As a young man Ernest Bloch had made a commitment to himself to write "Jewish rhapsodies for orchestra, Jewish poems, dances mostly, poems for voice." He fulfilled that plan with a number of religious and ethnically oriented works, the best known of which include Schelomo (1915 - 16), the Three Jewish Poems (1913), and the Israel Symphony (1912 - 16).
During his tenure as Director of the San Francisco Conservatory (1925 - 30), Bloch struck up a friendship with Cantor Reuben Rinder of the Temple Emanuel congregation. It was this association that brought about the commission for Bloch's Avodath Hakodesh--Sacred Service (1930 - 35). As part of his preparations for composing the work, Bloch spent a year studying the synagogue music and Hebrew texts used for Saturday morning worship. Much of the work was written during the composer's return to his native Switzerland in the early 1930s.
The Sacred Service comprises five main sections--"Meditation," "Kedushah" (Sanctification), "Silent Devotion and Response," "Returning the Scroll to the Ark," and "Adoration"--further divided into a total of twenty-six distinct parts. The work also incorporates a recitation of the Kaddish (Prayer for the Dead); in synagogue performances, it is often the rabbi who does this reading. As in the case of any great religious work, the Sacred Service transports the attentive listener beyond the specificity of one set of beliefs into a greater universality; in this regard it ranks as one of Bloch's supreme legacies.