Arthur Bliss

`           ARTHUR BLISS (1891-1975)  

A few years back I was at the Blackheath Luncheon Club where I found myself sitting next to one of its founding fathers, a well known historian to whom I happened to mention the name of Arthur Bliss. My comments were greeted with scornful derision “Oh Bax and Bliss”. This is a coupling which is frequently made and like many others has no significant justification. Mozart and Haydn; Mahler and Bruckner; Debussy and Ravel are yoked together like Marks and Spencer or Bax and Bliss. There is a psychological test, where the questioner mentions one name to provoke what the automatic response might be. I have omitted Brahms and Liszt where the pairing depends upon one being pickled rather than musical. However these two B’s do possess one particular thing in common which seems to tie them together like Siamese twins. In 1942 Bax was appointed Master of the Kings Music. He died in 1953 and was succeeded by Bliss as the first appointed New Elizabethan Master of the Queen’s Music. Both were acknowledged in British musical circles but neither was particularly known by the general public. Hence their relative anonymity and seamless royal connections would help to confuse the one with the other.

Sir Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss (we’ll just call him Arthur) was without any doubt Britain’s greatest sartorial composer, as erect as a guardsman, and with his dapper moustache and brilliantined hair he would stand equally elegant as the likes of Anthony Eden or Clark Gable. He was born in Barnes, his father an American business man. His mother died when he was four and he and his two brothers were brought up by their father. Arthur was educated at Rugby and then to Cambridge where he studied classics and also took lessons in music. On graduating in 1913 he entered the Royal College of Music where he studied under Stanford but preferred his tuition from Vaughan Williams and Holst. He showed an early interest in the second Viennese School and the trends from Paris. In particular he developed an especial interest in ballet after seeing the Ballet Russes which visited London in 1913. After a year and with the outbreak of the Great War he joined up, was commissioned and posted to the Western Front. He was wounded twice and later gassed but he continued by joining the Grenadiers in 1917. Like so many others the war left a disturbing impact upon him. In particular his younger brother, Kennard was killed on the Somme and it took Arthur years to come to terms with his death.

With the end of the war Arthur resume his musical career. But times had changed although in England many of the musical establishment wanted to carry on from where it had come to a halt in 1914. Elgar, Parry and Stanford were still about. Arthur went off to Paris and was one of the first to realize that the scenery had changed even if the lead actors remained the same. The glitter of pre-war Stravinsky had been whittled down to a sparer new form of expression. The surrealism of Les Six, especially Darius Milhaud, was the new order of the day and this was to influence Arthur. He had written music from when he had been at school but he now jettisoned his juvenilia and he became to be seen as an enfant terrible and his works regarded as avant garde. He felt he had to make up for lost time. He started with music he wrote for the theatre, “As You Like It” for Stratford, The Tempest at The Aldwych. With these and conducting Sunday afternoon concerts his name was becoming known.

His early titles were Madam Noy, his opus 1, a song with a gruesome theme; Rout, a work with five prosaic subjects entitled “Committee Meeting,” “In the Wood,” “In the Ball-room,” “Soliloquy,” and “In the Tube at Oxford Circus” which Arthur himself conducted at a Henry Wood Prom. Mêlée Fantasque and a rhapsody and a double piano concerto would follow. He was leading the way for the emergent composers who were to follow his lead such as Lambert and Walton. Listening to it today we are no longer shaken by what the likes of Elgar and Stanford regarded as modern. Saccharine, acerbic and jagged are adjectives associated with later Walton but it was with Bliss these characteristics were introduced and remained his trademark.

