Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Arthur Bliss was born in London in 1891, the eldest son of Agnes Kennard Davis, an accopmplished amateur pianist, and Francis Edward Bliss, a businessman who had come to England from Springfield, Massachusetts. From his father he inherited skills in administration; his talent in music came from his mother, who died suddenly in 1895. His transatlantic heritage would later be reflected by his firmly international cultural outlook, fostered, no doubt, by the encouragement to pursue a musical career he received from his widowed father. As a pupil at Rugby School, Bliss was introduced to the music of Debussy and Ravel, participated in performances of works by Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and made his first tentative steps in composition. His conventionally upper-middle-class education took him next to Pembroke College, Cambridge (where he came under the tutelage of Charles Wood and E.J.Dent), and thence to the Royal College of Music (under Stanford), before his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1914. Bliss served with distinction throughout the war, during which he was wounded at the Somme and gassed at Cambrai. His younger brother Kennard was killed in the battle of the Somme. After demobilisation in 1919 he felt a keen urge to make up for lost time. A technically promising composition student before the war, Bliss now found himself one of a few survivors from a virtually lost generation.
Inspired by visits to post-Armistice Paris (where he met Ravel and members of Les Six), he produced a series of experimental works for innovative instrumental combinations. Some of these – such as Rout and Rhapsody – employ the voice instrumentally (calling for wordless vocalisation and the rendition of nonsense syllables), while Conversations makes a clear nod towards the jazz idioms of Stravinsky and the “machine-music” of Darius Milhaud. An indication of Bliss’s intentional self-distancing from a German composing style can be gleaned from his contemporaneous music criticism. In 1922, Elgar – with whom Bliss enjoyed a close but sometimes fractious relationship – secured the younger composer a Three Choirs Festival commission, for which he produced A Colour Symphony. The work, which explores the extra-musical associations of four colours, demonstrates astonishing maturity in view of its standing as Bliss’s first significant effort at extended orchestral writing. A two-year sabbatical in America followed, where Bliss met and married Trudy Hoffman, before a return to England which heralded the completion of a journey to the very centre of musical life in Britain. During the remaining inter-war years, he composed some of his most significant works in several genres, including the symphonic requiem Morning Heroes (1930), the Clarinet Quintet (1932), the first of several film scores in Things to Come (1934), the neo-romantic Music for Strings (1935) and his long-anticipated balletic début Checkmate (1937).
The first performance of Bliss’s Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall in 1939 coincided with Britain’s entry into the Second World War, causing the composer and his family to be stranded in America. Eventually, after a period spent teaching at Berkeley, he returned to England (leaving behind, with enormous difficulty, his wife and two daughters) to take up a position with the BBC, of which he was later to be Director of Music.
in 1949 his opera The Olympians was staged at Covent Garden, though unenthusiastically received. Bliss was knighted in 1950 and appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953. It was in this capacity that he led a delegation of British musicians to the USSR in 1956. Bliss continued to compose prolifically, producing more film and operatic scores, and his fascination with formal innovation and thematic manipulation found outlets in works such as Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955) and Metamorphic Variations (1972). He remained a central figure in British music until his death, after a short illness, in March 1975.