Remembering Ernest Bloch (1880-1959)

The following is a guest post by Robin Rausch, Senior Music Specialist.

Self-portrait, Peterborough, New Hampshire / Ernest Bloch. Eric Johnson Collection of Ernest Bloch Photographs.

Ernest Bloch, self-portrait ca. 1923. From the Eric Johnson Collection of Ernest Bloch Photographs.

In 1922, Swiss-born composer Ernest Bloch’s American experience had soured. He did not wish to become an American citizen after all—he would return to Europe. But a visit to his friend, Music Division chief Carl Engel, changed his mind. It was Bloch’s first trip to Washington, DC. At the time, the Library of Congress occupied a single building, the Thomas Jefferson Building, still the jewel in the Library of Congress crown. After a tour of the Music Division, Engel showed Bloch the rest of the building, including the majestic Main Reading Room. Bloch was visibly moved. As Carl Engel later wrote of the encounter,  ”here was a side of the American people and the Government of the United States that he had not imagined.” Bloch became an American citizen. He later wrote a symphony titled America, and, in 1925, he donated his music manuscripts and personal papers to the Library of Congress.

It was Ernest Bloch who introduced Carl Engel to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who became patron saint of the Music Division when, in 1925, she funded the Library’s state-of-the-art Coolidge Auditorium for the performance of chamber music. Bloch was one of many contemporary composers championed by Mrs. Coolidge and won first prize in her Berkshire Competition in 1919 with his Suite for Viola and Piano.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ernest Bloch’s death, a special performance of his viola suite was given on December 10th, 2009, in the Coolidge Auditorium by violist Roberto Diaz and pianist Andrew Tyson. The Music Division has also made available online selections from the Ernest Bloch Collection. These early works of Bloch have never before been published. Primarily smaller pieces, they include songs, works for piano and violin, and a cello sonata.

Old Woman with Mushrooms, Satigny, Switzerland. From the Eric Johnson Collection of

Old Woman with Mushrooms, Satigny, Switzerland. From the Eric Johnson Collection of Ernest Bloch Photographs.

It is not widely known that Bloch was a talented photographer as well as composer, who counted among his colleagues Alfred Stieglitz. Photographer Eric Johnsondiscovered Bloch’s photographs when he was in college and made a number of prints from Bloch’s negatives. The negatives reside today in the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona. Johnson donated close to 100 of the prints he made to the Library of Congress in 2009. These make up the Eric Johnson Collection of Ernest Bloch Photographs. Bloch was especially fond of photographing peasants he came upon during his travels. My personal favorite of Bloch’s photos is his 1912 portrait of the mushroom lady of Satigny, Switzerland,  who looks as if she stepped out of a fairy tale.

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