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Arthur Bliss was one of the most important, but somewhat overshadowed, British composers of his generation.

Born in 1891, he studied under Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music but the First World War interrupted his studies. After returning from war service, Bliss become one of the most experimental composers of the time, his main influences being Debussy and Stravinsky. It was in this period that he composed his A Colour Smyphony (1922), probably his most popular work. It was inspired by his reading of a book about heraldry, which included information about the meanings of colours through the ages.

Throughout the 1930's and 40's he produced more significant works, particularly in the fields of film music and ballet. These included the music for the film Things to Come(1934-5), and the ballets Checkmate(1937), Miracle in the Gorbals (1944) and Adam Zero(1946). His most ambitious work, the opera The Olympians (1948-9), also dated from this period.

During the Second World War, Bliss became Director of Music at the BBC. He was knighted in 1950 and in 1953 became Master of the Queen's Musick, succeeding Arnold Bax. During the following two decades he conducted performances of his own works, both in the concert hall and the recording studio. He died in 1975.

Despite a modest revival of recordings available of Bliss' works recently, his reputation still remains in doubt. Perhaps his style, which displays elements of Romanticism, Impressionism and Modernism seems too eclectic to audiences. In his own lifetime, too, he was somewhat obscured by contemporaries like Benjamin Britten, Henri Dutilleux and Witold Lutoslawski.

But I think he was an interesting composer. I have only so far listened to the Colour Symphony and Adam Zero. I am eager to get into some of his other works, particularly his vast output of chamber music. Perhaps he lacked the facility or personality of some of this contemporaries, but his works display a keen intellect at work, as well as mastery of orchestral colour and melody.
 

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Ah yes...Sir Arthur Bliss, a great composer. I wish there was more available recordings by him by some more well known names and orchestras. I mean Vernon Handley and Richard Hickox did an admirable job with their respective orchestras, but now that they both have passed on, it's up to David Lloyd-Jones, but who else? I mean these days it's hard to tell what's going to happen, but I would seriously like to see more conductors champion Bliss' works.

As Andre has said, he had a tremendous gift for melody. The structure of his compositions, which are really intriguing, are kind of loose unlike his teacher Stanford's symphonies. They do have form no question about it, but it's the overall emotional impact that they have that make you forget everything else.

Good thread. I'll be interested to see other people weigh in on this matter.
 
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Hi,

Have you tried his piano works? I particularly admire his Suite for Piano and Triptych. From what I can see they are only available on mp3 but you might want to explore. And of course his film music. I recently came across Caesar and Cleopatra which proved a real discovery.
 

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I've just acquired two of Bliss' chamber works on CD - the String Quartet No.2 & Clarinet Quintet.

The String Quartet No. 2 really didn't grab me much, but it is an accomplished piece of modernist quartet writing of good quality.

The Clarinet Quintet, however, is truly a sublime work which has a sensitive lyrical quality. It is not surprising that he composed it in memory of his brother, who like him went to fight in WWI but never returned. The clarinet was the brother's favourite instrument, so Bliss wrote this work with him very much in mind. The quick movements are similar to say, the 'red' movement in A Colour Symphony. Very bouncy and upbeat. However, the slow movements (including the opening movement) provide the emotional core of the work, here, the use of the clarinet is very expressive. This work has two things in common with Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time: the overcoming of adversity and tragedy, and the use of the clarinet. It is stylistically different, though, more neoromantic than modernist, but it makes just as lasting an impression, and deserves to be heard and played as much as the latter work.

I recommend this CD to anyone interested going beyond Bliss' orchestral works like the symphony or the ballets. It features David Campbell on clarinet, playing with the Maggini String Quartet. It is available on Naxos, who have issued quite a number of Bliss' chamber works in the last few years. Judging from this release, it appears that they are worth listening to if you like this type of music.
 
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I thought I'd resurrect this old thread, first created over 10 years ago, that seems to have accumulated some undeserved cobwebs.

Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) was a well known name on the classical music scene as a composer and conductor especially in Britain during the 1930s-1960's. He was a very prolific composer and a well-known "establishment figure". His reputation is still good but his work doesn't tend to receive much attention in the media these days (radio etc).

He was born in Staines, England, the son of an American businessman from Massachusetts, USA and an English wife. He was educated in one of the most prestigious English "public" schools, Rugby, and then at Pembroke College Cambridge, where he graduated in Classics in 1913. Bliss then went to the Royal College of Music for a year, but WW1 interrupted his studies. During the War he was a soldier in the British Army, and earned some high recognition.

