Camilla Wicks and Ernest Bloch

By Nathanial Vallois, January 2015

In 2011 I had the pleasure of visiting Camilla Wicks in her remote home in Washington State. The surrounding, majestic expanses of snow-capped mountains, woodland and ocean vividly echo the land of her forefathers, Norway. They seem to be in tune with her soul. Yet a highlight of my visit was a musical experience which transported me to a very different place: to the desert of the Biblical realms, the wanderings of the Jewish people, the dramatic oratory of its prophets,  the blend of dignity and despair amidst unfathomable natural elements. No composer evoked these scenes so powerfully and eloquently as did Ernest Bloch (1880-1959). Swiss-born, much travelled and based in America from 1917, Bloch was both the greatest creator of a Jewish idiom within the sphere of classical music and the carrier of a universal, humane message. 

Now a magnificent performance of one of his greatest works, his first Sonata for violin and piano, given by Wicks and Roslyn Frantz at the University of California-Fullerton in 1980, has emerged from her treasure trove of private recordings. To relive it in Wicks’s company and share her vision of this masterpiece through the prism of her relationship with Bloch sixty years ago added a special dimension to the occasion. I was especially intrigued by this meeting of minds and souls between the venerable composer born and bred in Europe and steeped in ancient Hebraic roots, and a rising American star (born in 1928) of Norwegian Lutheran background. While Bloch drank from the well of ancient history and shone an aura of humane wisdom, Wicks’s playing in the heady early years of her career exemplified a then modern, Heifetz-inspired, sharply polished virtuosity. Yet a deep artistic and spiritual kinship developed between them, movingly encapsulated in their correspondence and evidenced in Wicks’s performances from the Baal Shem Suite and of the Sonata. 

 Wicks’s first contact with Bloch’s music was through her teacher, Louis Persinger (1887-1966), whom she credits as her major influence. Persinger, like Bloch himself, studied the violin with Eugene Ysaÿe, and the two knew each other well as musical colleagues in San Francisco in the mid-to-late 1920s. In that period Bloch had been inspired to compose a short piece, Abodah, for young Menuhin, Persinger’s first and most famous wunderkind student. It was the first piece dedicated to him, and he recorded it in 1939. 

Persinger introduced Wicks to Bloch’s music through the Baal Shem Suite, which includes the famous Nigun. Young Camilla had no direct reference points to draw from her own background, but Persinger enlightened and inspired her to grasp its unique language.  “Persinger didn’t talk so much about the background as inspire by his playing at the piano – by his conjuring of imagery. I still remember the way he stretched certain chords to create a tense, extraordinary atmosphere in the opening of Nigun.” 

As her reputation as a formidable talent rose in the postwar years, Wicks made regular broadcasts for the Standard Oil radio programme. On 28th May 1950, one such performance included the finale of the Sibelius Concerto – a work which she became especially associated with – and Nigun

Surprisingly, Bloch had never heard his composition in its orchestrated form until he fortuitously caught this searing performance on the radio. Blazing with cantorial oratory power and heartfelt intensity, Wicks account (which was included on a Music & Arts disc, The Art of Camilla Wicks) inspired Bloch to write to her the following lines: 

29 May 1950 

“Dear Miss Wicks, 

It was by mere chance that I noticed, yesterday, that my “NIGUN” was to be performed at the Standard Hour, with orchestra. Though these pieces were instrumented eleven years ago, I have never heard them, thus far, with orchestra … I must confess, I was not without misgivings…as my works are so often misrepresented by those who have not contacted me. […] I was surprised to hear a truly great violinist interpret my work with such comprehension and musicality. […] your Sibelius! … I have no words to express my admiration. Both my wife, who is very critical, and myself were thrilled by your extraordinary rendition of this exceedingly difficult work. Everything came out superbly, easily, as if there were no technical problems … Your astonishing rhythm, colour, expression, without any false sentimentalism, constant musicality … perfect understanding of the structure. It was a joy to hear such masterly performance. And I wondered … because there was so much youth and, at the same time, such maturity. Music, and interpretation of music, are, for me, an ideal graphology; they do not lie and, through them, one can recognize the complete personality of an artist. Yours must be an exceptional one. 

It is the first time, since many, many years, that I write to an artist or interpreter … But I had to. I wonder whether you are acquainted with my other, more important works, for violin: The Sonatas, Violin Concerto? You would be an ideal interpreter of them.

Wicks made Nigun a prominent work in her concert programmes and recorded it with the conductor Sixten Ehrling at the piano. 

