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Sir Arthur Bliss – A Short Biography

Arthur Bliss was born in London on 2nd August 1891. He is of American descent, his father having left New England to come and settle in London. Bliss’s mother, Agnes Kennard, was an accomplished pianist and his brothers all had musical abilities. Chamber concerts were a feature of the Bliss drawing room. Some of Arthur’s earliest attempts at composition were written for family members to play. His very first composition is reputed to be a piece for clarinet, cello, piano and drum!

He was educated at Rugby School and there he continued his interest in music and composition. He gained a considerable reputation at the school as a pianist.

He received his degrees in music and his BA from Pembroke College, Cambridge. He played a full life in the musical activities of the campus. Bliss entered the Royal College of Music in 1913. Here he had the benefit of lessons in composition from Charles Villiers Stanford. He got to know Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst who gave the young composer a great deal of encouragement and good advice. The war interrupted his studies and he immediately enlisted as a private soldier. However after a short while he received a commission. He served on the Western Front with the Thirteenth Battalion, Royal Fusiliers and the First Battalion, Grenadier Guards. In 1916 he was wounded at the Somme and two years later was gassed at Cambrai. He was hospitalised when the war ended.

However the war years were not unproductive. Two of his early works were given their first performances – the String Quartet in A major and the Piano Quartet in A minor. The latter work was awarded a prize at one of the War Emergency Concerts. Eugene Goossens wrote about these early chamber works that they ‘…were necessarily experimental and rather immature, but evidences were not wanting…of a certain fantasy of treatment and freshness of harmonic speech which so strongly characterise his later productions.’ This is perhaps one of the best precis of a composer's style ever written.

Both of these works were published, however Bliss later had the plates destroyed. Fortunately these works are available on CD and are well worth listening to.

Bliss never resumed formal musical study. He was to apply himself to his own style and soon began to develop a unique voice in post-war British music.

One of the first works to reveal the composer's new direction was the song Madame Noy. This was a setting for soprano and ensemble.

In 1919 Bliss wrote the incidental music for As You Like It that was being performed at Stratford upon Avon. It was a considerable success. In 1920 he presented his fine Rhapsody (for soprano, tenor and ensemble) to concertgoers. This work has no words but uses the voices as extra instruments in the ensemble. The International Society chose it for a performance at the Contemporary Music Festival at Salzburg. Rout, for soprano and chamber orchestra was first performed in 1921 and, although somewhat experimental was a success. Norman Demuth writes, ‘the success of Rout will long be remembered, and the reasons are both hard to find. It was like nothing else. Its novel conception and design, its amazing vitality, placed it and its composer immediately in the forefront and stamped him as a highly original mind.’

In 1921 Bliss accepted a professorship of composition at the Royal College of Music. However, he was not disposed to teaching students full time and, due to his financial independence was able to resign the following year.

However, his masterpiece of the nineteen twenties is almost certainly ‘A Colour Symphony.’ This was composed for the Three Choirs Festival and was an immediate success. This one work that serves as a fine introduction to Bliss's style.

In 1923 Bliss left the United Kingdom for a lengthy stay in the United States. He settled down in Santa Barbara in California. He was able to combine composing with lecturing and conducting. He composed a number of songs and piano pieces during these years. He was married in 1925 to Gertrude (Trudy) Hoffman, who was the daughter of the Curator of the Natural history Museum in Santa Barbara. There were to be two daughters from this marriage – Barbara and Karen.

The years between the two world wars were a prolific time for Arthur Bliss. He produced the orchestral work Hymn to Apollo at Amsterdam and had a great success with his Introduction and Allegro which was first performed in Philadelphia under no less a person than Leopold Stokowski, the recipient of the work’s dedication. The great patroness of the arts, Elizabeth Coolidge was to commission the fine Oboe Quartet. This was first performed in Venice in 1927.

Perhaps one of Bliss’s most important and personal works is his ‘symphonic’ Morning Heroes. This was written in memory of his brother Francis Kennard Bliss who had died at the Western Front. It is a powerful piece of music that was inspired by a deep personal emotion. Quoting Alec Robertson it 'shows no trace of either sentimentality or jingoism.’

