Arthur Bliss's Edinburgh: Overture for orchestra (1956)
by John France
The Edinburgh: Overture for orchestra was first performed in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 20 August 1956 with the composer conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It has remained one of Sir Arthur Bliss’s least-known and performed orchestral works. At present, there is only one recording in the CD catalogues.
In November of the previous year the Glasgow Herald (24 November 1955) had announced that ‘the Master of the Queen’s Musick … is writing a new overture to be entitled “Edinburgh.”’ It was to mark the 10th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival. A letter from Bliss to the Festival’s artistic director Robert Ponsonby was quoted: ‘Because of the occasion, I am calling my new overture ‘Edinburgh’ but – being born south of the Border – I am not presuming to make the music in any way characteristically Scottish.’
Stewart Craggs (Craggs, 1996) cites a letter (16 March 1956) from the Lord Provost of the City of Edinburgh, Sir John Garnett Banks to the composer in which he states that ‘We have already learned with pride that you have been generous enough to compose and present to us a new Overture, to be entitled “Edinburgh…”
Arthur Bliss (BBC radio broadcast 27 July 1956, reproduced Roscow, 1991, p.237) declared that he ‘could at last say a musical 'thank you' to Scotland for the two honours I have received from Scottish universities. I greatly prize being a Doctor of Music at Edinburgh, and a Doctor of Law at Glasgow, and though this work of mine is a short and modest one, it allows me at any rate to do something in return.’
The work was completed whilst the composer was living in London (probably) and the manuscript is dated ‘July 1956’. The miniature score was duly published by Novello and Company Limited in 1962.
The year 1956 was relatively unproductive for Bliss; the few works he did compose were largely in his capacity as Master of the Queen’s Musick. These included The First Guards for military band celebrating the Tercentenary of the Grenadier Guards, the short anthem Seek the Lord for the Centenary Service of the Mission to Seamen and ‘Music for a Service of the Order of the Bath’ which was performed by trumpeters in Westminster Abbey. Bliss also produced a two minute ‘Signature and Interlude Tune’ for the new ABC Television channel. At the end of the year he signed a contract to compose the score for the drama film Seven Waves Away starring Tyrone Power and Mai Zetterling.
On 31 March Arthur Bliss’s daughter Karen had married Christopher Sellick. Bliss travelled to Russia on 14 April where he conducted a concert in Moscow before returning to the United Kingdom in May.
Sir Thomas Beecham was in residence at the Edinburgh International Festival from 19 to 24 August 1956. He presented five concerts at the Usher Hall with his Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The opening event was devoted to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union. The second concert, on 20 August, was in two discrete sections. The first half consisted of Bliss’s new overture followed by his masterly Violin Concerto with Alfredo Campoli as soloist. The composer conducted both pieces. After the interval there was only one work: Brahms’ Second Symphony conducted by Beecham.
On the morning following the concert, Arthur Bliss’s Clarinet Quintet was performed at The Freemasons’ Hall by the Melos Ensemble with the soloist Gervase de Peyer.
The next concert comprised Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote and Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy featuring the cellist John Kennedy and the violist Frederick Riddle. The fourth included Boccherini’s Overture in D, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with Robert Casadesus as soloist and Balakirev’s Symphony No.1. The final concert featured the première of Richard Arnell’s Landscapes and Figures as well as Delius’s In a Summer Garden and the attractive ‘Scottish’ overture Waverley by Berlioz. This performance also included the Sixth Symphonies of both Schubert and Sibelius.
Lyndon Jenkins (Craggs, 2002, p.267) presents an interesting anecdote about the Bliss concert which was quoted in the 25thEdinburgh International Festival Programme Book, 1971. Robert Ponsonby, the Festival Director was given the ‘delicate’ task of negotiating Sir Thomas’s consent for Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Musick to share the rostrum with him. Ponsonby must have been relieved when the maestro’s only comment made with ‘wicked innocence’ was ‘Will he appear in uniform?’ Jenkins states that ‘as far as is known, Sir Thomas Beecham never played a note of Bliss’s music ...’
