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Article Ernest Bloch and the Library of Congress

Image: Carl Engel and Ernest Bloch
Carl Engel, chief of the Library of Congress Music Division, and Ernest Bloch in Peterborough, New Hampshire (c. 1923). Eric Johnson Collection of Ernest Bloch Photographs, Music Division, Library of Congress.

By Music Division Chief Carl Engel
Reprinted from Musical America, Nov. 10, 1928

Ernest Bloch's America symphony, in a way, owes its existence to the Library of Congress. This is the story.

On January 1, 1922, I came to Washington and temporarily went into lodgings near Farragut Square; my wife stayed on in Boston because she was expecting our baby, who had to be born in Boston and who made the most of the opportunity by emerging into the Land of the Free, in June, on Bunker Hill Day. Strangely enough, this free-born American baby, upon her birth, looked for all the world like a miniature edition of Queen Victoria at the time of the Diamond Jubilee. When I told Bloch of this resemblance, he dubbed the baby "Sa Majesté," and this she has remained ever since. But I anticipate.

A Visit to Washington

About a week before Her Majesty (slightly ahead of time) entered upon her reign, Bloch came to visit me. It was the first time he had seen Washington. He arrived from Cleveland early in the morning. I met him at the station, we went to my lodgings, and then had breakfast at Child's on Pennsylvania Avenue next door to the Willard. It was a wonderful morning. Though Bloch, during his stay, got a fair taste of what Washington is like in hot weather, the city, that week in early June, was radiant. The first glimpse Bloch caught of it impressed him visibly. But old wounds and new were smarting and bleeding; he was too full of bitter tales to see anything for the moment but his own grievances. His supreme need was to have it all out.

And Its Results

There is a great comfort in comforting a friend. And sometimes we can offer him no better easement than to let him talk. After breakfast we wandered down Pennsylvania Avenue in the direction of the Capitol. Bloch, fortunately, was still too much absorbed in diatribe to be aware of one of the most unattractive stretches of Washington. The burden of his lament, by no means novel, was that he had reached the end of his patience with rank commercialism, base intrigue, and flagrant hypocrisy. America apparently had no room for him, he had no use for America. Although he had got his first citizenship papers, he would let them lapse. If he were to remain in America, it would be to fulfill his engagements; but then he would set his face once more towards Europe.

These periodic unburdenings of Bloch's, no matter how vehement, are never tedious to me, because they are always interlarded with rich sayings, capital jokes, and little cynicisms after my own heart. We had mounted Capitol Hill too closely immersed in discussion for Bloch to have taken much notice of our surroundings. Bloch was in high, though still in rather pesky, spirits when we arrived at the Library. Here was prepared for him the hour of his conversion.

Bloch suddenly entered a new world, unsuspected by him in America. I showed him not only the Music Division; I took him over the building. His resentment collapsed, his wonder grew. He became as voluble in his admiration as he had been before in his reproof. When we got to the gallery in the main reading room, with its impressive dignity and vastness, the place imposed silence. But Bloch's mobile features (still unobstructed by antique whiskers) betrayed his emotion, his eyes flashed surprise, and his throat gulped once or twice. He was thrilled. He recognized that here was a side of the American people and the Government of the United States that he had not imagined.

Then I took Bloch to the top floor of the Library into the Librarian's dining room, where some of the division chiefs and a few privileged guests gather round Mr. Putnam's table at luncheon. From the room we stepped out on the balcony. Immediately before us lay the Capitol with its spacious grounds and fine old trees, the city spread beyond, dotted and lined with green squares and avenues, the obelisk of the Washington Monument rose in its simple grandeur, behind it the Lincoln Memorial shone like a white jewel, and, in the distance, the whole was framed by the silver band of the Potomac river and the hazy hills of Virginia, all drenched in a flood of sunlight. When Bloch had recovered speech he turned to me and said in French: "Do you know what this means to me, this Library and this view? My second papers! I want to be an American citizen." He carried out the resolve then made.

When Bloch left Cleveland, in 1925, he deposited with the Library of Congress his manuscripts, letters, and personal documents. It was the first time that the Music Division of our national library had been entrusted with the complete biographical records of so unusual a man and musician. The Librarian's report for 1925 laid due stress upon the significance of the gift and the giver. When the published report reached Bloch he wrote me in English from San Francisco on December 19, 1925:

"I wrote you a very stupid letter a few days ago and, in reply, I found yesterday the Report of the Librarian of Congress.

"I wish to tell you that few things have moved me more than pages 94 and 95. I really cannot explain why, but it seems to me as if it were a definite consecration to my voluntary Americanization. It brings back to me memories of Washington and the unforgettable days spent in the Library of Congress, and at the round-table in Mr. Putnam's dining room. It impresses upon me once more the idea of America of the past and America of the future, and makes me indulgent with America of the present. It gives me, too, a sense of duty of what we can do to help this great country.

"I have rarely felt prouder of anything that has happened in my career, than of those two pages in an official document of my own country."

This will explain the statement why it is likely that, without the Library of Congress, Ernest Bloch might never have become an American citizen and without having become a citizen, he would hardly have written his symphony America.

Courtesy of Musical America External

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  • Ernest Bloch and the Library of Congress


  • -  Social Change
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Parlor and Concert Stage
  • -  Progressive Era to New Era (1900-1929)
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