Arthur Bliss

1891 1975

Arthur Bliss

Composer • Conductor


Bliss was a prolific 20th century English composer. Bliss composed more than 140 works in many different genres from film music to ballets and music for amateur choirs and brass bands. His music is very typical of the English and late-Romantic styles, though many elements of neo-classicism are also heard in his works, along with the influence ofDebussy.

Sir Arthur Bliss was born in in London in 1891. He received his musical education at Rugby and Pembroke College in Cambridge from 1910-13. There he studied counterpoint with Charles Wood and became acquainted withEdward Elgar , whose music greatly influenced him. He was also inspired by E.J. Dent. After graduating he went to the Royal College of Music for one year to study conducting with Stanford, but this was unsuccessful.

During World War I, Bliss served in the Royal Fusiliers and the Grenadier Guards. After the completion of his service in 1919, his reputation as a composer took off. His most notable works of this time include hisMadame Noy (1918) andRout (1920). In both works he experimented with the voice, to use it in an instrumental manner, employing wordless vocalization and nonsense syllables. The influence of composers such asStravinsky, Ravel and those of Les Six is evident in these works, along with a jazz influence.

Throughout the early 1920s Bliss openly rejected the forms and idioms of the previously established positions, most notably the German tradition. He preferred the music of Stravinsky,Schoenberg and the young generation of French composers.

His later, mature style however, fits within the mould of the Romantic 19th and 20th century traditions, mostly due to Elgar’s strong influence. Though he was content in this older idiom, his music retains many characteristics of the aforementioned composers.

Bliss’s activities in London at this time also included composing and arranging music at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith for Nigel Playfair’s productions. The music he wrote forThe Tempest (1921) uses a group of instrumentalists and singers spread throughout the Aldwych Theatre.

Bliss was also a successful composer and was appointed conductor of the Portsmouth Philharmonic Society in 1921. His earliest works for orchestra were also performed in the same year: the Two Studies (1920) andMêlée fantasque (1921).

He also completed A Colour Symphony (1921) for the Three Choirs Festival in 1922 on Elgar’s suggestion. Many characteristics of his more mature works are found in this piece.

In 1923, Bliss moved to Santa Barbara, California with his father and brother. While in the USA he wrote little music, but conducted regularly and performed as a pianist in a chamber ensemble, taught and wrote criticism.

Upon his return to England in 1925, he became productive again as a composer, composing the Introduction and Allegro (1926) for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Stokowski, along with his Clarinet and Oboe Quintets, the Viola Sonata and concertos for piano, violin and cello. All of these works were written for well-established virtuoso soloists or ensembles such as Frederick Thurston (clarinet), Eugene Goossens (Oboe), Lionel Tertis (viola), Solomon (piano), Alfredo Campoli (violin) and Mstislav Rostropovich (cello). He particularly enjoyed exploiting the character of the soloist’s playing in his works, resulting in very personal compositions.

Bliss’ accomplishments include being knighted in 1950 and becoming Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953. For this position he provided many musical and official tasks such as composing music for the inauguration of the Prince of Wales in 1969.

His later works include many occasional pieces along with cantatas and several orchestral works, of whichMeditations of a Theme of John Blow (1955) is perhaps his best work. He also composed the television operaTobias and the Angel (1960).

Bliss was an expert illustrator, though his strokes are much more extroverted than those ofMahler, Elgar or Schoenberg, who carefully depicted their inner feelings.Morning Heroes is the only exception to this.

Bliss also began composing for amateur groups, including his first work for amateur choir, Pastoral: Lie Strewn the White Flocks (1928). Writing for amateur choirs and brass bands provided many limitations on his works, but he thrived on this challenge and was able to focus his style.

Bliss’s most personal work is the choral symphony Morning Heroes (1930), a tribute to those who lost their lives in World War I. Each movement of the work portrays an aspect of war. The work was produced in 1930 at the Norwich Festival. It was with this work that Bliss was able to rid himself of his post-war emotions and focus on other subjects.

By 1935, Bliss’s position as the successor of Elgar was firmly established after completing his Music for Strings (1935). He focussed next on the music for the filmThings to Come (1934-5) from Alexander Korda and H.G. Wells. He also wrote three ballets between 1935-46 which display his simple and direct style full of rich illustration. The balletsCheckmate (1937) and Miracle in the Gorbals(1944), to which he contributed, were two of the most successful English ballets of the time.

Bliss taught at University of California, Berkeley between 1939 and 1941, during World War II. He returned to England in 1941 to take up a job as an administrative assistant with the BBC, where he became music director shortly after, from 1942-4.

Bliss’s most unsuccessful work was his full-length opera, The Olympians (1948-9), written together with J.B. Priestley. The premiere at Covent Garden was under-prepared and met with a very cool reception.

His work in film and ballet is notable for his precise coupling of the dramatic and visual moments with matching musical images and textures.

Many of Bliss’s most successful works are in episodic form, including Lie Strewn the While Flocks, Meditations on a Theme of John Blow and the Metamorphic Variations for orchestra (1972). His later works, especially the Meditations on a Theme of John Blow and the Metamorphic Variations present a new sense of lightness not present in his earlier, more turbulent music.

Sir Arthur Bliss died in 1975 in London.

Images courtesy of BBC, El Blog de Atticus and public domain