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Arthur Bliss's Hymn to Apollo
Some Background Information

Compiled by John Dressler

1. From programme note by Andrew Burn in Chandos recording:
The Hymn to Apollo is one of a group of single-movement orchestral works that date from early in Bliss's career. It was written in 1926, the year after Bliss returned from a two-year sojourn in the United States. In America, Bliss had been thrilled with a performance of his A Colour Symphony given by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux. Monteux then continued his advocacy of Bliss by giving the first performance of Hymn to Apollo with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in November 1926. In 1964, Bliss revised it and reduced the scoring; the premiere of this version (which is recorded here) was given at the Cheltenham Festival the following year, conducted by the composer.

It was described by Bliss as 'an invocation addressed to Apollo as the God of the healing art, Apollo latromantis, physician and seer'. By a process of self-generation which was to become typical of Bliss, the music growsorganically from the woodwind phrases at the opening, and the broad violin melody which follows. Other characteristic fingerprints of the composer present are the frequent angular intervals, and the use of triplet rhythms within melodies. The invocation culminates in a triumphant ringing climax shining with light - a reminder that Apollo was also God of the Sun.


2. From the book ‘Bliss on Music’: 
A talk broadcast on BBC Radio on 30 June 1965. The revised version of the Hymn was first performed at the Cheltenham Festival on 5 July by the BBC Northern Orchestra conducted by Bliss. BBC Sound Archives.

I wrote this short orchestral piece, the Hymn to Apollo, in 1926 as a 'thank you' to Pierre Monteux, who had introduced my Colour Symphony to audiences in Boston and New York. With Monteux I travelled to Amsterdam to hear him give the first performance.

And it was after a second hearing at a Royal Philharmonic concert in London that I began to have some doubts, both about the proportions of the work and the actual sound of my orchestration. It didn't really fulfil what I had in mind. It was hopeless to tinker with it so soon after completing it, so I just put it by.

But recently, after nearly forty years, I took it up again, and while using the same musical material throughout, I have rescored it for a smaller orchestra and modified its form. I am sure that this is a case where second thoughts are best.

The Hymn is an invocation to Apollo as the god of healing, and the music moves like a procession of suppliants.

3. From the autobiography of Bliss: ‘As I Remember’ 
I had been working hard through these months of 1926. With the sound of the Philadelphia and Boston Symphony orchestras in my ears, I felt eager to write works for each of their conductors. I dedicated my Introduction and Allegro to Stokowski, who played it in Philadelphia the following year, but I actually gave the first London performance myself at a Queen's Hall Promenade Concert in September 1926. I followed it with my Hymn to Apollo, which Monteux introduced in Amsterdam two months later. Trudy and I went for this to Amsterdam; then on to The Hague by train with Madame Monteux and Pierre to hear his second concert there. Monteux had warned me that the conservative audience in the Concertgebouw did not respond quickly to new music, and that he had come to rate silence as tolerance and a sprinkling of applause as real appreciation. He certainly was most warmly welcomed, and on his suggestion I took the scattered claps that greeted my Hymn to Apollo as definitely reassuring.

Many years later I made revisions of both these works. During my career I have continually found that my second thoughts are usually better than my first, and the third sometimes better still. I am not one of those who can carve the final form out of the material at the first attempt. If I were a painter, for example, I could not be happy with Corot's creed: `Soumettons nous ~ 1'impression premiere'. I have to let my works be buried for a time, then exhume them for re-examination. I can then see how a tightening here, a loosening there, a thinning of the score at a third place will contribute to the perfection of form or sound. Through my life I have suffered the disadvantage that conductors have only known the original score, and, perhaps through criticism of the flaws, failed to renew their interest with my final and revised editions.
Rewriting an earlier work may bring the danger of spoiling what bloom it may have had, but in my case facility, quickness, and the urge to move on (ingredients in my character I have had cause to mistrust before) must be countered by the arduous task of revision.

4. From Richard Andrewes, music librarian at Cambridge University Library, and member of The Bliss Trust .

Your enquiry about the first American performance of Bliss' Hymn to Apollo has been forwarded to me at the Bliss Archive in the Cambrdige University Library.

Though the music manuscripts and letters have been here for sometime, many of the personal papers, programmes and photographs have arrived here only recently. Fortunately Lady Bliss had a very well organised system of documentation and cross referencing, so I have been able to track down the information you want quite quickly.

There are two documents relating to the American premiere of Hymn to Apollo. First are two amateur photographs (possibly taken by Lady Bliss herself), one of the auditorium and background hillside of the Hollybood Bowl, and the other of the stage on which one can just about see the front line players of the orchestra and the conductor, with about four people in
the audience seats. There is a note on the envelope in Lady Bliss's writing "Hollywood Bowl 1927. Rehearsal of Hymn to Apollo. Eugene Goossens conducting. Arthur Bliss listening".

The second document is an article by Malcolm Thurburn on "Arthur Bliss speaks on music to School of Arts audience" in the Santa Barbara Morning Post for August 9, 1927, in which it says "his Hymn to Apollo will be played this evening under Eugene Goossen's [sic.] direction at the Hollywood Bowl".

Later in the article Thurburn writes:
"... Following the discourse Mr. Bliss played a piano abridgement of his Hymn to Apollo. It is in the form of a ritualistic processional. It approaches from a great distance, gathering in volume and intensity, and decreases in similar manner. It is the gentle aspect of Apollo, not the Dionisiac, that is celebrated in a grandeur that sweeps along in a four square measure, relieved at intervals by triplets set against the metre of 4. Harmonically it is diatonic with altered notes, the harmonic strangeness being caused by the honest allowing of a melody to come to its logical end instead of twisting it unnaturally to fit into an unflinching harmonic scheme.

The melodies for the most part are angular and proud. Mr. Bliss is not going to win you into submission by melting melodies set in honey-colored chords. The beautiful antique cadences of one's youth, deserted and passionately lamented "an tombeau de Couperin" are becoming sour and vindictive. All that belongs to yesterday and does not serve us today. But Mr. Bliss is of today, and so he gives that whcih is fresh and free, untouched by sentimentality, unhampered by tradition and formality. A little cold perhaps, lacking that ardour of attendrissement which is none the less wonderful because it is a human experience, but at any rate his music is honest and severe and beautiful in proportion, in outline and detail."

And yet more news. In the programme for the first performance in England on January 27th 1927 the programme note gives information on other performances:

"The Hymn to Apollo is dedicated to Mr Reiner, who will conduct its first performance in America in Cincinnati. It was performed for the first time in Europe at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, in 1926, under M. Monteux."


Compiled by John Dressler
Professor, Horn and Musicology
Department of Music
Murray State University, Kentucky

 


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