Notable Oregonians: Ernest Bloch - Composer

Photo of Ernest Bloch
Ernest Bloch, 1880-1959. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Ernest Bloch was born on July 24, 1880 in Geneva, Switzerland to Jewish parents. Identified as a child prodigy on the violin by the time he was six years old, Bloch made a pledge to himself at the age of nine that he would be a music composer. He set about fulfilling that goal during his teen years by studying violin in Brussels, Frankfurt and Munich. Bloch later studied composition in Frankfurt and taught at the Geneva Conservatory from 1911 to 1915. 

Believing that his talents were underappreciated in Europe, Bloch moved to New York City in 1916 and found work with Maud Allen, the founder and choreographer of a touring dance troupe, as the conductor of her dance orchestra. The tour folded only weeks later, leaving Bloch broke and out of work in New York City. But his composing skills soon caught the attention of Carl Muck, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At Muck's invitation, Bloch conducted his "Jewish Poems" in Boston.

This exposure helped Bloch become the first teacher of composition at Mannes School of Music from 1917 to 1920. He then secured work as the director of the Cleveland Institute of Music until 1925 and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music until 1930. Bloch was granted U.S. citizenship in 1924.

After receiving a large endowment tied to a ten-year sabbatical, Bloch returned to Switzerland, where he composed "Sacred Service," the "Piano Sonata," "Voice in the Wilderness" and other works through the 1930s. By 1939, with Europe descending into World War II, Bloch returned to the United States to satisfy his endowment requirement to lecture and teach at the University of California. He serendipitously settled in Agate Beach, Oregon in 1941 and continued to lecture and teach at the University of California until 1951. Bloch fell in love with the Oregon Coast and celebrated its natural beauty with his music and with his impressive black-and-white photography until his death nearly two decades later. During this period, he continued to compose music and conducted his works with the Portland Symphony.

Heavily influenced by his Jewish heritage and religious upbringing, Bloch believed that expressing his Jewish background was "the only way in which I can produce music of vitality and significance." Early in his career, he also corresponded with famed composers Gustav Mahler and Claude Debussy. In 1916, Bloch wrote to Debussy asking permission to change the score of Debussy's work "Khamma." Debussy replied by letter that "In the end, my dear Bloch, the orchestral fate of Khamma is in your hands.... I’m certain you won't do any harm to it because I know you."

Bloch died on July 15, 1959 in Portland. The City of Newport named a street Ernest Bloch Place in 2009. And, in 2018 the Oregon Department of Transportation dedicated the Ernest Bloch Memorial Wayside in Agate Beach.

(Sources: Oregon Encyclopedia | ernestbloch.org | Wikipedia)

Next Notable Oregonian: Samuel H. Boardman >