In 1921 Elgar had invited three composer/conductors, to lunch, Eugene Goosens, Anthony Bernard and Arthur Bliss, and sought them all to write a new composition for the Three Choirs Festival for the following year. Arthur received the commission but had difficulty in deciding what to write. He later realised that he needed a plastic stimulus to write rather than to dream up pure musical composition in the abstract – hence his later success with the stage or a particular soloist to have in mind. On this occasion no inspirational ideas would sprout until one day he chanced upon a book about heraldry and the significance of various primary colours. This led him to the idea that four colours, purple, red, blue and green could each represent a movement of a symphony. For many composers a particular sound or a particular key might suggest a colour and conversely Bliss saw colour as invoking sound. He conveyed his ideas to Sir Edward who gave every encouragement. Much of their exchanges are set out in the Bliss Memoirs, “As I Remember”. Their correspondence can only be described as out of the Forsythe Saga or the Savile Club where Sir Edward was a member. “Dear Bliss”, always Dear Bliss; “Dear Sir Edward, I am deeply obliged to you” and so on. I had particular difficulty in finding “As I Remember” as it was no longer in print and Amazon could not locate a second hand copy. Still one day, having arrived early at the Alberry Theatre in St Martins Lane (now called the Noel Coward), I chanced upon a second hand bookshop in Cecil Court and lo(w) and behold the proprietor put his hand on a copy in the basement. It was worth every bit of its £25. What became The Colour Symphony, as it was entitled, was great success with the critics if not its first audience which included Elgar who found it rather too modern. It is exciting with six kettle drums at the end which might well have influenced Walton’s First. It is odd that Elgar was disappointed and I suspect that he imagined that the prospect of a symphony inspired by heraldry might have misled him to believe that it would have been more pomp and circumstantial.

In 1923 Arthur’s father, now remarried, decided to return to America and settle in California. Arthur went too. There he worked as a conductor, lecturer and pianist, obtaining commissions and performances. Whilst there he met Trudy Hoffman and they married in 1925. Soon after, Arthur returned to England with his new wife. They were a good couple. She outlived him by 33 years and died in 2008 aged 104.

By the mid 1920’s there were signs of a slightly less avant garde approach to composition by Arthur which may well be a reflection of his settling down and becoming a family man. Soon there would be two daughters to whom he was devoted, like Matthew Taylor now. Yes there were romantic touches but his general style remained acerbically modern throughout the twenties and continued through the thirties. In 1928 he wrote his Pastoral ‘Lie strewn the white flocks’, a much calmer Arthur Bliss than the man who wrote Rout and Mêlée Fantasque. However, there was something bugging Arthur. The Great War was now more than ten years behind and still he felt the death of Kennard and suffered nightmares. It was something he needed desperately to get out of his system and this he achieved with his “symphony” Morning Heroes first performed at the Norwich Triennial Festival in 1930. It contains various poems set in five movements and written for narrator, chorus and orchestra. It includes extracts from Homer’s Iliad, poems by Li Po and Walt Whitman. The last movement, “Now Trumpeter For Thy Close” is a setting of “Spring Offensive” by Wilfred Owen and “Dawn on the Somme” by Robert Nichols. One can feel sure that the 16 year old Benjamin Britten would have picked up on this. Did it sow a seed for his War Requiem with its Owen poems thirty years later? I cannot say I enjoy a narrator declaiming in Victorian melodramatic tones and for me it is the orchestral background which is more moving. The work as a whole served as cathartic relief for Arthur Bliss.

The 1930’s saw a more serious Bliss but recognizably the same with the same sharp clashes and dissonances as one also would find in William Walton. One must not forget his chamber music. Shortly after Morning Heroes came his clarinet quintet written for Frederick Thurston where there are sounds reminiscent even of Brahms. Internationally Bliss was active and for the Salzburg Festival of 1935 he composed his Music For Strings which was conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.

