Academic journal article Notes

Sealed Documents and Open Lives: Ernest Bloch's Private Correspondence

Academic journal article Notes

Sealed Documents and Open Lives: Ernest Bloch's Private Correspondence

Article excerpt

In the spring of 1997, philosopher Lydia Goehr visited Berkeley as that year's Bloch Lecturer. Living in the same apartment building as Suzanne Bloch, the daughter of Ernest Bloch who, as the name of the lecture series indicates, was the first beneficiary of the fund, Goehr felt it was time to pay her neighbor a visit. She asked Suzanne what her father, a devout Wagner enthusiast, thought about the composer's anti-Semitism. Suzanne "sidestepped" her question, Goehr reported in her first public lecture. It was easy to believe that the composer's daughter, who was already struggling with early symptoms of Alzheimer's, did not understand what Goehr was asking.1

At the time of Goehr's lecture at Berkeley, I was working on topics related to Bloch's Jewish identity, and was keen to learn more about Bloch's opinion of Wagner. I spent several hours every day in the old music library, going through the library's collection of Bloch's immense private correspondence.2 A couple of weeks after Goehr's first lecture, I came across a passage in a 1947 letter to Albert Elkus-at that time head of the Berkeley music department-that shocked and thrilled me at the same time. In a bitter outburst against Schoenberg and his method of composition, Bloch wrote:

The "12-tone row," for me, is an imposture. Like the last paintings of Picasso, or Cocteau (alas, alas, all Jews, who have used the degeneracy of our Time, to cultivate it for their profit! After poisoning Europe, they have now come here, to this country, and poison it! We owe this to Mr. Hitler! A fine heritage. This goes with all the rest, with Atom bombs, and the next coming War. Art does not lie. I foresaw it all, I warned them . . . in my Lectures in Geneva 1911-1914. I saw it all coming, through the degeneracy, the dishonesty of the cubism and other "isms." R. Wagner was right in his "Judenthum"-horribly sad-but true).3

This was not the first time Bloch had expressed frustration about the new immigrants from Germany. In 1933 he wrote to his lover Winnifred Howe: "I do not trust so much these 'massacred-converted-Jews' like K [Klemperer] or B.W. [Bruno Walter]-or Schönberg! Who are getting so much advertising and profits from this Hitler business! (the poor, sincere Jews, they suffer in silence, in Germany!)."4

I could not resist bragging about my finding to Goehr. She was not surprised and admitted that, contrary to what she presented in her lecture, Suzanne Bloch had in fact answered her question about Wagner. But she did not feel she could include her answer in a public lecture the focus of which had little to do with Bloch and hence did not give her the opportunity to explain the composer's unexpected support of Wagner's anti-Semitism. Moreover, Goehr probably feared that including Suzanne's answer in her public lecture would breach the composer's privacy and cater only to sensationalist appetites.

Goehr's concern about privacy and the fair use of quotations is legitimate and needs to be considered whenever the documents we find are potentially damaging. But just as sensationalist quotations can be irresponsible, so can the deliberate silencing of documents. It is easy to ignore an offhand remark by an aging relative like Suzanne Bloch. But keeping silent about an important, although undeniably unpleasant, aspect of Bloch's Jewish identity renders critical argument about the topic impossible.

The most disturbing aspect of the above quotation is not Bloch's unspecified agreement with Wagner, but his revival of the Wagnerian doctrine of poisonous Jewish infiltration of culture in 1947, two years after the end of World War II, which, many believed, should have put an end to careless, potentially dangerous stereotyping of Jews. In Bloch's thinking, however, the Wagnerian doctrine clearly survived the war. Since Bloch made similar remarks repeatedly, what I found could not be mistaken for a slip of the pen. In 1950, reacting to an irritating review of his Sacred Service by Commentary critic Kurt List, Bloch repeated his statement about immigrant Jewish artists in even cruder terms. …

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