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“An Essential Expression of the People”: Interpretations of Hasidic Song in the Composition and Performance History of Ernest Bloch's Baal Shem

Joshua S. Walden
Journal of the American Musicological Society
Vol. 65, No. 3 (Fall 2012), pp. 777-820
DOI: 10.1525/jams.2012.65.3.777
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jams.2012.65.3.777
Page Count: 44
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“An Essential Expression of the People”: Interpretations of Hasidic Song in the Composition and Performance History of Ernest Bloch's Baal Shem
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Abstract

Abstract This article examines Ernest Bloch's Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life, considering its score, its performance history, and early recordings of the second movement, “Nigun,” by Yehudi Menuhin, Joseph Szigeti, and Mischa Elman, to investigate the idea, promoted by the composer and many of his performers and critics, that the music represented Jewish identity through the evocation of Hasidic song. Bloch's score and Menuhin's performances were described as expressing what was often characterized during the early twentieth century as a self-affirming racial feeling that linked the modern diaspora in America to Eastern European Hasidic Jewish communities. With Baal Shem, Bloch and his performers and listeners participated in a self-conscious effort to construct a modern Jewish identity that they believed could be conveyed in the sounds and structures of art music. Menuhin's lifelong friendship and collaboration with Bloch underscores the crucial roles of Bloch's performers in working with the composer to devise compositional and performance tropes for the representation of Hasidic song, and in creating his broad reputation as a composer of a definitive Jewish music, a reputation Bloch would sometimes embrace and at other times disavow.

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