Bliss was not a household name with the English public but his music came before them en masse in a novel way in 1936. The talkies had been well established since the beginning of the decade and now came the release of the Alexander Korda film, “Things To Come” based on the 1933 book of H G Wells who sketched a screenplay. This was a frightening film – I detest and simply refuse to use the word “scary” and so do please allow for my age and fuddy duddyish vocabulary. Wells described it as “a new story” meant to “display” the “social and political forces and possibilities”. It projected the outbreak of a second world war in December 1940, becoming interplanetary and lasting through to 2036. You people do not know just how lucky you are! Arthur Bliss was the man chosen to do the film score and to hear the three minute march still excites me now as it did when I first heard it. Music often adopts the same labels as other art forms, classical, romantic, impressionist, modernist etc but I have never heard music described as art deco. Well let me tell you something, you do now. You only have to hear the march from Things To Come by Arthur Bliss to recognize art deco when it is at home. The crowds, including my young parents, queued around the monolithic gleaming Gaumonts and Odeons newly built in art deco style to see Korda’s Film spiced up by the music of Bliss sounding reminiscent of “This is the Gaumont British News”. Without having seen and heard Things To Come, Dr Who aficionados don’t know what they have missed out on.

The visual was clearly more inspirational to Arthur than the abstract. Arthur had developed a passion for chess. This gave him an idea for a ballet for the Vic Wells Company in which the chess pieces become animated and act out human emotions. The main conflict of the story concerns the Red Knight’s love for the Black Queen and where the chess players do battle and the players are in gold and black. It was choreographed by Ninette de Valois and first presented at the Théatre de Champs Elysées in May 1937 with Constant Lambert conducting. The idea of a game as a theme for a ballet was co-incidentally being played out in New York in April 1937 with Balanchine’s Jeu de Cartes written by Stravinsky. Checkmate has remained a favourite and is still in the repertoire. Arthur wrote four ballets in all. Adam Zero and Miracle in the Gorbals were choreographed by Robert Helpmann. The fourth is hardly known. It is The Lady of Shalott and, as Arthur stated, is founded on Tennyson’s poem “in which I have taken some, I think, permissible liberties”. Arthur had met David Boyden in Chicago in 1940. In 1957 he commissioned a ballet from Arthur for the rebuilding of the classrooms at the University of California at Berkeley. I am rather lucky to have a disc of this work. There was no commercial recording but happily the BBC decided to issue from their Sound Archive discs their large collection of live recordings including in this instance also the violin concerto.

The four ballets tell you as much about Bliss’s orchestration as any other medium. Apart from his recognizable rhythmic impulses what I find particularly masterful is the skilled use of percussion instruments. For most composers, percussion is to underline the rhythm. Arthur uses it sonorously and for added colour particularly with the use of bells and the other percussion with piquant tonal qualities. You are left with the feeling that he has created a particular sound he has conceived rather than just an added a bang, thump or clash.

In 1938 Arthur had been an adjudicator at the Ysaye International Competition for Pianists. Although impressed with some of the performances he wrote to Trudy that he had heard twenty-two pianists play the same piece by Bach and the same piece by Scarlatti. “Never Again”. Still it left him with wanting to write an extended work of his own for the instrument. In the early 1920’s he had written a double piano concerto and would later in the 1950’s adapt it for three hands for Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick after Cyril had suffered a stroke in the Soviet Union and lost the use of one arm. An opportunity now arose with a commission from the British Council for a piano concerto to be performed during British Week at the 1939 New York World Fair. The first performance took place in June 1939 with Solomon as soloist and Sir Adrian Boult conducting. In the programme notes Bliss wrote “It is dedicated to the people of the U.S. So obviously it has to be a concerto in the grand manner and what is loosely called ‘romantic’. Surely the Americans are at heart the most romantic in the world”. That indicates how far Arthur had moved in his outlook. The work is “romantic” but it is muscular and rhythmic owing more to Brahms than Liszt.

With their various American connections the family stayed on and soon found with the outbreak of war they were stuck. Arthur felt his family would be safer remaining in America and he took up lecturing at Berkeley. Still he felt the need to get back and to be helping in the war effort. As we have seen previously with Benjamin Britten this would not be easy but eventually Arthur secured a crossing in 1941.

