symphony by a totally unknown young Swiss composer who himself conducted his work. This twenty-three year old musician, Ernest Bloch, arrived in the town full of hopes, very shy, naïve and unworldly. At a preliminary banquet in honor of the musicians taking part in the festival, no place had been reserved for him. He felt solitary and rejected, but thought that when his music would be played the musicians would recognize and accept him as one of them.

 

He was grateful for the two periods allotted him to rehearse his symphony. He felt fortunate to see Gustav Mahler at a distance, to hear him rehearse, though he was too shy to approach him and tell him of his great admiration.

 

When the performance came the young man put all the fervor of his soul in his conducting, certain that the music would stir his listeners as it had stirred his teacher Ysaye earlier when he showed him the score. These illusions were quickly shattered. The public was cold, the critics attacked him violently. One of them wrote that a young upstart of this caliber having the effrontery to write that sort of dissonant and violent music should be jailed permanently with bread and water for sustenance.

 

In spite of the shock and disappointment, Bloch wrote his fiancee, Marguerite, a young German pianist who lived in Hamburg, that there was nothing for him to do but to return to Geneva and make his living in his father’s business, a large store of Swiss souvenirs, of cuckoo clocks and music boxes. But, he added, he was determined to continue to write music.

 

A few weeks later he was surprised to read a new article about the Festival in Le Temps, a newspaper published in Paris. To his amazement, the correspondent wrote that there had been nothing of value presented at the concerts in the new works, except two movements of a symphony by “one Ernest Bloch of whom we know nothing.” The music was highly praised and the writer signed his article “R.G.”

 

Bloch at once wrote to this “R.G.”  It was Robert Godet, a former political correspondent of Le Temps who lived in Switzerland. A great friendship ensued, lasting ten years.

 

Godet was older, highly cultivated. His knowledge of music, art and literature was phenomenal. He was an ardent champion of the music of Moussorgsky and a close friend of Debussy. Through him Bloch’s horizon opened and there is no doubt that the impressions he received from Godet’s vivid descriptions of his travels in tropical countries, such as Java, influenced Bloch’s use of exotic motifs in some of his later works, mainly the Suite for Viola and the first Piano Quintet.

 

It was Godet who encouraged Bloch in his decision of 1906 to express his Hebraic heritage in music, as he listened to Bloch’s impassioned aspirations. These two men presented an interesting contrast - - Bloch, ardent, effusive, naïve – Godet, sophisticated, almost “precieux” in the deliberate way he chose to express himself with choice vocabulary. For years he was involved with the French translation of a large publication of which he said little to Bloch. But at times Marguerite heard Godet say, “Ernest, today I have worked on pages, some of which would make you very unhappy.”

 

They often discussed the philosophy of Tolstoi and the concepts of Christian ethics. Though Bloch had greatly admired Tolstoi he doubted that there could ever be true, completely true “Christians” other than “the original Christ.” In these discussions Godet would question the authenticity of Christ’s being a Jew!

 

One day in 1906 Godet urgently asked Bloch to accompany him to Berne. There was something in a small antique shop that he felt Bloch should buy. It was a large statue of Christ with the tired face of a Jew, with all the suffering of humanity in his weary body.

 

Bloch did not hesitate to buy the sculpture at once. He hung it in his study. His parents were shocked. He explained that this was not a religious symbol to him. It was a profound expression of all times, all races, all beliefs. Yet he wondered why Godet had urged so persistently that he buy it. He would tell Marguerite, “I am puzzled. I don’t understand. What was in the back of Godet’s mind to insist that I own this crucifix?”

 

One day, a terrible day for Bloch, he received from Godet the book which he had been so long in translating. With it was a short note written in Godet’s usual precise style which read that though this was certainly not the sort of book that he, Godet, would recommend to Bloch, they had known each other too long and he had lived too long with the book to hold back from offering it to him. There was a certain refined cruelty in the wording of the note, for the book proved to be Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s The Genesis of the XIXth Century, the book that preached the superiority of the Aryan race, the book that later Hitler would read and which would influence all his thinking.

 

Though Bloch had no conception of the future horrors this book would unleash in the world, its contents then stunned him. He was immediately aware of its dangers. These theories of extreme racism so carefully analyzed, so powerfully expounded could only create untold harm.

 

And this, this terrible document, had for years been in the hands of the one he thought to be among his closest friends, to whom he had poured out his innermost thoughts. This man had listened to him like a wise mentor – this man had coldly observed him, applying to him the theories of H.S. Chamberlain. What kind of gigantic treachery had this been? Was Godet after all as “demoniaque” as some people had said in the past, and which he had refused to believe? Why had Godet singled him out and sincerely expressed his faith in his talent? Why had he encouraged their friendship? Why “the Christ?”

 

He broke relations with Godet. He said over and over again that this was the great tragedy of his life. “The Christ” remained on the wall, a silent witness to his sorrow.

 

When he left Switzerland with his family in 1917 to go to America, he had to sell everything he owned, but he could not bring himself to give up this sculpture. It had been part of his creative growth, his aspirations as a young man, and his great disillusions. He took it with him, and with him it remained a silent reminder until his death.

 

 


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