Sir Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss (August 2, 1891–March 27, 1975) was an English composer and conductor, one of the leading English composers of the first half of the 20th century, noted both for his early, experimental works and for his later, more subjective compositions. Bliss was born on August 2, 1891, in Barnes, England, a London suburb, the eldest of three sons of Francis Edward Bliss (d. 1930), a businessman from Massachusetts, and his second wife, Agnes Kennard née Davis (1858–1895). Agnes Bliss died in 1895, and the boys were brought up by their father, who instilled in them a love for the arts. Bliss was educated at Bilton Grange preparatory school, Rugby and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied classics, but also took lessons in music from Charles Wood. Other influences on him during his Cambridge days were Edward Elgar, whose music made a lasting impression on him, and E.J. Dent.
Bliss graduated in classics and music in 1913 and then studied at the Royal College of Music in London for a year. At the RCM his composition tutor was Sir Charles V. Stanford. He found inspiration from Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst and his fellow-students, Herbert Howells, Eugene Goossens and Arthur Benjamin. In his brief time at the college he got to know the music of the Second Viennese School and the repertory of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with music by modern composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. However, his musical training was cut short by the First World War. When the war broke out, Bliss joined the army in which he served with distinction, and fought in France as an officer in the Royal Fusiliers until 1917 and then in the Grenadier Guards for the rest of the war. His bravery earned him a mention in despatches, and he was twice wounded and once gassed. His younger brother Kennard was killed in the war, and his death affected Bliss deeply.
In 1918, Bliss converted to Roman Catholicism. Although he had begun composing while still a schoolboy, Bliss later suppressed all his juvenile works, and, with the single exception of his 1916 Pastoral for clarinet and piano, reckoned the 1918 work Madam Noy, a “witchery” song which was first performed in June 1920, as his first official composition. The lyric is by an anonymous author, and the setting is for soprano with flute, clarinet, bassoon, harp, viola, and bass. As a young man Bliss was certainly regarded as avant garde. Up to the early 1920s, his music was frequently experimental, such as his Rhapsody (1919), for solo voices and chamber ensemble, in which the voice plays an instrumental role, singing vocalises (meaningless syllables),
With the return of peace, his career took off rapidly as a composer of what were, for British audiences, startlingly new pieces, often for unusual ensembles, strongly influenced by Ravel, Stravinsky and the young French composers of Les six. Among these are a concerto for wordless tenor voice, piano and strings (1920), and Rout for wordless soprano and chamber ensemble, subsequently revised for orchestra, which received a double encore at its first performance. In 1919, he arranged incidental music from Elizabethan sources for As You Like It at Stratford-on-Avon, and conducted a series of Sunday concerts at Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, where he also conducted Pergolesi’s opera La serva padrona. Viola Tree’s production of The Tempest at the Aldwych Theatre in 1921, interspersed incidental music by Thomas Arne and Arthur Sullivan, with new music by Bliss for an ensemble of male voices, piano, trumpet, trombone, gongs and five percussionists dispersed through the theatre.
In the post-war years Bliss quickly became known as an unconventional and modernist composer.
He was commissioned, through Elgar’s influence, to write a large-scale symphonic work, A Colour Symphony, for the Three Choirs Festival of 1922. The work was well received. In 1923 Bliss’s father, who had remarried, decided to retire in the US. He and his wife settled in California. Bliss went with them and remained there for two years, working as a conductor, lecturer, pianist and occasional critic. While there he met Gertrude “Trudy” Hoffmann (1904–2008), youngest daughter of Ralph and Gertrude (Wesselhoeft) Hoffmann. They were married in 1925. The marriage was happy and lasted for the rest of Bliss’s life; there were two daughters. Soon after the marriage, Bliss and his wife moved to England.
Within the decade Bliss began to display a more traditional and romantic side in his music and from the mid-1920s onwards moved more into the established English musical tradition, leaving behind the influence of Stravinsky and the French modernists. In the 1920s and 1930s he composed extensively not only for the concert hall, but also for films and ballet. He received two major commissions from American orchestras, the Introduction and Allegro (1926) for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski and Hymn to Apollo (1926) for the Boston Symphony and Pierre Monteux. Bliss began the 1930s with Pastoral (1930). In the same year he wrote Morning Heroes, a work for narrator, chorus and orchestra.