Arthur was given a position in the BBC’s overseas music service in May 1941, but felt himself under-employed. At the time the BBC Symphony Orchestra had been evacuated to Bedford. Sir Adrian Boult was both chief conductor and the BBC’s director of music which put him under strain. Arthur suggested that Boult should step down as director and Arthur take over. Boult agreed to the proposal, which freed him up to concentrate on conducting. Arthur served as director of music at the BBC from 1942 to 1944, laying the foundations for the launch of the Third Programme. He was also on the music committee of the British Council alongside Vaughan Williams and Walton. He found separation from Trudy excruciating as recorded in the very tender letters they exchanged. She and the two girls were eventually able to return in 1944 and Arthur resigned his position with the BBC. He had written nothing since his string quartet of 1941 but now he was able to start again with more film music and the ballets, Miracle in the Gorbals in 1944 and Adam Zero in 1946.

In 1948, Arthur and J B Priesley who had been friends for many years embarked on a collaboration for an opera called “The Olympians”. It is now little known and some commentators even thought it was written for the London Olympics of 1948. Priestley’s libretto was based on a legend that “the pagan deities, robbed of their divinity, became a troupe of itinerant players, wandering down the centuries”. It sounds to me like a variant on The Good Companions. It opened in the 1949–50 season at Covent Garden. It was directed by Peter Brook. Ernest Newman, the great critic of the day, wrote: “here is a composer with real talent for opera … in Mr. Priestley he has been fortunate enough to find an English Boito”. Other reviews were polite rather than rapturous. Priestley attributed this to the failure of the conductor, Karl Rankl, to learn the music or to co-operate with Brook, and to lack of rehearsal of the last act. Some critics attributed it to Priestley’s inexperience as an opera librettist; others to the lack of there being soaring tunes in Arthur’s music. It closed after ten performances. There has been one BBC performance since, in 1972. Oh dear.

Early in 1953 the BBC approached Arthur and commissioned a violin concerto from him for Alfredo Campoli. He was born in Rome in 1906 but his family moved to England in 1911. In the thirties, Campoli had found it difficult to find work as a soloist and formed his Salon Orchestra and the Welbeck Light Quartet, playing at restaurants in London. He appeared at a prom in 1938. During the war he gave numerous concerts for the troops. Afterwards he continued his work with the BBC, eventually achieving over 1,000 radio broadcasts. Arthur worked closely with Campoli on the concerto and they struck up a warm relationship. It received its first performance in May 1955. It is in three movements and is 38 minutes in length. It is not as big boned as the piano concerto but like all Arthur’s music its themes are, a word I have not used before, catchy.

In October 1953 Sir Arnold Bax, the other guy in the fictitious duo, died and the position of Master of the Queen’s Music went to Sir (as he now had become) Arthur Bliss. He took to it like a duck to the Princess of Wales Pond and I heard his first effort, written for the present Queen on her return, “Welcome The Queen”. It was uninspiring anyway but for me, as an eighteen year old, Sir Arthur Bliss was just a retired guards officer and a typical member of the Establishment.

The years now roll by and I cannot comment on all of his continued output. There would be another opera and a number of works written in variation form, metamorphic he called it, all with masterly orchestration. I doubt there was a weak one amongst them. I will however comment on just one further work, his cello concerto. Benjamin Britten wrote to Arthur on his 75th birthday, “….In my boyhood you, Arthur, were the avant gardist of Rout, Conversations and daring, possibly Parisian, exploits. You were almost a myth”. Little wonder that Britten masterminded Rostropovitch to commission a cello concerto from the 79 year old Arthur, first played at the Aldburgh Festival in 1970. It is a quieter, gentler work than his earlier concerti and may have seemed to have lost some of his earlier fire. Don’t be misled. Cello concertos are often lighter to allow the soloist to be heard, the Elgar for instance. The inspiration is still burnishing. You can almost hear Things To Come in the first movement and am I mistaken in hearing a quote from the piano concerto in the final movement? It is a fitting end.

Arthur Bliss died five years later, aged 84. He had an inspirational touch and an enduring skill and I feel sure that one day there will be a resurrection for an unfairly underappreciated composer.

My historian friend was only of course being provocative as I have been with him. For others who may lump Bax and Bliss together I quote from Gray’s Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College

“Where ignorance is Bliss, tis folly to be wise”