A regular correspondence ensued, in which Bloch expressed that he had found in Wicks an ideal interpreter of his music (as he did with the cellist Zara Nelsova), whom he hoped would convey its message far and wide in decades to come. His major works for violin – the Concerto (1938), which Szigeti and Menuhin performed and recorded; the two Sonatas (no.1 composed in 1920, the single-movement no.2, entitled “Poème Mystique,” in 1924) – hadn’t received the exposure he had hoped for. Bloch’s letters, written in the still heavy shadows of World War Two and the Holocaust, are infused with a poignant mix of world-weariness and spiritual idealism. 

“As, once, the great violinist Marsick told me (in 1895!!),“One must have studied first a t…God’s Conservatory” – very few have – But you are of the few – I hope, I make a fervent prayer… that they (the world, the musicians, the “musical world” – so called!) may not spoil you. Your letter shows me that you have high ideals and are more than a first-class violinist. Thank God! And the world, this sick world, needs, more than ever, such personalities who have great messages to deliver “through music.”  (From a letter dated June 21, 1950) 

“Your gift is a treasure, a very rare one. What I hope […] is that some day you may come to our place in Agate Beach, Oregon, overlooking the ocean, on a cliff, amidst trees – solitude and Nature! – and spend some time with us{…} and then we could study the Concerto and other works, in the right atmosphere. Thus, I would know that, after I am no more, there will be one great and young artist who can know and share what I really wanted.”   (July 6, 1950) 

Bloch and Wicks first met in person when, at his behest, she attended some of his famous lectures at the University of California in Berkeley.  She then took up his invitation to stay with him and his wife at his home in Agate Beach, Oregon. She looks back at these meetings with a recollection of being awed by Bloch’s intellectual and spiritual dimension – he admonishes her in one letter: “Do not call me ‘Professor’!!!” Bloch was especially interested in her playing his Concerto, and she learnt it in order to play it to him, but she regrets that the vagaries of her career meant that in the end she never performed it. 

She did perform the First Sonata, which she considers ultimately superior to the Concerto.  It is indeed a remarkable work, which ranks with Prokofiev’s F minor Sonata as one of the mightiest, most stirring masterpieces of the genre, yet has been sorely neglected. It was composed in America, where Bloch had emigrated in 1917. Wicks first performed it on February 9th 1954 at New York’s Town Hall. By an uncanny coincidence Heifetz performed it for the first time on that same day, also in New York, at the Brooklyn Academy. Upon finding this out that these performances of the Sonata were scheduled, Bloch wrote in a letter to Wicks: 

“I had no idea that Heifetz – who, thus far, did not perform my works – had played the Sonata in New York …Mieux vaut tard que jamais”. I am so glad that, after 33 years, a third of a century, the work is still alive … Naturally, I am delighted to hear that you will perform it also in New York and I only hope that you will have an adequate pianist. (dated November 14, 1953) 

Wicks’ pianist on that occasion was Brooks Smith, who was about to become Heifetz’s regular partner. The New York Times critic wrote about Wicks’ performance: 

 “By turns introspective, hectic and almost barbarically splendid … the artist was able to project all [Bloch’s Sonata] shifting moods and tonal colors [of] this overpoweringly rich and varied work.” 

Before listening to the Sonata together, Wicks had me read Bloch’s notes on his Sacred Service, an eloquent call for the Unity of Man transcending specific Faiths: 

“These texts embody, in concentrated form, the quintessence of the Soul of Israel, of its aspirations and its message to the world. Though intensely Jewish in its roots, this message seems to me above all a gift of Israel to the whole of the mankind. It symbolizes for me, far more than a Jewish Service, but in its simplicity and variety, it embodies a philosophy acceptable to all men.

Bloch then outlines seven key dimensions to the Sacred Service: 

  • The feeling of nature – temples, tents, dwellings: the mixture of secular and sacred, religion in everyday life 
  • The cosmic element, the Unity of God, of man and of the universe 
  • The Law: the necessity of order, discipline, organization 
  • The exultation of man, his joy in Life and in his Faith – in an almost barbaric, primitive form; in clear, fresh joy; in peaceful expression 
  • Dramatic/Tragical side, embodying human misery and suffering 
  • The mystic and ethereal 
  • The philosophical

The Sonata encapsulates the essence of Bloch as Wicks perceived him. “I am fascinated by his blend of earthy communion to nature and spirituality, which transcended the attachment to his own Jewish heritage, and so struck and deeply moved by Bloch’s words. He was devout in the most universal sense. Other composers may have more dexterity but his music is great because of the nature of his faith. All his music seemed to aim at and was truthful in conveying this lofty ideal.”  

Although it is not explicitly a devout or Jewish work, one may well detect in it elements of all seven dimensions and also find strong echoes of these words Bloch wrote to describe the essence of his music: 

It is the Jewish soul that interests me, the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating throughout the Bible; … the freshness and naiveté of the Patriarchs; the violence of the Prophetic books; the Hebrews’ savage love of justice; the despair of the Ecclesiastes; the sorrow and the immensity of the book of Job; the sensuality of the Song of Songs. All this is in us, all this is in me, and it is the better part of me. It is all this that I endeavor to hear in myself and to transcribe in my music; the venerable emotion of the race that slumbers way down in our soul.”  

