Cavell and Ernest Bloch

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[Posted by BR]

Ernest Bloch

Ernest Bloch

Fourth Movement (“Allegro Molto”) of Ernest Bloch’s String Quartet No. 2 (1945); click here to purchase album

Below is a passage from A Pitch of Philosophy in which Cavell recounts the transformative experience of being taught (ostensibly music theory, but obviously much more than that) by the composer Ernest Bloch: it is one of my favorite moments in all of Cavell’s writings, and sometimes, when I have re-read it, I have wondered what kind of music Bloch was composing at the time Cavell studied with him. So this morning, I decided to find out. While I’m not certain about the dates, I believe Cavell attended Bloch’s lectures during the summer of 1945, when Bloch did indeed, as I found out here, teach a music theory course at Berkeley that met for two hours every weekday. And it was in October of ’45 that Bloch finished composing his Second Quartet for strings, which he had first sketched out in 1940 but had been struggling especially hard with throughout 1945 (the second Quartet was three-quarters finished in January of that year and completed in a furious burst of work after he was done with teaching his 1945 summer course at Cal). Hit the play button on the music player above, and you can listen to the Second Quartet’s fourth and final movement, which is what I think Bloch was working on (or at least thinking about) around the time Cavell heard him lecture. It is, I know, very literal-minded of me to wonder at all about what musical thoughts Bloch may have been thinking or struggling with as he said the powerful, memorable things he did to his students in that ’45 theory course, as recounted (again, in a powerful, memorable way) by Cavell. But in case you share any of my curiosity, I invite you to listen to the piece above. It is, in any case, a remarkable musical composition, well worth listening to, just for its own sake.

And here, finally, is the passage from A Pitch of Philosophy that got me thinking about Bloch in the first place:

The moment came in Ernest Bloch’s music theory class, held two hours every weekday in the late afternoon for six weeks the summer I was a second-year student at Berkeley. He was in his mid-sixties, my age now, and would sometimes tell stories of Paris around the turn of the century when he was a music student roughly my age as I was listening to him then. Sometimes he was moved by a memory to give a demonstration of what conducting essentially consisted in, asking what communication is, or what constitutes a cue; or he would cover both long walls of staved-lined blackboards with different dispositions of a C-major triad to warn against believing in simple or academic definitions of harmonic correctness or of proper voice-leading; or he would interrupt himself to read an excerpt from Plato, or from Confucius, or–a recent discovery of his–from Stanislavsky; or he might move to the piano to play a passage from a Schumann string quartet referred to by an anecdote from the history of Robert and Clara Schumann related in someone’s letters; and all in all he bespoke a world of aspiration so vivid, a life of dedication so extensive and so constant–as if a wish were being granted me every moment–that I would at the end of a class sometimes find myself having trouble breathing, and I formed the habit of walking immediately after each of its sessions into the adjacent hills for an hour or so of solitude, as if I had become too consecrated to touch. Well, well, what do you expect of the effect of the spell of an old master on a young man?–the pathos of the old heightened by his dissatisfaction with the degree of his fame and his disappointment with the new directions taken by the art to which he had given his life, the young wild with muteness, feeling for the first time intelligible, but to a world he at the same time somehow surmises not quite to be his.

It will take some years to discover another, but I knew from that time inescapably–not always hopefully–of the promise of some such existence. One of the exercises Bloch liked to introduce into his classes epitomized for me both the far shore and that it was not quite my direction. He would play something simple, at the piano, for instance a Bach four-part chorale, with one note altered by a half step from Bach’s rendering; then he would play the Bach unaltered. Perhaps he would turn to us, fix us with a stare, then turn back to the piano and repeat, as if for himself, the two versions. The drama mounted, then broke open with a monologue which I reconstruct along these lines: “You hear that? You hear the difference?” His voice was surprisingly unresonant and sounded pressed with the labor of excitement, an exotic effect increased by his accent, heavily French, but with an air of something else. He went on: “My version is perfectly correct; but the Bach, the Bach is perfect; late sunlight burning the edges of a cloud. Of course I do not say you must hear this. Not at all. No. But.” The head lowered a little, the eyes looked up at us, the tempo slowed ominously: “If you do not hear it, do not say to yourself that you are a musician. There are many honorable trades. Shoe-making for example.” (Something in me still believes that he and my father received funds of stories from the same town.) I heard the difference; I suppose I assumed, without evidence, that not everyone did. But I would come to hear something more about myself in that drama; I would find that I was as interested in the understanding of what I heard, as thrilled by the drama of the teaching of it, as I was interested in the rightness and beauty of what I heard; they were not separate. The assigned question of hearing, of an ear, produced a private triumph, and spoke decisively, unforgettable, of a world of culture beyond the standing construction of the world. Yet I did not want this transcendence of culture to require a comparatively rare talent, even a competition of talents, in order to participate in it. I began reading Plato, Confucius, Stanislavsky, as well as Schumann’s criticism.

The trauma of the birth of culture in oneself, the sure knowledge that there is a life of art and of the mind, that such a thing as intellectual companionship exists, never, I provincially felt, dawned on an intellectually starved provincial with more impressively banal thunderclaps than those I was being crushed and lifted by. Whatever conditions preceded them, I date from that time a knowledge of the moral life as containing a dimension or perspective of what I came to call Emersonian Perfectionism… (Stanley Cavell, A Pitch of Philosophy, pp. 48-50)

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