July 8, 2010
People often confuse Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) and vagabond German philosopher ERNST BLOCH (1885-1977); only a letter apart, it’s easy to do. The older man, best known for his works with Jewish themes, wrote many diverse pieces of consistently high invention, including the prize-winning America: An Epic Rhapsody (1926), for orchestra and chorus; later, he retired to Agate Beach, Oregon. The younger man loved music too — he wrote about Bach, Beethoven, and Mahler, was friends with Kurt Weill, Hans Eisler, and amateur composer Theodor Adorno — but no single subject could hold his restless, questing, and often self-contradictory mind. Best-known, perhaps, as a very weird Marxist utopian, Ernst fled the Nazis in 1933, bouncing around Europe until 1938, when he settled in the United States, a capitalist, imperialist, even fascist nation he didn’t much respect. For all his critical brilliance, his rhapsodic if sometimes recondite philosophy as poetry (Hermann Broch was an admirer), Ernst was also — in the name of anti-fascism, it’s true — a Communist, and not just any old Communist but a Stalinist. Other humanitarians made the same tragic mistake; Paul Robeson was one. Ernst stayed in America for a decade, writing his three-volume Principle of Hope, a comprehensive exploration of utopian thinking, in the reading room of Harvard’s Widener Library. In 1949, he began a professorship — his first — in Leipzig, East Germany, a tenure that could not end well. When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, Ernst moved west, again, to the University of Tübingen, a place of further potential, and further misjudgments, unto the grave.
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