Agate Beach: Helen Johnston

The Ernest Bloch I Knew: The Agate Beach Years

HELEN JOHNSTON KINTNER

Helen Johnston Kintner, Ernest Bloch’s secretary for the last 13 years of his life, completed The Ernest Bloch I Knew: The Agate Beach Years in 2009. She passed on in 2018. Upon her passing additional copies of her book have been located and are now available for purchase.  You can order a copy through the “Contact Us” tab in the left navigational bar.

As noted on the Home page, a copy of  The Man in the Long Woolen Cape was found among her possessions upon her passing.  Emily DeHuff joined Frank Geltner in editing this manuscript for our readers here.

IN MEMORIAM

Helen Johnston was the author of “The Ernest Bloch I Knew: The Agate Beach Years”

Anyone interested in securing a copy of her book should “Contact Us” by link to the left.

Selfless, sweet, and tenderhearted to the end, Helen Johnston Kintner of North Bend, Oregon, passed away peacefully at home with family at her side on January 23, 2018, at the age of 90. She was born Helen Elaine McFetridge on July 28, 1927, in Dallas, Oregon, to Archibald and Eliza (Bessie) McFetridge. She married Richard Johnston on June 20, 1953. They had five daughters, whom they raised in Newport, Oregon, in a home filled with music, laughter, warmth, and the smell of homemade bread. After Dick’s death in 1999, Helen married Dr. Marion Kintner, who passed in December of 2016.

Helen was a brilliant pianist, musician, director, and teacher whose compositions and arrangements touched and inspired those who heard her music. She was fiercely devoted to her family and her faith in Christ, becoming a counselor, mentor, and mom to the myriad of young people she fed, loved, and welcomed into her home and heart. Her generosity of time, energy, and talents enriched hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. She was treasured, admired, and adored by those who knew her, and especially by her five girls and their families, who feel so honored to have been hers: Cammy Nye of North Bend; Julie Vogel (Barry) of Sacramento, CA; Cindy Favreau (Tony) of Eugene; Nanette Stevens (Rick) of North Bend; Suzanne Mulkey (Greg) of Coos Bay; nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.  Surely Helen is directing choirs of angels at this very moment, and she has undoubtedly given Dick a solo.

“THE MAN IN THE LONG WOOLEN CAPE”

By Helen Johnston Kintner, author of The Ernest Bloch I Knew: The Agate Beach Years

Edited by Frank Geltner and Emily DeHuff

He was a wanderer by nature, this man, who first showed up on the Oregon coast in the early summer of 1941. Having just given a series of lectures on aesthetics, theory, and composition at the University of California, Berkeley—something he would do every summer until 1952—he was driving up Route 101, headed for his son’s house near Portland, when a highway closure caused by a mudslide just north of Newport forced him to retire to a nearby motel for the night. When he inquired of the proprietor, “Where am I?” the respectful reply was, “You are in Agate Beach, sir.”

The man registered and paid in advance for his accommodations, then retired at an early hour, brooding over the fact that his misfortune was but one more example of the bitter cup that life had handed him.

Before he drifted off to sleep, an unfamiliar sound entered his world: something like the wind, just outside his room. His delicately tuned senses responded to its pulsations throughout the night, and he arose at daybreak determined to locate its source.

Following the sound toward an opening in the forest, he stopped abruptly. So! It had been the ocean that had plagued him with its relentless surging, and it was the crashing of the breakers on the shore that gave him pause to reflect, to listen.

The rugged beauty of his surroundings startled him: the massive evergreen trees stretching their arms upward into the soft morning mist; the gentle slope of the land toward the sea, then its precipitous plunge to the shore below; a distant foghorn calling out a warning. The man’s mind returned to his native Switzerland: to the peasants and to the childhood friends he had known. To his privileged youth. To the mountains.

Might he find rest from his weary pilgrimage in a peaceful place such as this? Might this be his long-sought Nirvana? The question was all too familiar, for he had posed it repeatedly in the past. Better to let it go, he decided as he turned back.

It was then that he noticed the large beach house partially obscured by shrubbery and obviously uninhabited. He found himself drawn toward the weathered turnstile in the fence. Cautiously examining the perimeter of the building, he made note of the telephone number posted in a rear window and made arrangements for an inspection of the interior with the owner—Asahel Bush, the newspaper magnate from Salem, Oregon. Though not prone to making hasty decisions, within days the man and his wife had bought the property and taken possession of the only home they would ever own.

With a distinct foreign accent and little eye contact with others in this small coastal community, the man was perceived by certain of his neighbors as “suspicious.” Why else would a man wear a cape, they reasoned—especially a long, heavy one like that? Very odd!

He wore it on his frequent mushroom hunts, and as the sightings increased, so grew the legends. The man himself, however, having suffered many rejections, had never felt that he truly belonged anywhere, or put down “roots.” There seemed to be no escape from the endless yearning that plagued him. Because he had never conformed to any man-made rules or regulations, he shunned the fads, styles, and mannerisms of the day. Neckties? They were tantamount to nooses! And conductors’ “ties and tails” were even more repugnant to him.

The man’s name was Ernest Bloch—a seasoned musician whose fame as a composer, conductor, lecturer, and educator was already well established in Europe before he sailed to the U.S. for the last time in 1939. For many musicians over the last century, that name might recall memories of a child prodigy on the violin; a young student in music composition who pursued and mastered his craft in Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich, and Paris just after the turn of the century; or the winner of numerous awards and medals for musical excellence on several continents.

