Ernest Bloch ‘Five Sketches in Sepia’: A Tainted Photograph

Today, dearest readers, I am going to tell you all about a wonderful solo piano work entitled Five Sketches in Sepia by the Swiss composer, Ernest Bloch. This work may not be for everyone, but all I ask is that you give it a chance as I think it’s incredibly calming and very resonant of Debussy and Ravel. But first some biography of Ernest Bloch.

Bloch was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1880 into a non-musical family, but he started to take an interest in learning music and playing violin at the age of ten. It is also worth noting that Bloch was born into a Jewish family, and although he travelled around Europe a lot as a young man, a lot of his music have various characteristics of Jewish music. Bloch started to build up his rapport as a composer, with his first Symphony in C# minor (1902) described as “vigorous, passionate and wonderful to think that is his first work.” Bloch taught at many conservatories in Europe and the USA, including Geneva, Paris, Boston and Cleveland. Bloch composed a range of different works for large orchestra, chamber orchestra, solo piano and opera and he generally received a positive reception for his work.

In the midst of the 1920’s, Bloch wrote several works for solo piano. These works are seldom performed, but they are a wonderful way to hear the intensely diverse style that Bloch offering. Bloch was heavily influenced by his contemporaries such as Debussy, Mahler and Mussorgsky, in addition to this he was also very much influenced by his life experiences through travelling and teaching. A lot of his piano works are programmatic, containing several character movements within them under different names. Five Sketches in Sepia was composed in 1923 in Cleveland, and within it are five short character pieces. This particular work presents strong links to French impressionism, Western musical traditions and Jewish Music. Although Judaism and Jewish music was a firm influence for Bloch, he commented that he did not directly quote sacred Jewish music “In all those compositions of mine which have been termed Jewish, I have not approached the problem from without, i.e. by employing more or less authentic melodies, or more less sacred oriental formulas, rhythms, or intervals…It was this Jewish heritage as a whole which stirred me, and music was the result.”

One of Bloch’s main stylistic features in his piano works are based around his music being tonal, but with strong allusions to modality. Essentially, he uses modal melodies which he harmonises with traditional harmonic language. Bloch also relies a lot on irregular and free rhythms within his compositions, he uses reversed dotted-themes to create the ‘scotch snap’ effect. Bloch makes ecological use of meter and tempo fluctuations, which aid to create very atmospheric and mood-driven solo piano works.

Five Sketches in Sepia is heavily reliant on impressionism. This whole piece is based around atmosphere, moods and subjects and it also reflect Bloch’s love for photography, as many photographers in this time finished their prints in sepia. Bloch very much liked this technique and the visual effect it gave so he split this work up into five short pieces to form a musical analogue to this. The five sections are as follows: Prélude, Fumées sur la Ville, Lucioles, Incertitude and Epilogue. All five of these sections are wonderfully haunting and each present a plethora of different, complex compositional techniques that create such a vivid effect.

Prélude 

The beginning of this first movement is marked Con fantasia and the fantasia style is depicted through Bloch’s use of irregular rhythms and fermatas (pauses). The constant tempo changes here create a really colourful sound and his extensive use of quintuplets is prevalent here. The centric pitch of this movement is B, with F# also being at the forefront (as it is the dominant of B). The movement can be split into three different sections, effectively creating an A-B-A’ form. The first section is linear, thin in regards to texture and based around the note F#. Bloch uses a range of different intervals to create this eerie atmosphere, including: augmented seconds, perfect fourths and tritones. This leads into the second section which is based more around B and E. The pitch is a fifth lower than the first section, which creates a mirror effect, although it has been altered slightly. The third section is based on the motives from the first section, and it develops those throughout the rest of the movement. One of my favourite parts of this movement is Bloch’s incessant use of parallel thirds, sevenths and quartal patterns. Each of these create a very different effect, for instance quartal patterns create a very tranquil and atmospheric effect, whereas the parallel sevenths create a more ‘moving forward’ feeling. A culmination of all of these techniques creates a very beautiful and nostalgic movement.

