Ernest Bloch: Five Sketches in Sepia 


Born in Geneva in 1880, Ernest Bloch was surrounded by a non-musical family. However, by age ten Bloch started to take an interest in playing the violin and learning music. Bloch’s family were Jewish, and a lot of his music reflects the characteristics of Jewish music and his own heritage. Bloch started to build up his rapport as a composer, with his First Symphony in C# minor (1902) being 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 styles that Bloch worked with through his career.  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.


The Music

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 were 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 prevalent feature of Bloch’s piano works is his use of tonality with underlying allusions to modality. In essence 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 has used 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

Five Sketches in Sepia is heavily reliant on impressionism. The 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 dialogue for 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.


I. Prélude (‘Prelude’)

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 colourful sound, with his extensive use of quintuplets is prevalent here. The central 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-A1 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.

Bloch is also seen to utilise parallel thirds, sevenths and quartal patterns (which create the tranquil effect). With the movement of the piano, there is a nostalgic atmosphere created throughout this first movement.


II. 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 central pitch of this movement is C#. This movement can also be split into three sections making it A-B-A1 – which Bloch uses to further create 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 disjunct 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 parallel chords.


III. 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 central pitch here is A, and again the form can be split into three sections: A-B-A1. Bloch uses trichords to create a colourful ambience. 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.


IV. Incertitude (‘Uncertainty’)

This movement is based around the central pitch of C, and as the title suggests, Bloch’s harmonic language is incredibly uncertain. 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. 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.


V. Epilogue 

The final movement of this wonderful work is entitled Epilogue and it is the longest movement of the set. This movement brings together previous motifs from the other movements, and can also be split into three main movements: A-B-A1 and a coda. Epilogue 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.


Final Thoughts

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.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy listening!

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