Ernest Bloch was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1880 to Jewish parents. The boy’s father and mother had specific plans for their son’s future, but these did not mesh with young Ernest’s. His first act of self-determination took place between the ages of nine and ten when he wrote on a scrap of paper his intent to become a composer of music. Taking the paper into a remote setting outside Geneva, he built a little pyre of stones and twigs, placed his pledge on top, set it afire, and watched until the flames had consumed it. “To have ever violated that pledge would have been a sacrilege,” he would later state in one of his many writings.

This early event provides us with a preview of Bloch’s future as a man and as a musician. His powerful, innate sense of destiny did in fact eventually propel him and his works onto the stages of some small concert halls at an early age. By his twenty-third year he had completed his first symphony, and six years later, his one opera—Macbeth.

I might never have come to know Ernest Bloch had it not been for my chance encounter with his music as an eighteen-year-old composition major in the School of Music at the University of Oregon in 1946. The name was new to me, yet that single exposure to his work, followed by a brief correspondence between us, led to a meeting with Bloch in his Agate Beach home later that same month.

He was wearing the cape that day when he stepped in out of the wind, and it was a cold hand—but a warm heart—that he extended to me. As he shed the cape, I watched as he carefully folded the broad lower edges inward, made a second fold from the shoulders to the hem, laid the two halves together, then formed a horizontal crease as he placed it over a wicker chair next to the Steinway grand piano.

Bloch, then in his sixty-sixth year, was small in stature but mighty in other respects. His dark eyes were fiery and intense, his hands those of an artist, with unusual fingers that curved upward at the tips. His voice, with its finely clipped French accent, was rather high and raspy, escalating in pitch to gain emphasis. His wealth of knowledge spilled like a waterfall over the rim of his mind: science, entomology, physics, astronomy, ontology, medicine, genetics. All this information was dispensed spontaneously, articulately, and as authoritatively as if he had just finished preparing a lecture on the subject.

Before taking up residence in Agate Beach, Bloch had witnessed history in the making: the first World War and the gathering storms of the second; the sinking of the Titanic; political upheaval everywhere; and the evolution of a culture that he viewed as cruel, depraved, mindless, and heartless. Anti-Semitism was rampant in Europe during his years there, but it was World War II that plunged him into a slough of despond, all but silencing his creative forces until the war’s end. His loss of several family members in the Nazi death camps carved deep emotional wounds that never healed. Perhaps the worst, his lifelong dream—that his music might bring peace and hope to mankind—never reached fruition, and his pessimistic outlook was further reinforced when one of his Agate Beach neighbors sawed down a tall fir tree on Bloch’s property to improve his own view, while another applied herbicides to his vegetable garden.

Very often his darker moods prevailed, and they are reflected in many of his Hebrew works—Schelomo, the crowning work of his “Jewish Cycle,” or the savage, tormented passages in his Israel Symphony—scores reminiscent of passages from the Old Testament, echoing the cry of the human soul for deliverance, the despair of the patriarchs, the pleas of the prophets, the struggles of men like Job with the judgments of God. It is through such works that we can still open a window today and stare directly into the deep inner conflicts of this very complex man whose only havens of rest were nature and music.

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Ernest and Marguerite Bloch were in urgent need of privacy and rest after their years of constant travel and the noisy crowds related to Ernest’s musical career. Dealing with a fawning public, designing women, and deceitful men had drained their emotional and physical resources, but little by little, they found rest in their peaceful surroundings at Agate Beach, where their rare houseguests included Yehudi Menuhin, Igor Stravinsky, Josef Szigeti, and of course their three children.

Their first—a son, Ivan—was an industrial consultant; the second, Suzanne, lectured at Juilliard and concertized on early Renaissance instruments. Lucienne became a muralist and painter and studied with Diego Rivera. While all three spoke philosophically of their parents and the family’s often tumultuous early home life, they also treasured fond memories of those years: “the delicious crunching of the pebbles” as they walked the gravel pathway from their home in Switzerland up into the mountains; the time “Papa” approached a little clairière—a glade or clearing—and lowered his voice to a whisper as he led them to a group of tiny alpine blossoms nestled in the soft green grass. All three recalled the reverence their father displayed for the innocence and beauty of these little flowers.

And then there was Papa’s cape! How often it had sheltered them during times of illness or episodes of fear when he read stories to them on cold winter evenings. Papa had a special way of sweeping it around the three of them, drawing them close and enfolding them in his strong arms as his way of expressing his deep parental love.

In Agate Beach, Bloch searched for agates or the elusive glass fishing floats deposited on the sands by ocean currents from Japan. In the quiet of the early morning hours he could meditate on his long life while selecting the proper key and laying out in his mind the form and scope of the music that was slowly evolving from deep within. Just as the endless rhythms of the ocean tides uncovered the agate beds, so did the germination and growth of each Bloch work depend on the ebb and flow of his inner life, and on insights from his dreams that often sent him to his studio in the middle of the night to make improvements to a score.

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Bloch’s death on July 15, 1959, went largely unnoticed by the local community. His ashes were scattered privately by his family over the Pacific Ocean just below the big house that still sits on the cliff at Agate Beach. Thus the man—along with his many accomplishments, his tragedies and triumphs, his ambitions and vision—passed on with the ages into eternity. But Ernest Bloch—the little boy who made the pledge, the young composer who studied music in the prestigious learning centers of Europe, the mysterious stranger and seeker whose travels took him across the globe to conduct his works while wearing the hated “tie and tails”—this remarkable man will forever belong to the Pacific Northwest, where one third of his life’s works were composed in a place he could call home.