The first performance of the impressive Music for Strings was given at the Salzburg Festival in 1935 and was conducted there by Sir Adrian Boult. It was in the same year that Bliss provided the music for Francis Korda’s frightening film Things to Come. It was based on the famous book by H.G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come. This is music that is ideally suited to the film medium. It showed what was possible and acted as an inspiration to a number of other British composers including Walton and Rawsthorne. Bliss concocted a suite from the film score and this became a popular concert item for a number of years. The last item, a march, is probably Bliss’s most ‘popular’ popular piece. In 1937 the composer achieved a similar success with his score to The Conquest of the Air.

The years before the start of the Second World War saw the ballet Checkmate being performed at the 1937 Paris Exhibition. It was a considerable triumph and was given at Sadler’s Wells the following year. The scenario is based on the chessboard and contains some of the composer’s finest music. It can be listened today as a struggle of good over evil or perhaps the battle against fascism. It was televised in 1938 and broadcast from Alexandra Palace – a rare honour indeed.

Bliss once again left England for the United States. He was in California when the war broke out. In 1940 he was offered the professorship at the State University. However in 1941 he was appointed Assistant Director of Music at the BBC. He held this position until March 1944. His tenure of this post appears to have been successful and encouraging for contemporary music. The Radio Times said of him, ‘during these years a clear-cut policy has always been recognisable in Home and Overseas broadcasting of music. Marked attention has been given to British music and music of the United Nations; and striking contemporary works have been accorded their place by the side of classics familiar and unfamiliar.’ During this time Bliss’s wife and daughter had remained in the United States and contact was all but lost between them. However, they arrived in England in November 1943. Bliss resigned his post at the BBC in 1944 and was succeeded by Victor Hely-Hutchinson.

The immediate post-war years saw a great burst of activity. There was the new ballet ‘Miracle in the Gorbals’ and the opera The Olympians which was first given at Covent Garden in 1949. There was music for the films Antony and Cleopatra, Christopher Columbus and Men of Two Worlds. This was a time of awards and appointments. In 1950 he received a knighthood from King George VI and in 1953 was appointed Master of the Queens Musick. He took this post seriously and has contributed some fine pieces both large and small.

The nineteen-fifties were to see another contribution to the ballet stage, The Lady of Shallot. But perhaps his two greatest achievements of these years was his piece written for Kathleen Ferrier - The Enchantress, the fine orchestral work, Meditations on a Theme of John Blow. There was an excellent Violin Concerto written for the great contemporary violinist Alfredo Campoli in 1955.

The nineteen-sixties saw Bliss enter his eighth decade. There was no lessening of activity in either composing or carrying out of official functions. The BBC televised his second opera, Tobias and the Angel in 1960. During the first few years of the decade there were a number of 'state pieces' and occasional fanfares. Yet he was not just absorbed in carrying out the functions of a Master of the Queens Musick. These years saw the composition of some of Bliss's most important choral and vocal works - The Beatitudes, Mary of Magdala and the Knot of Riddles. There was the Belmont Variations for brass band and a reworking of the Discourse for Orchestra (1965) There were to be visits to Australia, Japan, Ceylon and of course the United States. It was in the middle of the decade he began to write his autobiography, 'As I Remember'. He was involved in protest against the cuts in orchestras that were proposed by the BBC in 1969.

The nineteen-seventies brought a number of interesting developments. Bliss’s autobiography, 'As I Remember' was published in 1970. The same year saw the first performance at Snape Maltings of what was probably the last of the composer’s masterpieces – the Cello Concerto. Much of the music at this time was of a smaller scale – for example the Ode for Sir William Walton written for speaker and chorus and the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi. However there were to be two more major works: the Metamorphic Variations and the cantata Shield of Faith. The last piece of music from the composer’s pen was the prelude and postlude to the BBC series on British Architecture – The Spirit of the Age.

Sir Arthur Bliss CH, KCVO KT Master of the Queen’s Music died on 27th March 1975 aged 83.

There was a festival of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey.

 

Estimation

 

H.E Wortham wrote, ‘Bliss is an indefatigable experimentalist – and every experiment he has made, whether successful or not, has added to his craftsmanship.’

Patrick Hughes wrote, ‘His music now shows an experience and maturity that are born of a well-balanced, cultivated and original musical mind. He has little of the scholar, but much of the connoisseur about him, so that he does not indulge in deliberate archaisms however archaic the subject may be with which he is concerned.’

 

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