(Recording sponsored by The Bliss Trust)
Although he became converted to the Catholic faith during World War I, Bliss
was essentially agnostic and he was not nurtured in the English church-music
tradition. Despite an enthusiasm for the human voice - employed extensively
in many pieces, orthodox and experimental, solo and in ensembles from 1914
to 1974 - choral music simply did not feature in his projects until 1928
when he wrote the delightful Lie Strewn the White Flocks. Yet
the interesting thing about Bliss, vividly demonstrated on this recording,
is that, like Vaughan Williams, he continued developing his artistry in old
age, striking out in promising new directions. The Shield of Faith and The
World is charged with the Grandeur of God are such works and they bookend
the shorter pieces on this generously-filled album.
The Shield of Faith was completed only a few weeks before Bliss died.
I will quote from Giles Easterbrook's excellent lucid notes - "
so utterly a synthesis of Bliss's hopes, doubts and conflicts, that it is
hard to see it other than a deliberate summation of his life: except that
anyone who talked to him after he had completed it, knows that he had hopes,
plans and ideas for future works, and anyone who opens the score or hears
it decently performed is struck by its fresh vigour, stylistic innovation
and the realisation that it is certainly a transitional score. This is not
the work of a man 'preparing for bed': it is a work of some turmoil."
Shield of Faith was commissioned for the quincentenary of the 'Royal'
chapel of St. George, Windsor and its texts are dawn sequentially, one from
each of the centuries of the chapel's history. It explores beyond the confines
of a simple devotional piece to allow Bliss to expound on his feelings about
belief - his own and others'. Here we have a faith that is not unquestioning,
and we are reminded of the complexities and ambiguities of Morning Heroes.
The opening movement, 'The Lord is risen', is a setting of a verse of
William Dunbar (1470-1520). Beginning with an impressive organ fanfare, the
choir enter in heroic, almost martial mode, 'Done is a battell on the dragon
blak, Our campioun Chryst confountest hes force'. Commencing in unison, the
movement spreads the choir out into multi-part writing towards the end with
the glorious 'Surrexit dominus' threatening to lift the roof of the Cathedral.
An interlude takes the form of the Gloria in excelsis Deo sung by soprano,
Juliet Telford and baritone, Andrew Angus. Bliss entwines the two vocal lines
to rapturous effect. The second movement 'Love', is from George Herbert
(1593-1633) and takes the form of a dialogue between solists and choir. Love
carries a message of pardon and redemption for the individual, believing
but questioning. Note how Bliss sets and colours the word Love right at the
beginning. The choir holds it in a rocking motion cherishing it tenderly
imbuing it with infinite compassion and warm understanding. The third movement,
An Essay on Man is from Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and is in complete contrast.
The savage entry of the organ and the satccato opening chords from the choir
set the tone. '
Created half to rise, half to fall
yet GOD IS
WISE.' Bliss's music scornfully, ironically follows Pope's indictment of
the ultimate folly of scepticism in the age of reason and ends the movement
with an affirmation of God's omnipotence. 'O yet we trust' comes from Tennyson's
'In Memorium/' It is more personal and expresses an anguish and the fear
that hope, if any, is at best remote and at worst illusory. The movement
alternates between choir and soloists who agonise - 'Behold, we know not
what am I? An infant crying in the night...' The multi-part
choral writing in this movement is sublime. So it is too in 'Little Gidding',
the final movement setting of extracts from the envoi of T.S. Eliot's (1888-1965)
'Four Quartets'. Bliss imbues the often arcane but intensely poetic verses
with a sense of great exultance and potency. There is so much of note here
the evocative darting rhythms underscoring 'Quick now, here, now always'
and Bliss's treatment of the word time. In the context of 'Of timeless
' Bliss creates an echoing effect with the choir creating a
feeling the infinite and yet the still. At the word 'time' in the context
of - "
to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first
time...', Bliss repeats and embroiders the setting of time so that it is
imbued with a sense of insight and wonder. 'A glorious work that deserves
wider recognition and more frequent performances.
The visionary quality, and the colourful and dramatic imagery
stirred Bliss in his setting of the verses of Gerald Manley Hopkins.
The World is charged With the Grandeur of God, the other
major work on the album, was commissioned for the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival.
[The Maltings fire of that year dictated that the premiere was held in a
local church instead.] Bliss was now 78 but anybody expecting something autumnal
would have been disappointed for this is a work of virility and wonder. It
is in the form of a triptych - its outer movements for SATB and brass (three
trumpets with two tenor and two bass trombones) and the central panel for
two flutes and upper voices. It presents three aspects of man's ideal of
God - reverentially awe-struck, caringly reflective and mystically exultant.
The first movement presents the Bliss of ceremonial, brass fanfares open
it and the choir proclaims exultantly. The sonorities "flame out" and the
music is bright and rugged suggestive, as Giles aptly says, "of Charles Ives
recapturing the faith of his puritan settler forbears." The central movement
is poised purity, the voices supported by a beautiful interplay of the flutes'
lines. The final movement is once more on a heroic scale, bold and challenging.
Easterbrook rates The World is charged with the Grandeur of God as
"one of Bliss's very great works."
'O Give thanks unto the Lord' was written for the 400th anniversary
of the Granting of the Royal Charter to the island of Sark. It begins on
a delightful and breezy note with a gentle middle section. 'Stand up and
bless the Lord your God' (1960) is almost a small cantata with solo passages
(especially for the treble). It shows the influence of Gibbons and Purcell
but employs greater chromaticism and abrupt shifts into unrelated keys, and
its expressive range suggests the Bliss of the concert hall. Like most of
his church music it remains stubbornly un-polyphonic. 'Seek the Lord' was
written for the Centenary Service of the Mission to Seamen at Westminster
Abbey on 20th February 1956. It has briefly appropriate watery
references and it is interesting that Bliss includes one that Elgar used
in his Lux Christie, at 'Seek him that maketh the seven stars and
Finally, 'Lord, who shall abide in Thy Tabernacle' sees Bliss in full throttle
for this work which was performed at the dedication of the shrine of the
Knights Bachelor in July 1968.
Under Millinger's strong and sympathetic direction, the Collegiate Singers
do Bliss proud and Richard Moorhouse provides a splendid organ accompaniment.
The recorded sound is clear and spacious. The only jarring element for me
was the rather insipid booklet front cover; perhaps Priory might look at
their design policy?