The composer provided a detailed, but not technical, programme note for the Overture which has been reprinted (Roscow, 1991, p.237). He notes that the word-rhythm of ‘Edinburgh’ occurs frequently throughout the piece and is presented in a variety of tempi. Bliss writes that with its ‘massive scoring, and the rhythm pounded out by side drums, it may perhaps suggest a vision of the castle itself on the heights.’
After the opening section, a tune from the Scottish Psalter is heard. Psalm 124 is paraphrased 'Now Israel may say, and that truly, if that the Lord had not our cause maintained … then certainly they had devoured us all.' The well-known tune, Old 124th, to which it is often sung is from the metrical version of the psalms still popular in Scotland. It was derived from Trente quatre Pseaumes de David, Geneva, published in 1551. Bliss muses on the fact that this very tune may have been heard in the Church of St. Giles during the middle part of the sixteenth century. This links into the middle section of the work which is a ‘Pavane in memory of Mary Queen of Scots’. Finally, Bliss writes, ‘No music for Edinburgh can leave out a reference to dancing, so the final section of my overture is characterised by reel and strathspey rhythms. I cannot possibly compete with Scotland's magnificent pipers in this, nor do I pretend that anyone not born in Scotland can give you the authentic spirit, but I feel this dance section is needed to bring the overture to a gay end.’ Reception
The Daily Mail (21 August 1956) considered that Bliss had given a ‘graceful compliment to the capital city and to Scotland’ with his overture. The fact that the composer conducted the work ‘ensured that the presentation was, so to speak, in his own phrasing.’ The critic (P.J.T.C.) felt that 10 minutes may be overlong for a ‘greeting’ to the Festival, but considered that it was ‘attractive, strong and compact’ and ‘proved of just the right extent for a musical courtesy.’
Two comprehensive reviews of the concert were printed in the Manchester Guardian and The Times. The Guardian’s (22 August 1956) Colin Mason suggests that the Edinburgh: Overture ‘is an unmistakable occasional piece of much the same style and musical calibre as the recent ‘Meditations on a Theme by Blow’…’ He felt that ‘… like that [work], it is marred especially in the introductory and closing bars, by various sharp discords that are musically quite irrelevant …’ and serve ‘no purpose except to introduce an entirely bogus harmonic excitement and to pad out the work for a few extra seconds by keeping us waiting for their easily foreseen and banal resolution.’ The opening of the overture had a ‘rather manufactured-seeming exposition based mainly on the rhythm of the name Edinburgh (pronounced E-din-borough) over which a psalm tune is played.’ Mason considered that the ‘most genuine’ element of the piece was the ‘quietly elegiac’ pavane. The final section which combined the ‘Edinburgh’ motto with Scottish dance rhythms was ‘moderately convincing in its animation, but not without some effect of strain.’ He concludes by insisting that ‘although the work served its purpose decently, it has not the vitality or inspiration likely to make it a repertory concert overture.’ This last prediction has become all too true. The Times (22 August 1956) remarked that the overture was a ‘pièce d’occasion constructed of various musical emblems of Scotland.’ Three elements, the rhythm of the word Edinburgh, the psalm tune and a strathspey were ‘strung together as a pot-pourri’. Interestingly, the critic compared the slow middle section designed to commemorate Mary Queen of Scots as being akin to Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte. He thinks that Bliss could have been more sentimental in this section, but the ‘general intention was, of course, to be exuberant …’ rather than elegiac. In conclusion, the reviewer noted that Scots were asking themselves if ‘the Englishman had really got the rhythm of the word ‘Edinburgh’ right’.
A less positive view of the Bliss overture (and concerto) is given by Conrad Wilson (Wilson, 2005). He also relates a little bit of unattributed anecdote. Sir Thomas had apparently arrived during ‘the dreary first half of the concert’ too early for his part of the proceedings. Seemingly, he ‘amused himself backstage by tossing the clothes of the Master of the Queen’s Music [sic] out of the green room and into
the corridor of the Usher Hall.’ If this was not enough, ‘he mounted to platform level while Bliss was conducting and distracted the players by gesticulating at them through the glass door leading to the stage.’ Wilson’s musical predilections become clear when he concludes by noting that the ‘Brahms which followed after the interval was naturally electrifying … [and] prompted the audience to burst wildly into applause before the last chord had stopped sounding.’ The Times (22 August 1956) was more prosaic and insisted it had something to do with ‘doubling the wind and picking up the speed.’
Ian Hutton gave a wide-ranging assessment of the 1956 Edinburgh International Festival in the October edition of Music and Musicians. After wittily suggesting that Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire ought to be allowed to ‘decompose in peace’ and noting that Walton’sFaçade had ‘triumphantly survived its initial ferocious opposition’ he turned to the Beecham RPO concerts and the two ‘novelties’. Alas, he finds nothing to say about the Edinburgh: Overture but writes that Arnell’s Landscapes and Figures made a favourable impression. Presumably he considered that Bliss did not.
Robert Meikle has given the most detailed study of the Overture to date in the chapter on ‘Metamorphic Variation: The Orchestral Music’ (Craggs, 2002, p.21). He notes that the work was a ‘thank you’ from the composer for the honorary degrees he had recently received from Glasgow and Edinburgh universities. He considers that it is ‘for the most part a bright, celebratory piece, divided by the more reflective Psalm-tune and pavane, pervaded by the so called ‘Edinburgh’ rhythm, both in its original note values (2/4 ♩♩♪♩.)and a diminished version.’ The Edinburgh Overture on Record and CD
In 1980 HMV released the Edinburgh: Overture on LP. It was coupled with the Meditations on a Theme by John Blow and Discourse for orchestra. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Vernon Handley. The Gramophone (August 1980) submitted that the Edinburgh: Overture was Bliss’s equivalent to William Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture. The critic Edward Greenfield (E.G.) took to Handley’s performance which ‘swaggers impressively in the breezy outer sections.’ His observation about the central ‘Pavane for Mary Queen of Scots’ was that it was ‘a little too much like film music.’
Ten years later, in a review of the cassette tape release of the same recording of the overture (coupled with different works - see discography below) The Gramophone (August 1990) notes that the work has ‘plenty of bustle, [but] also shows the [composer’s] most attractive lyrical vein.’
Diana McVeagh in Records and Recording (August 1980, Volume 23, 11) regards the Edinburgh: Overture as ‘a lively agreeable piece, nicely allusive …’ She added that it was time somebody ‘gave us a Cornish Overture to join this and Cockaigne …’
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography (Westport Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996)
Craggs, Stewart R., ed., Arthur Bliss: Music and Literature (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: Catalogue of the Complete Works (London: Novello, 1980; suppl. 1982)
Roscow, Gregory, ed., Bliss on Music: Selected Writings of Arthur Bliss 1920-1975 (Oxford, OUP, 1991)
Wilson, Conrad, Notes on Brahms: 20 Crucial Works (Edinburgh, St. Andrew Press, 2005)
Files of the Daily Mail, Glasgow Herald, The Gramophone, Manchester Guardian, Music and Musicians, The Times, Records and Recording.
Bliss, Arthur: Meditations on a Theme by John Blow, Edinburgh: Overture, Discourse for Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley HMV ASD 3878 (1980) (vinyl). The Overture was also reissued in 1990 on an all-Bliss CD on EMI Classics CDM7 69388 2.
Bliss, Arthur: A Colour Symphony, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Groves; Miracle in the Gorbals, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Berglund; Edinburgh: Overture, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley EMI EG 7 69388 4 (1988) (Cassette)
The Edinburgh: Overture was also included as part of the retrospective Vernon Handley ‘Icon’ boxed set/download, EMI Classics 098 2022 (2011) (5 CDs)
John France 2016
With thanks and acknowledgement to the Bliss Society and the British Music Society