This afternoon I had the good fortune to hear Professor Leta Miller, of the Music Department of the University of California at Santa Cruz, deliver a paper at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society entitled “Ernest Bloch at the San Francisco Conservatory, 1924–30.” I know that Bloch had been a Director of the Conservatory, but this was my first opportunity to learn about the institution’s early years. (I suspect that I shall learn a lot more in the near future, however. I have just begun to read Miller’s new book, Music & Politics in San Francisco: From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War, whose sixth chapter is entitled “Musical Utopias: Ada Clement, Ernest Bloch, and the San Francisco Conservatory.”)
In many ways Bloch’s presence at the Conservatory was a matter of (mostly) happy coincidences. Clement’s initial ambition was simply to run a piano school with friends; but the curriculum of her institution seems to have just grown on its own, a bit like Topsy. I added that “mostly” qualifier because one key factor was Bloch’s discontent with his parallel position at the Cleveland Institute of Music (which seems to have been matched only by his discontent with Cleveland itself). Bloch was only too happy to go west, and Miller quoted a letter he wrote while visiting Yosemite that effervesces with excitement for his new California setting.
What was most important about Bloch’s tenure at the Conservatory was that he apparently did not have to worry about any administrative details. He could do the things he most liked, which included lecturing about music (usually drawing upon his own ideas rather than any of the prevailing academic sources) and composing (putting his ideas into practice). Two compositions are particularly associated with San Francisco, the violin solo “Abodah,” composed for the San Francisco prodigy Yehudi Menuhin in 1929, and the somewhat overblown but in its own way sincere America: An Epic Rhapsody, whose epic scale included not only a full orchestra, but also a chorus singing an anthem with the intention that they be joined by the audience. Also, while the Avodath Hakodesh (sacred service) was not completed in San Francisco, it was composed on a commission by Reuben Rinder, cantor of Temple Emanu-El, which is where it received its first performance. While Bloch now seems to receive comparatively little attention, it is interesting to note that last season “Abodah” was performed in the subscription series of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. (Another observation is that Jascha Heifetz included “Nigun,” the second movement of Bloch’s Baal Shem suite, on the program for his final recital.)
Perhaps Miller’s book will inspire some of the current Conservatory students to consider the Bloch repertoire and keep alive the memory of his association with their place of study.