For those wanting to explore the Sonata in depth there are stunningly vibrant historical recordings to look out for by Joseph Gingold (Enharmonic, 1938), Heifetz (RCA, 1953), Louis Kaufman (Music & Arts, 1955) and Isaac Stern (Sony, 1959), charismatic artists steeped in the Hebraic idiom. (It is somewhat surprising and a pity that Menuhin, it seems, didn’t perform it). Gingold’s heartfelt, atmospheric account pulsates with ardour and tonal glow. Heifetz delivers his trademark blazing intensity and sensuous nuancing, though he is perhaps not at all times emotionally fully immersed. Kaufman’s interpretation is slightly less imaginative and some of the most intense passages catch him a little out-of-puff, nevertheless he combines soulful warmth and a visceral edge to stirring effect. 

Stern’s ruggedly magisterial eloquence evokes some fiery yet wise, weather-beaten but indomitable Patriarch. His first movement is especially mesmerising, as he plunges into this maelstrom of fury and plaintive beauty armed with awesome physical and rhetorical power. His lyricism is imbued with a tangible quality of speech and the meditative stretches are explored in long-spun lines. Although his pianist Alexander Zakin is too withdrawn, I considered Stern’s the reference version until I heard Wicks’s extraordinarily deep and poignant interpretation.  

On a vast canvas filled with a rich cast of Old Testament characters and Biblical scenes, Man’s epic struggle is brought to life with electrifying immediacy and Nature, in turn alluring and pitiless, is an all-encompassing presence. Indeed unlike other interpreters, Wicks takes the opening Allegro agitato at a slightly slower tempo than the marked crotchet = circa 132, thereby conveying the weight of a grimly inexorable force. The restless unease of the music is palpable and the burst of propulsive energy at the ‘feroce’ two bars before figure 8 all the more impactful, an impression heightened in the contrasts between the feroce and pleading appassionato at figure 16. 

As we listen to her performance together, Wicks spontaneously exclaims, “Boy! There’s a big bunch of personalities in there…” Her phrasing has a suppleness and sense of direction of tremendous cumulative power in the climactic passage from figures 26-28 and she finds a uniquely supplicant emotion in the octaves of figure 36 and before figure 39, likening these passages to a suffering people’s wrenching of garments in despair. 

The cosmic, mystical dimension emerges above all in the second movement, which Wicks describes “like smoke lifting over bad things that happened, or are going to happen. It’s a prophecy.” In the opening Wicks weaves her line like a hypnotic incantation. The gradual, perfectly graded increase of intensity leads to overwhelming climaxes at figures 6 and 12 – the “dramatic/tragical” Bloch pointed to – receding to his “exultation in peaceful expression” at figure 16 and philosophical depth in the Molto calmo ending. Interspersed within this arc is the magical, dream-like oasis of figure 7 (Moderato molto) while in some passages Wicks sensuous, yearning expression has, to my ears, echoes of Tristan and Isolde: her way with figure 16, for example, uncovers the link from Wagner to Bloch, via Chausson, Debussy and Ysaÿe. Interestingly, Wicks comments on her own playing of the ending that she finds her vibrato “too fancy! Now I’d look for something more ascetic and austere”. 

The final movement opens with a march that seems to embody vigorous exultation of the kind described by Bloch as “almost primitive, barbaric” (the very word the New York Times critic used to convey a facet of Wicks 1954 performance). But as Wicks says, “Even in the exultation there is darkness.”  According to Alex Cohen, the first concertmaster of the City of Birmingham Orchestra who became Honorary Chairman of the Ernest Bloch Society: “Bloch saw in this terrible march … a barbaric procession with mounted elephants trampling to death a crowd of prostrate bodies — scapegoats doomed to die in a mass atonement  . . . .” The mood soon builds to a pitch of incandescent dramatic intensity from the appassionato at figure 16 with its fff leaps to the pulverising return of the Allegro agitato material. The closing section is a brooding meditation – Wicks feels in these bars the presence of the prophet Elijah – filled with dignified sorrow. “If Bloch were telling a story, there would be tears running down his face.” 

A sense of reconciled, hard-earned inner peace is reached in the closing, unexpected E Major harmony, but despite its bursts of heroic and lyrical expression, the Sonata is a predominantly tragic work filled with foreboding, menace and actual violence. It seems to carry a prophecy of the terror that would soon engulf the world, suffused with an urgent despair which Wicks captures more acutely than anyone. Perhaps with his second Sonata, the uplifting Poème Mystique, composed soon after the first, Bloch was expressing the need to offer an alternative, redemptive vision of what the world might instead be.