He first started writing music 1916 but it was not until after the WW2 ended in 1918 that he began composition more seriously. In the early 1920s he lived in the USA where he married, but in 1925 he returned to England and his composing career took off considerably. In the period up to WW1 in 1939 he wrote profusely. In 1941 he became the Director of Music at the BBC, a post from which resigned in 1944 in order to resume composing. In 1950 he was knighted (i.e. gained the "Sir") and in 1953 he became Master of the Queen's Music, a distinguished post that he took over from Sir Arnold Bax, who died that year.

Bliss wrote a very large amount of music across all genres: orchestral, film music, chamber, solo instrument, choral, opera, vocal. He was able to compose quickly, which was convenient as he was often called upon to produce a work at short notice, given his role as Master of the Queen's Music. His composing career continued until 1974, the year before his death. He was also a well-regarded conductor. As a result of his long career and good connections, he was a prominent Establishment figure on the classical music scene in the post-War period, and many people had heard of him including those who who were not especially interested in his form of art.

Over his long composing career, which stretched well over a half a century, his composing style naturally varied. In his very early days, he was regarded as being "avante garde". This became a lot more conventional as his career progressed. He was especially highly regarded for his orchestration ability.

I have had an interest in Bliss's work for a long time but have recently upgraded my collection substantially as I have become even more fond of it. I must admit that this is partly out of a lack of enchantment with some of the 20th C music by various Continental composers, whose names have been well paraded in this Forum over recent months. I find a lot of the latter to be be far too heavy going for my tastes, and the music of Bliss a very nice return to a far less turgid style.

I would say that Bliss has become one of my favourite 20th C composers. A lot of his work is heavily tainted by that "English" flavour one typically finds with the likes of RVW, Bax, Moeran. It can't be pretended that all of his work is of high quality, as there was so much of it and there is bound to be some variability. Nevertheless, I find quite a lot of it very appealing. By way of example, some works that I have found to be very good include:

  • A Colour Symphony (his most famous work)
  • Cello Concerto
  • Piano Concerto
  • Violin Concerto
  • Music for Strings
  • Clarinet Quintet
  • Piano Sonata
  • Oboe Quintet
Mostly the recordings of these works are by English and Scottish performers.
 

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As an interesting and only semi-relevant aside, Herbert Howells wrote an orchestra suite, 'The 5 Bs', where each of the movements described a different one of his friends at the Royal College of Music, the Bs referring to their nicknames. It is very enjoyable and worth investigating.

1. Overture: Bublum (Howells)
2. Lament: Bartholomew (Ivor Gurney)
3. Scherzo - Blissy (Arthur Bliss)
4. Mazurka - Bunny (Francis Warren)
5. March - Benjee (Arthur Benjamin)
 

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I've just acquired two of Bliss' chamber works on CD - the String Quartet No.2 & Clarinet Quintet.

The String Quartet No. 2 really didn't grab me much, but it is an accomplished piece of modernist quartet writing of good quality.

The Clarinet Quintet, however, is truly a sublime work which has a sensitive lyrical quality. It is not surprising that he composed it in memory of his brother, who like him went to fight in WWI but never returned. The clarinet was the brother's favourite instrument, so Bliss wrote this work with him very much in mind. The quick movements are similar to say, the 'red' movement in A Colour Symphony. Very bouncy and upbeat. However, the slow movements (including the opening movement) provide the emotional core of the work, here, the use of the clarinet is very expressive. This work has two things in common with Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time: the overcoming of adversity and tragedy, and the use of the clarinet. It is stylistically different, though, more neoromantic than modernist, but it makes just as lasting an impression, and deserves to be heard and played as much as the latter work.

I recommend this CD to anyone interested going beyond Bliss' orchestral works like the symphony or the ballets. It features David Campbell on clarinet, playing with the Maggini String Quartet. It is available on Naxos, who have issued quite a number of Bliss' chamber works in the last few years. Judging from this release, it appears that they are worth listening to if you like this type of music.
Resurrecting this old thread to the memory of Arthur Bliss. I'm listening to his Clarinet Quintet right now and well, he does live up to his surname.

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I'll keep digging!

Regards,

Vincula
 

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It is interesting how Bliss slips under the radar. I'm a fan of C20th English composers but aware that I'm least familiar with Bliss"s music. What I have heard of it, I have thoroughly enjoyed and wanted to listen again. Time for a Bliss binge, I think.
 

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It is interesting how Bliss slips under the radar. I'm a fan of C20th English composers but aware that I'm least familiar with Bliss"s music. What I have heard of it, I have thoroughly enjoyed and wanted to listen again. Time for a Bliss binge, I think.
Me as well. I love British composers ( Bax, Moeran, Elgar , Parry etc) and have a few Bliss CD's that i need to revisit
 
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