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A golden age of British music


RODERIC DUNNETT looks back at Sir Arthur Bliss

<< Continued from yesterday

Bliss was widely read : his love of the Greek and Roman Classics and his wide, catholic taste in mediæval and modern literature served him particularly well. Among the modern writers he set were the Poet Laureate and Auden era poet C.Day Lewis, and Kathleen Raine, whose poems he wove into one of the most 'modernist' of his later works, the atmospheric and cleverly stylised The Golden Cantata. Four years later, in l968, he again set Raine's poetry, in a cycle of seven poems, entitled Angels of the Mind.

The choral Pastoral, inspired by a visit to Sicily, and 'sitting', as he recalled, 'by Arethusa's fount near Syracuse', is dedicated to Elgar. In addition to its idyllic Theocritean setting, Bliss reserves some of its best music for two pastoral settings by the Great War Poet Robert Nichols, who was to remain a lifelong friend. Bliss also incorporated Elgar's characteristic falling sevenths, by way of a recognisable tribute to his distinguished and supportive dedicatee.

Bliss's largescale oratorio or cantata, The Beatitudes, was composed, like Britten's War Requiem, for the festival accompanying the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral. It was not a happy experience. The performance took place, as Lady Bliss recalls, not in the Cathedral for which it was planned, but in the dowdy local theatre-cum-cinema where 'the orchestra was in front of the proscenium or screen, and the chorus sandwiched in behind it'. The sound was dire; the work deserved better, for its juxtaposing of Christ's New Testament words with Vaughan, Herbert and Dylan Thomas produced from Bliss some of his most rapt writing for soli and chorus. A commercial recording of The Beatitudes (a work that badly needs Richard Hickox's attention) is still awaited. A clutch of Bliss's choral miniatures, among the best of which are a glorious Aubade (full of high tessitura birdcalls), the charming River Music and an exquisite Prayer of St Francis of Assisi worthy of Duruflé or Poulenc, have been recorded recently by Priory. An extended collection of his songs - a serious gap in the catalogue hitherto - has also now appeared on Hyperion.

Sir Arthur Bliss

Bliss in middle age

Tennyson seems to have been a favourite poet : Bliss set his poetry a second time shortly before his death, drawing on part of his tribute to his dead friend, Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam ('O yet we trust that something good / will be the final goal of ill') for his last work, Shield of Faith, which juxtaposes the Victorian poet with Herbert, Pope ('Know then thyself, presume not God to scan..'), T.S.Eliot (Little Gidding) and a blistering setting of William Dunbar's 'Done is a battell on a dragon blak'. It's a work which Sir Arthur's wife, Trudy, rates particularly highly. Likewise his Serenade for baritone and small orchestra, whose centrepiece, a rapturous setting of Spenser's Fair is my Love, amounts to an inspired love postcard dedicated to his wife shortly before the birth of their second daughter, Karen.

Bliss was not just a leading British composer, but an important public persona : at times, too much of one for his own good. He returned from America at a crucial time during the war to head the BBC's music programmes (part of the BBC National Service, prior to the Third Programme's setting up), and from then on public duties, which he sometimes but not always relished, severely curtailed the time he could devote to composition at his specially designed, post-Le Corbusier family hideaway, Pen Pits, on the Somerset-Wiltshire border.

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Copyright © 28 March 2000 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK