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Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
The Beatitudes in Coventry Cathedral – at last!
 
The consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, to replace the medieval cathedral destroyed in the Second World War, was celebrated with an arts festival in the city. Three substantial musical works were commissioned for this festival: Britten’s War Requiem, Tippett’s opera, King Priam and Bliss’s cantata The Beatitudes. Of these it is the Bliss piece which has fared least well down the years. For instance, unlike the other two works it has yet to be recorded commercially. Not only that but performances of it have been few and far between. Does it deserve this neglect?
 
The work got off to the worst possible start. It was completed, to commission, in 1961 and it was intended that it would receive its première in Coventry Cathedral on 25 May 1962. That was the day of the consecration ceremony and Bliss’s work was to be the centrepiece of an evening concert that same day. As Michael Foster says in his excellent recent book, The Idea Was Good – the Story of Britten’s War Requiem (review), “The work had been carefully designed with the vast spaces of the new Coventry Cathedral in mind and containing a substantial part for the magnificent Harrison organ”. War Requiem was scheduled for its first performance – also in the cathedral - on 30 May but when the final rehearsals of Britten’s work began in the cathedral shortly before the consecration day it was soon clear that its ambitious design and the complexity of the music were posing huge problems for the choir and orchestra even at this late stage. More rehearsals in the cathedral were declared essential and poor Bliss found that the première of The Beatitudes was hastily moved to the now-demolished Coventry Theatre. By all accounts the venue was completely unsuitable – was there an organ? – and though the performance went ahead it is hard to think that any kind of justice was done to Bliss’s score. One also wonders how good the performance was. The composer conducted and he had the benefit of a pair of top-rank soloists, Jennifer Vyvyan and Richard Lewis – Lewis was also due to create the role of Achilles in King Priam four nights later - as well as the BBC Symphony Orchestra but how well did the Coventry Festival Chorus acquit themselves. This choir, formed from members of local choirs, had been struggling mightily with learning War Requiem as well as The Beatitudes – Britten was very concerned about their state of readiness with only a few days to go before his première – and given all those pressures on them and the fact that the choral writing in The Beatitudes is not straightforward surely the festival organisers had been over-ambitious in assigning two important and demanding first performances in the space of a few days to this specially-formed amateur chorus. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that The Beatitudes was sacrificed on the altar of War Requiem.
 
One suspects that Bliss, though bitterly disappointed, was just too co-operative and self-effacing in consenting to the reorganisation of his première. Subsequent to the first performance – and especially after his death – The Beatitudes, along with much of his output, fell into neglect whereas Britten and Tippett were much more fashionable and their music was more vigorously promoted while the conservative Bliss was shunned by most movers and shakers in the musical establishment. Incidentally, I think it’s unproductive and pointless to debate whether War Requiem, which has gone on to achieve world renown, is a “better” work – whatever that may mean - than The Beatitudes. War Requiem is a fine and eloquent work which I admire greatly, though even some Britten enthusiasts have come to feel that it has its weak points – as do many fine works of art. However, we can’t really make comparisons between the merits of the two pieces, nor should we, simply because judgement is distorted by virtue of the fact that War Requiem is so well known whereas few can claim to know The Beatitudes well.
 
The music of Bliss has made some welcome headway through recordings in recent years but live performances remain too rare to allow present day music-lovers to judge much of his music properly. Indeed, though I have collected most of the CDs of Bliss’s music that have been issued I’ve only attended a handful of performances of music by him in over forty years of concert-going.
 
However, I’ll be able to make a significant addition to my live experience of Bliss on 22 September this year when The Beatitudes is performed in Coventry Cathedral – at last! Incredibly, though the work was commissioned for that building it has never been performed there but, very fittingly, it will be heard in the cathedral as part of the splendid golden jubilee festivities that are going on there throughout 2012. Paul Daniels, a fine advocate for English music, will conduct the BBC Philharmonic, the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus and two excellent soloists, soprano Elizabeth Watts and tenor Andrew Kennedy. What can the Coventry audience expect?
 
In designing the scheme for The Beatitudes Bliss was assisted by the poet Christopher Hassall. The eight Beatitudes are included in the account of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel. These are followed by a statement by Christ “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you….” Since this is addressed to the Disciples it’s arguably not a Beatitude per se but, very understandably, Bliss treats it as if it were. To illustrate and provide reflections on the Beatitudes Bliss and Hassall compiled a collection of texts including a poem by Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), three poems by George Herbert (1593-1633), some lines by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), and a prayer by the poet and Church of England cleric, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1677). There’s also a passage from the prophecy of Isaiah. In addition score incorporates some orchestral interludes; these Bliss described as “force opposing the beatific vision” and in these sections the writing is invariably particularly vivid and powerful.
 
The Beatitudes plays for about 50 minutes. Bliss scored the cantata for soprano and tenor soloists – these are substantial roles – SATB chorus, organ and a large orchestra. The orchestral writing is colourful, resourceful and inventive throughout. This is apparent from the outset for the work opens with an orchestral prelude entitled ‘A Troubled World’. This is prefaced in the score by some words from the poem, ‘The Storm’ by John Donne (1572-1631):
 
‘………………...we, except God say
Another Fiat, shall have no more day’
 
The music in this prelude is violent and disturbing. Listeners may be put in mind of passages from Bliss’s splendid orchestral work Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955), especially the seventh section, Molto agitato, and, to a lesser extent, the third section, Allegro deciso. The writing is jagged and forceful with a particular emphasis on brass and percussion. The prelude unwinds via some plaintive woodwind phrases into an impassioned setting for the chorus of two stanzas – the first and third – from Vaughan’s poem, ‘The Mount of Olives’.
 
The first two Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ and ‘Blessed are they that mourn’ are sung respectively by the soloists and the chorus. The first two Herbert poems, ‘Easter’ and ‘I got me flowers’, follow. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that all three Herbert poems set by Bliss were also used by Vaughan Williams in his Five Mystical Songs. The music to which ‘Easter’ is set is ecstatic and, for the most part, energetic but the quiet ending paves the way for a more relaxed, innocent yet joyful setting of the second poem. Here Bliss weaves in a Latin antiphon, ‘Haec dies’, which is almost exclusively the preserve of the soloists who, in particular, weave ardent melismatic Alleluias around the choir’s singing of the poem. Both of these contrasting Herbert settings are very fine indeed.
 
The third Beatitude, ‘Blessed are the meek’, set to appropriately lyrical and consoling music, is sung by the soprano. In stark contrast is the biting music that follows in which the choir sings words from Isaiah. This is violent stuff and the orchestral scoring lays heavy emphasis on percussion and on dissonant woodwind and brass. Bliss takes the temperature down – necessarily so – with the fourth Beatitude, ‘Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness’, which is propounded by the soloists with assistance from the choir. The choir have the setting of Herbert’s ‘The Call’. This is an eloquent piece of homophonic choral writing; the third stanza is particularly stirring and the section achieves a quiet ending.
 
The calm is rudely shattered by another anguished but short orchestral interlude in which there are once again some echoes of the Blow Meditations. Bliss groups the remaining four Beatitudes together: ‘Blessed are the merciful’; ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’; ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’; and ‘Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’. Immediately thereafter an orchestral eruption introduces a vivid, terse and powerful choral setting of two stanzas from Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ - Bliss omits the first stanza. The soloists are then given some dramatic writing as they sing Christ’s words to the Disciples, ‘Blessed are ye when men shall revile you’ after which there’s one last brief but violent outburst as the choir assumes the identity of The Mob and hurl out words of virulent hatred against a fearsome orchestral background, dominated by brass and percussion.
 
Happily, the work ends on a positive note. Introduced by soft, high violins and then woodwind, the tenor, followed by the soprano, starts the radiant setting of Jeremy Taylor’s prayer, which begins ‘O blessed Jesu, who art become to us the fountain of peace and sanctity’. They are soon joined by the choir and as the piece draws to a close the writing for the soloists in particular becomes ever more ecstatic. The work ends with a big, majestic ‘Amen’.
 
I’m impatient to hear The Beatitudes in a live performance. In one way its neglect over the last fifty years is all too understandable for Bliss’s music fell right out of fashion after his death – arguably, before his death. However, while his output remains sadly neglected in our concert halls some fine recordings, especially of his orchestral and chamber music, have brought him to the attention of a wider and new public. In another way, however, the neglect of The Beatitudes is, if not incomprehensible, certainly disappointing. Though there’s no commercial recording I’ve had the good fortune to hear an off-air recording of a fine 1991 Bach Choir performance conducted by Sir David Willcocks and in his expert hands it comes across as a powerful, deeply felt work. The conflict between peace and violence, with the former triumphant in the end, was a key element in Bliss’s scheme for the cantata and surely symbolised the rebirth of Coventry Cathedral after its wartime destruction. The choral writing is assured and effective – I imagine it’s demanding but rewarding to sing – the two solo parts are challenging but very dramatic and eloquent and the orchestration is vivid, colourful and expertly illustrates the text – Bliss was a superb, resourceful orchestrator. I hope that the fact that a BBC orchestra is involved in the Coventry performance means that it will be broadcast so that as many people as possible can hear it. Even better, would be a recording linked to the concert now that the performers have taken the trouble to learn the music. Only by having the ability to hear and study the work will we be able to form a judgement as to whether or not the neglect of The Beatitudes has been justified. I know what I think!
 
There’s much more information about The Beatitudes here. The performance is on Saturday 22 September 2012 in Coventry Cathedral, starting at 19.30. Also on the programme will be Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Booking information can be found here.
 
© John Quinn, July 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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