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Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) - A Colour Symphony

Studies under Stanford gave Bliss a solid grounding in the English tradition, setting him fair to follow in Elgar’s footsteps. However, the Great War changed the things to come: home he came from France brandishing a bright trophy - a consuming passion for the brittle rhythms and iridescent textures of the likes of Stravinsky, Poulenc and Auric. This garnish of “French mustard” would spice up Bliss’s “roast beef” to a degree that would be unchallenged, even by the emergent enfant terrible, William Walton. 

The first real fruit of this union, which paved the way for the brilliant film and ballet scores that were to follow, was A Colour Symphony. Our immediate reaction to the movement titles - Purple, Red, Blue, and Green - is to suppose that Bliss was trying to actually portray these colours in sound. Is such a thing even possible? That argument rages on. We can all distinguish music that is “colourful” from, well, music that isn’t! However, that’s not the same as telling what actual “colours” the sounds make. Some people claim they can - Messiaen was pretty hot on this - and there’s even a drug, peyotl, the effect of which is to bend your brain into translating sounds heard into apparent colours. 

However, before I start getting myself “high” on this, I should say that Bliss was moved not by “colours” as in “of the rainbow”, but by “Colour” as in “Trooping the”! He had been invited by Elgar to write a new work for the 1922 Gloucester Festival. Completely stuck for an opener, one day in a friend’s library he stumbled across a book about heraldry. The heraldic connotations of colours, and especially the emotionally-loaded symbolism that makes much the easiest meat for music’s mincing-machine, instantly uncorked his creative juices. In next to no time, he’d served up four juicy courses of “spicy beef”. Sadly, at the première most of the audience - including Elgar - found the dish too hard to swallow. Happily, tastes have changed since then! 

Bliss turned a very neat trick, because composers usually express their own emotions. However,in selecting these heraldic colours, he effectively pulled clusters of predetermined “emotions” out of a hat, setting himself the challenge not only of expressing things that are at best only loosely related, but also of combining them into coherent musical statements. When you think about it, that’s a pretty tough test - and moreover one he passes with (dare I say?) flying colours

1. Purple (andante maestoso) = Amethysts, representing Royalty, Pageantry and Death. It’s hard to imagine Elgar gagging on this! Taking two coiling melodies - a funereal processional and an ornate lament - Bliss forges a union of those three aspects. Over a consistent thread of nobility, Pageantry surges briefly in fanfares and Death surfaces in dark spasms. 

2. Red (allegro vivace) = Rubies, representing Wine, Revelry, Courage, Furnaces and Magic. Can you see Wine and Revelry in the electrifying, spiky “scherzo” subject, and Courage in the emergent flowing “trio”? If so, you’ll appreciate the use of the jagged, vaulting music, that intrudes half-way through and then more pungently at the end, for the signature tune of the televised “Royal Institution Christmas Lectures”! 

3. Blue (gently flowing) = Sapphires, representing Deep Water, Skies, Loyalty and Melancholy. I’d associate Skies and Loyalty with “light”, and Deep Water and Melancholy with “dark”. Bliss’s burbling arabesques of liquid flute (Skies) are spliced to long-breathed descending phrases on oboe then horn (Loyalty, which later borders on exultant). A third theme on cor anglais twists and turns on itself (what else for Melancholy?!). The recurrent jagged, rhythmic string accompaniment Bliss felt to be “like water lapping”. Near the movement’s end, this acquires a “big band” inflection - deep brass for Deep Water

4. Green (moderato) = Emeralds, representing Hope, Youth, Spring, Joy and Victory. The two pairs of related elements - Hope and Youth, and Joy and Victory - are linked by Spring with its implications of both rebirth and optimism. Curiously these, the brightest, simplest sentiments of all, emerge through the most complex musical mechanism: double fugue. Then again, maybe it’s not so curious: didn’t Mozart do something similar to end his Jupiter Symphony? Hope springs eternal on strings, initially subdued but steadily blossoming. Midway, woodwind double the tempo of the materials, and the buttons of stiff collars are joyously loosened. Victory? Well, that’s assured! 

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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