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A golden age of British music


RODERIC DUNNETT looks back at Sir Arthur Bliss

<< Continued from yesterday

Bliss had his own music room, buried deep in the woods at Pen Pits. There he could focus on works such as his opera, the Olympians, on which he collaborated with J.B.Priestley, a friend since the late Twenties, who lived close to Bliss's other home in Hampstead. Many made the pilgrimage to Somerset : Peter Brook (for whose film of The Beggar's Opera Bliss supplied the arrangements), Gerald Finzi, Howard Ferguson, Vaughan Williams. One of Bliss's most endearing features - and he had many - was his generosity with his time in encouraging and supporting younger musicians.

It was through the PRS that Bliss met Christopher Hassall, who helped advise on the texts for The Beatitudes, and supplied libretti for both his television opera, Tobias and the Angel, and the cantata Mary of Magdala. The two men shared similar literary interests: they instantly jelled. Hassall travelled abroad with the Blisses on PRS matters, and frequently dined with them in London, where he lived close by.

There are some drawbacks to Bliss's output. Bliss at his most bombastic and insistent can be emotional hard work. Some of the formal and occasional pieces are frankly dull. Yet even at full pelt, he can produce stunning results. The opening of Music for Strings (1935) is as rhythmically thrilling as Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra a few years later; Bliss's chamber music (the quintets for clarinet and oboe, and two later string quartets) is strong and beguiling; the Cello Concerto, besottingly beautiful. His Scena for contralto or mezzo-soprano, The Enchantress, to a text by Theocritus (here the Classicist in Bliss emerges again), is surely a masterpiece.

And there remain two further genres : Film Music, an area Bliss, together with Rawsthorne, William Alwyn, Walton, Malcolm Arnold and even Vaughan Williams himself, readily espoused, and including his dazzling music for Alexander Korda's sinister and prophetic film, Things to Come; and perhaps above all, his impudent avant-garde works : Madam Noy (l9l8), Rhapsody (l9l9), Conversations and Rout (l920) - a riotous letting-down of hair in the aftermath of the Great War carnage. Like Walton, he was influenced by Stravinsky, arguably Casella and Malipiero, and members of Les Six : Milhaud, Poulenc, Honegger, Auric, especially on an immediate postwar visit to France. These small ensemble works, characteristic of the time when money was initially scarce, are on a par with Walton's Facade. All of them have been recorded by the Nash Ensemble on a first rate Hyperion disc (CDA 66137).

Charming, kind, enthusiastic about new things and young people's ideas, and anything but old-fogeyish, Sir Arthur Bliss remained, at heart, an English Modernist. Even without the loyal efforts of supporters like Lady Bliss and the doyen of present-day English Music conductors, Vernon Handley, Bliss's legacy is appreciable and considerable. It has already outlived him, and the best will continue to do so.

Copyright © 29 March 2000 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK



Sir Arthur Bliss conducting

Bliss as an old man