If you have ever crossed over and walked on the other side having seen the
music of Sir Arthur Bliss lying in the CD racks then this is just the CD
set to stop you in your tracks. These recordings, conducted by Vernon Handley
and Richard Hickox are well established and highly regarded and bear the
hallmark of sumptuous Chandos sound.
On the whole, the music of Sir Arthur Bliss now sounds rather formal (I imagine
Bliss and Sir Adrian Boult to have had a lot in common - both being English
Gentlemen) but it was often considered very modern in its time. It is
tuneful, often forceful and frequently exciting. Bliss had always been fascinated
by heraldry and had written his Colour symphony for the 1922 Three
Choirs Festival. In 1937 he had the opportunity to revisit the heraldic tincture
with his first ballet written for Sadlers Wells first visit to Paris where
his great friend Constant Lambert was to conduct. The choreographer was Ninette
de Valois (later Dame, who was 100 last year) and the set designer was the
graphic artist McKnight Kauffer. Surprisingly neither of them knew anything
about chess, the idea for the ballet having come from Bliss himself, so he
had to invite them to his home where he had a large chess board on which
he could explain the nature of the game and the particular moves of the pieces
which he would wish to have interpreted on the stage. What we have here is
the 25 minute Suite although the ballet itself is rather short at around
There are good notes by Andrew Burn but I shall take advantage of the available
space of a web site to flesh out the ballet in a little more detail. The
dancers take the part of the chess pieces but the game of chess also requires
two players. These are masked and open the ballet being seated either side
of a chessboard. The stage itself is also marked out in chess squares. The
two players had to be opposites so Bliss had toyed with the idea of presenting
them as Night and Day, Alpha and Omega or just Black and White but his eventual
choice, revealed as they remove their masks, are Love, in golden array, and
Death - a skeleton on black. The ballet is a game of love and death acted
out according to the rules of chess.
The suite closely follows the order of the ballet. In the prologue the curtain
rises to reveal the two players who set up the pieces on the board. Pawns
disport themselves playfully followed by the four knights who come hoofing
in to music of splendour and valour. The Red Knights dominate but in the
next scene we meet the Black Queen (to music that is positively slinky) and
she beguiles the Red Knight who accepts from her a black rose; but sharp
interjections in the score tell us, if not him, that he should beware. In
return for the rose, the Red Knight dances a memorable prancing Mazurka.
To soft strings and a tolling bell the Red Bishops enter and bless the Red
Knights. In preparation for the battle the Red Knights prance and stamp onto
the board and the pawns dance round them in adulation. In a touching scene
the beautiful young Red Queen slowly introduces the doddery and agèd
king and leads him to his throne. The Black Queen and pawns enter and the
Black Queen menaces the King, with the Red Queen dancing pleadingly for his
safety. She is captured and the Red King summons the Red Knight to do battle
to win back his Queen. The Black Queen toys with him and allows herself to
be captured but, just as he is about to plunge his sword in her breast, he
finds her too alluring, is himself overcome and killed.
As the Red King and supporters bid farewell to the brave Red Knight, Love
leaves the stage in distress, Death stalks around the board, and the Black
Queen dances in triumph. The Red King is now all alone, wandering lost and
bewildered, constantly threatened by the Black Knights. Dancing to a quick
march, the Black forces assemble, threatening all the while, and cage the
Red King, tormenting him with their spears - there are no Red pieces left
to save him. The Black Queen is carried shoulder high in triumph and she
dispatches the Red King from behind - CURTAIN.
All this to music that is always sympathetic to the action, exciting, descriptive
and barbaric when needed - not to be missed.
It was during the time of the rehearsals of Morning Heroes for the
1930 Norwich festival that Bliss got to know the composer Bernard van Dieren.
In his autobiography, As I Remember, Bliss writes
......the most enigmatic personality I have ever met. In a paying tribute
to his memory after his death I wrote that he partook of the nature of a
Leonardo da Vinci, so multifarious were his inventive interests. He not only
played a musical instrument, but he could make one, he not only wrote books
such as his monograph on Epstein, but he was a beautiful binder of books;
he was a linguist, a chemist, and a composer of many songs and much chamber
music. Continuous illness, borne with much courage, kept him mostly confined
to his house, but friends went regularly to see him in St John's Wood as
to some rare Delphic oracle. When I came to write my clarinet quintet in
1931 I dedicated it to Bernard van Dieren in gratitude for the many stimulating
hours I had spent with him and his wife, Frida, content (and I know this
is a rare thing with me) simply to listen.
