Born in Barnes, West London, on 2 August 1891 to an American father and British mother, Arthur Bliss showed musical aptitude from an early age. Having graduated from Pembroke College, Cambridge (where he studied music under Charles Wood), he entered London’s Royal College of Music in 1913. However, his composition studies with Stanford were soon interrupted by the outbreak of war. Bliss promptly signed up for duty: in 1916, he was wounded at the Somme and, two years later, gassed at Cambrai.
In the years following the war, Bliss was considered something of an enfant terrible in British musical circles; exploratory works (‘essays in timbre’) for voice and instrumental ensemble such as Madam Noy (1918), Rhapsody (1919) and Rout (1920) were thought terribly daring.
His breakthrough came with A Colour Symphony, commissioned by the 1922 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, and one of a clutch of orchestral offerings by Bliss that have maintained some kind of foothold in the repertory. These include the Mêlée fantasque (1921), Introduction and Allegro (1926), Music for Strings (1935) and Meditations on a Theme of John Blow (1955); all exhibit the generous lyrical impulse, big heart, tangy harmonic resource, keen sense of proportion and consummate craft that are the hallmarks of the composer.
At equal intervals throughout his career, Bliss produced four fine concertos: for two pianos (1929), piano (1938, dedicated to Solomon), violin (1955, for Alfredo Campoli) and cello (1970, inscribed to Rostropovich). His works for the stage suffered mixed fortunes. Widespread acclaim greeted the three ballets from the middle of his career, Checkmate (1937), Miracle in the Gorbals (1944) and Adam Zero (1946), whereas his two operas, The Olympians (1949) and Tobias and the Angel (1960), failed to establish themselves.
Among his many other vocal works, special mention must be made of the imposing and deeply personal symphony for orator, chorus and orchestra from 1930 entitled Morning Heroes. Dedicated to the memory of his younger brother Kennard (a gifted poet, painter and musician who was killed on the Somme in 1916), it continues to enjoy the occasional revival, as does the immensely appealing 1928 Pastoral: Lie Strewn the White Flocks‚ for mezzo-soprano, flute, chorus and chamber orchestra.
The prolific and versatile Bliss also excelled in the realm of chamber and instrumental music, penning two exceptionally eloquent string quartets, quintets for oboe and clarinet, as well as sonatas for viola and piano. He produced eight film scores in all and there can be few more indelible contributions to the genre than the magnificent music he supplied for Alexander Korda’s Things to Come (1936). Between 1942 and 1944, Bliss was the BBC’s Director of Music. He received a knighthood in 1950 and, three years later, succeeded Arnold Bax as Master of The Queen’s Musick. His personable autobiography, As I Remember, was published in 1970.The indefatigable octogenarian continued to compose right up to his death in London on 27 March 1975, aged 83.
Profile © Andrew Achenbach