Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam), 2 harps, celesta, strings, and solo cello
First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: November 8, 1928, with soloist Felix Salmond, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting
In an article published in Musica Hebraica in 1938, Ernest Bloch wrote: “In my works termed ‘Jewish’ I have not approached the problem from without, by employing melodies more or less authentic, or ‘Oriental’ formulae, rhythms or intervals... No! I have but listened to an inner voice, deep, secret, insistent, ardent, an instinct much more than cold and dry reason, a voice which seemed to come from afar beyond myself, far beyond my parents. This entire Jewish heritage moved me deeply; it was reborn in my music. To what extent it is Jewish, to what extent it is just Ernest Bloch, of that I know nothing. The future alone will decide.”
Bloch’s best music is found in his works specifically designated as Jewish. There is the orchestral triptych Three Jewish Poems; there is a symphony Israel; and there is, most glorious of them all, Schelomo. In a letter to Philip Hale regarding Schelomo, Bloch wrote with passion: “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 that is evident in the prophetic books; the Jew’s savage love of justice; the despair of the preacher in Jerusalem; 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.”
Schelomo is the Hebrew name for King Solomon. The voice of Schelomo is the cello in Bloch’s score. It embodies the glory, the greatness, and the human sensuality of the great King; it also expresses the lyric despair: “Vanity of vanities... all is vanity.”
In his music Bloch unites his ancient heritage and his living consciousness. The Jewish inflections of the music are immediately perceptible, but they come from Bloch’s inner self, not from ethnomusicological sources. The harmony is austere in its naked fourths and thirdless fifths. The orchestra is often sounded in unison, made powerful by insistent rhythmic cantillation. The work begins with a single note on the cello in its high and most expressive register, and it ends with philosophical resignation on the low D.
— Nicolas Slonimsky