Van Dieren was too ill to attend the first performance of the Quintet given
by Frederic Thurston in 1932.
Some regards the Quintet as the composer's masterpiece. The work is in four
movements played here by Janet Hilton recorded in perfect balance with the
Lindsay String Quartet (and, thank goodness, no obtrusive sniffing or intakes
of breath). Solo clarinet opens the moderato in pensive, rather sad
vein underlined by the viola. Cello and violins join and become more animatedly
expressive with a walking theme on the cello and strong statement for the
violin as the music moves from the shadows into the sun-light, becoming more
affirmative. The allegro is positively skittish with strong, pizzicato
violin that continues to have a slightly more dominant role with the clarinet
often just ornamentation. There is much to delight the ear in this movement.
The adagietto is the longest movement tinged with sadness and regret.
Bliss was never able to fully expunge his memories of the Great War and the
loss of his brother, Kennard, and so many friends. I rather disagree with
Andrew Burn who maintains this to be a tranquil work marking the exorcism
of the ghost of war - that is just not how I hear it; the anguish may have
disssipated but the sadness and regret is here most eloquently expressed.
The work ends brilliantly in a zig-zagging sunburst - the movement is entitled
There is another sunburst at the end of Hymn to Apollo - the Greek
god of the sun (well actually more the god of light, Helios being the god
of the sun although this may well not be how Bliss was perceiving him, Apollo
having so many different attributes [see below]). This is not a vocal
piece as the title might lead one to expect. It was written in 1926 for Pierre
Monteux to perform following the great success with the Colour symphony.
The first performance was with the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam
"Monteux had warned me that the conservative audiences 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" op.
Bliss described this work as an invocation addressed to Apollo in his role
as the god of the healing art, Apollo latromantis, physician and seer. After
a quiet opening on woodwind and harp the strings stride out confidently over
a plucked bass reminiscent of Holst "culminating in a triumphant ringing
climax - shining with light" to quote the booklet note by Andrew Burn. This
may be a piece about a Greek god - sun god or healer - but the music is
quintessentially English and brings to an end the first superb disc.
Music for Strings in three movements is probably the best known piece
by Bliss. The opening allegro charges away with chopping basses
reminiscent of some of the rhythms to be heard in Checkmate. There is nothing
effete about this work which stands comparison with the Elgar Introduction
and Allegro and Vaughan-Williams' Tallis variations, and it must
surely have been an inspiration to the young Britten whose Frank Bridge
variations arrived a couple of years later. Bliss wrote:
I have often been told that I am a 'romantic' composer as though that carried
in these days some deprecatory significance. I have not the remotest idea
of what is implied by that definition, since the very wish to create is a
romantic urge, and music the romantic art par excellence. So Music
for Strings, in spite of its neutral title, is a romantic work, and it
received its first performance in a romantic setting, the Summer Salzburg
Festival of 1935, when Adrian Boult conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
in a concert of British music.
Lie strewn the white Flocks (1928) was dedicated to Elgar and the
vocal writing is very Elgarian. It is based on an anthology of poems Bliss
collected, inspired by a visit to the fountain of Arethusa at Syracuse in
Sicily. No texts are supplied although the diction of all singers is very
clear. There are nine short movements - all of a bucolic nature - nymphs
and shepherds tending the flocks whilst celebrating the nameday of Pan,
represented by the flute played by David Haslam. There are moments of Ravel
(Daphnis and Chloe, as noted by other commentators), but in the main the
choral writing is reminiscent of Elgar or of the Vaughan-William's Sea
Symphony. From the Introduction we learn that it is the Shepherd's
Holyday and there follow four sections celebrating Pan: A Hymn to Pan,
Pan's Saraband, Pan and Echo and the Naïad's music.
The music can be affectionate (Introduction, Pan and Echo) or
invigorating ( Hymn to Pan, Song of the reapers) although in
the last section of Song of the reapers we hear Pan's flute over orchestra
which is the only part really reminiscent of Daphnis and Chloe. The
Naïad's music reminded me of Holst's Rig Veda choral
hymns. Della Jones is, perhaps, a little too weighty in the Pigeon
song - it is not meant to be this profound. The instrumental
Finale is followed by a choral postlude - The shepherd's night
song. Altogether this is a delightful piece of nearly 34 minutes and
it is by no means a lightweight fill-up to complete the disc.
There are not many companies promoting the music of Bliss and we should be
profoundly grateful to Chandos for providing this excellent anthology at
such a reasonable price.