Sir Arthur Bliss – A Short
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
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
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
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.’
Return to Sir Arthur Bliss Homepage