During the decade Bliss wrote chamber works for leading soloists including a Clarinet Quintet for Frederick Thurston (1932) and a Viola Sonata for Lionel Tertis (1933). In 1935, he established his position as Elgar’s successor with the Romantic, expansive and richly scored Music for Strings. Two dramatic works from this decade are the music for Alexander Korda’s 1936 film of H. G. Wells’s Things to Come, and a ballet score Checkmate to his own scenario based on a chess game with choreographed by Ninette de Valois was still in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet in 2011. By the late 1930s, Bliss was no longer viewed as a modernist. His last large-scale work of the 1930s was his Piano Concerto, composed for the pianist Solomon, who gave the world premiere at the World’s Fair in New York in June 1939. Bliss and his family attended the performance and then stayed on in the US for a holiday. While they were there, the Second World War broke out. Bliss initially stayed in America, teaching at the University of California, Berkeley.
However, during the warar, Bliss felt impelled to return to England from the US to do what he could for the war effort, and in 1941, leaving his wife and children in California, he made the hazardous Atlantic crossing. At first, Bliss found little useful work to do in England. He joined the BBC’s overseas music service in May 1941. When Adrian Boult, who was at that time both the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC’s director of music, stepped down to concentrate on conducting. Bliss became the BBC director of music, serving from 1942 to 1944. During the war, he also was on the music committee of the British Council together with Vaughan Williams and William Walton. In 1944, when Bliss’s family returned from the US, he resigned from the BBC and resumed his work as a composer, having written nothing since his String Quartet in 1941. He composed more film music, and two ballets, Miracle in the Gorbals (1944), and Adam Zero (1946).
In 1948, Bliss turned his attention to opera, with The Olympians. He and the novelist and playwright J. B. Priestley agreed to collaborate on the opera. In 1950, Bliss was knighted. After the death of Sir Arnold Bax he was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953. Bliss’s first official pièce d’occasion was a Processional for the 1953 coronation and A Song of Welcome. Bliss, who composed quickly and with facility, was able to discharge the many duties of the post, providing music as required for state occasions, from the birth of a child to the Queen, to the funeral of Winston Churchill, to the investiture of the Prince of Wales. In 1956, Bliss headed the first delegation by British musicians to the Soviet Union since the end of the Second World War. The party included the violinist Alfredo Campoli, the oboist Léon Goossens, the soprano Jennifer Vyvyan, the conductor Clarence Raybould and the pianist Gerald Moore. Bliss returned to Moscow in 1958, as a member of the jury of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, with fellow jurors including Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter.
In addition to his official functions, Bliss continued to compose steadily throughout the 1950s. His works from that decade include his Second String Quartet (1950); a scena, The Enchantress (1951), for the contralto Kathleen Ferrier; a Piano Sonata (1952); and a Violin Concerto (1955), for Campoli. The orchestral Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955) was a particularly deep-felt work, and Bliss regarded it highly among his output. In 1959 and 1960 he collaborated with the librettist Christopher Hassall on an opera for television, based on the scriptural story of Tobias and the Angel. In 1961, Bliss and Hassall collaborated on a cantata, The Beatitudes, commissioned for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral. Bliss followed this with two further large-scale choral works, Mary of Magdala (1962) and The Golden Cantata (1963). In the 1970s, he looked to the future of Britain’s orchestras by working with the young players of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra for some years.
Bliss continued to compose into his eighth and ninth decades, in which his works included the Cello Concerto (1970) for Mstislav Rostropovich, the Metamorphic Variations for orchestra (1972), and a final cantata, Shield of Faith (1974), for soprano, baritone, chorus and organ, celebrating 500 years of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, setting poems chosen from each of the five centuries of the Chapel’s existence which was performed initially a few weeks after his death .Bliss died at his London, England, home, on March 27, 1975, at the age of 83. Bliss was an important voice in the England musical renaissance of the early twentieth century. Much of his music embodies a specifically English, late-Romantic expression; however the influence of neo-classicism is heard in his early works, and his often color-based style also shows the influence of Debussy. He was a prolific composer, writing over 140 works in all genres, including film music (most notably his 1935 score to Things to Come), though it is perhaps in his ballet scores such as Checkmate and Adam Zero that Bliss’s music is heard at its finest.
The following work by Arthur Bliss is contained in my collection:
Things to Come: March.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources