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Remembering a Legendary Teacher

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In talking with friends and fellow classmates about Joseph Bloch, four words invariably entered the conversation: elegant, articulate, encyclopedic, and enthusiastic. His elegance was apparent in his carriage, in his demeanor, and in his home, with its art and books and tasteful decor. He had the capacity to make everyone he spent time with feel important and special. He loved being with people and people loved being with him. And this warmth radiated for us in the classroom, and later on, after we had graduated and stayed in touch with him. His language was precise and communicative, always speaking to the point of the topic at hand. And his was an encyclopedic knowledge of music—not only the vast repertoire of the piano, but opera, which he loved with passion, of chamber music, of thelied, and of course, orchestral music. His capacity to analyze scores and get to the heart of the structure, relating it specifically to a meaningful performance, was inspiring, and this skill clearly influenced both my wife, Julie Jaffee Nagel (B.M. ’65, M.S. ’66, piano) and me throughout our careers.

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The classes themselves could be daunting experiences, particularly for the undergraduates who took the two-year survey courses. After all, among that population was a wide range of pianistic accomplishment and talent, which could include some students who were already performing professionally. And as we began our studies with the music before J.S. Bach, there was much we did not know. Mr. Bloch would not assign a specific piece, but rather a composer, or perhaps a genre. Each of us was on his or her own to explore the relevant repertoire and choose a work to prepare for performance in class a few days later. We spent much time in the Juilliard library. Occasionally there were duplications—as with Couperin, where I recall at least half the class “discovered” the lovely little gem from the sixth OrdreLes Barricades Misterieuses, and offered it in performance. This rarely happened, however, and by the time we arrived at the familiar music of the high Baroque, we had been exposed to a wealth of treatises and compositions from the earlier periods.

Of course there was much Bach. Mr. Bloch could make the most commonplace repertoire sound fresh and exciting. He transformed the 15 Two-Part Inventions, revealing these teaching pieces to be works of beauty and depth. He encouraged individuality in performance—not only of Bach but of all composers, never crossing the line into the realm of giving a piano lesson. This in itself was a remarkable accomplishment. His diplomacy coupled with his enthusiasm for the music being performed tempered his impulse to comment critically on the performance. And that generosity allowed for a certain comfort level in his classes. One could miss some notes, or introduce a personal concept without fear of his rejection. It is still remarkable for me to reflect upon the skill and enthusiasm with which he conducted those classes and the enormous amount of repertoire we heard, often for the first time in our lives.

Professionally, Julie and I went on somewhat different paths. I remained a concert pianist and teacher, while she became a psychologist and psychoanalyst who writes and lectures on music and the mind—but both of our fields depend strongly upon analytic and listening skills. We have often reflected upon Mr. Bloch’s lasting influence on us, remembering the brilliance of his analyses and his creativity in considering a work from different aspects. We remember his emphasis on the historical context of music; it always related to the life and times of the composer. How profoundly important those attitudes have been in our approaches to our careers!

If anyone from our years at Juilliard was legendary, it was Joseph Bloch. It was a privilege to study with him and a joy to know him. He will be deeply missed.

Louis Nagel (B.S. ’64, M.S. ’66, D.M.A. ’73, piano)

 

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