Fumées sur la Ville (Smoke over the Village)

This movement is depicting the image of smoke floating over a small country village. According to his wife, “Bloch was inspired by the skies of Cleveland, a city whose soft coal smoke stacks left a constant pall in the skies.” To portray this image, Bloch uses techniques such as chromaticism, softer dynamics and rubato. The centric pitch in this movement is C#. This movement can also be split into three sections making it A-B-A’ – which Bloch further creates a symmetrical image. Both the first and last sections are based on the octatonic scale – C#-D-E-F-G-G#-A#. Bloch writes many disjunt melodies within this movement and there is definitely a ‘inner voice’ heard throughout this section. Bloch, again, uses parallel chords to create a desired effect, so within this movement he utilises chromatic octaves in as parallel chords. I very much enjoy his use of the pianos range within this movement, as the very low range is incredibly effective in its portrayal in the smoke clouding over the skies.

Lucioles 

This movement is depicting fireflies, and is the fastest movement of the five. To illustrate the fireflies fast movement, Bloch writes an unrelenting quaver sequence, which frequently changes meter to highlight the unpredictability of the fireflies. The piece fluctuates between 7/8 and 6/8 time chiefly, although other rhythmic patterns emerge. The centric pitch here is A, and again the form can be split into three sections: A-B-A’. Bloch uses trichords to create a colourful ambience. This movement is very interesting as while I’ve tried to analyse the score I have realised that although the centric pitch is A, there is no A major chord until the last two bars of the movement. When the A major chord occurs, it is at the same time as a B half-diminished seventh chord, which creates a dazzling flash of colour for the end of the movement. How incredibly clever!

Incertitude (Uncertainty)

This movement is based around the centric pitch of C, and as the title suggests, Bloch’s harmonic language is incredibly uncertain. It has taken me a little while to look through this score and work out what he is actually doing, but here’s some of my thoughts on it. The movement can be divided into two parts: A-B. To create this mood of uncertainty, Bloch uses quartal harmonies in triadic combinations. For example, in bar 19 he uses a G major chord together with an F# major chord and as these two chords are related by a minor second, this creates the basis of the harmonic function within this movement (please somebody correct me if I am wrong!). This creates a chromatic effect and Bloch’s use of the octatonic scale again (though this time starting on C) is a prevalent addition to the musical uncertainty that Bloch is desiring.

Epilogue 

The final movement of this wonderful work is entitled Epilogue and it is the longest work of the set. This movement brings together previous motifs from the other movements, and can also be split into three main movements: A-B-A’ and a coda. This movement is by far the most tonal of all five sections and this can be heard from the beginning where you can hear E minor arpeggios (with an F# at points). The right hand plays a very simple melody, played in parallel fifths (of course) and the melody is an outline of the E-Dorian modal scale. This first section ends in A major, which is the subdominant of E minor. The second section quotes from the second, third and fourth movements with slight variations on these melodies. Bloch switches between major and minor triads which creates a swaying feeling. The movement ends with a few alternations between an E major and a D major-minor seventh chord. There is a resolution of C and A which lands on a clear E major triad.

Sound qualities are at the heart of this work and Bloch uses a range of different tonal, harmonic and rhythmic techniques to create a variety of different mood templates. Five Sketches in Sepia is very obviously influenced by impressionism and the different sound qualities are made with the different attack one can make on a piano. This is supported by the various speed changes that Bloch indicates on the score. Bloch wrote fundamentally tonal music, which had a strong affiliation with modality. He also started to break away from traditional western harmony by extensively using parallel chords, octatonic scales and unconventional chord progressions. I absolutely love this work as it is uniquely expressive and it represents its themes in such an idiosyncratic manner. This blog is full of analysis and I hope you could all follow my general meaning throughout – if I have made any mistakes please do let me know, I would be very interested to know how to improve! I hope you can give this work a chance, it’s not that long and is well worth your time!

Happy listening!

 

Recommended Recordings:

One of the few recordings of this work – its a very clean recording!