Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Bliss – The Beatitudes – Conception II


After the negativity thrown before him and his self-admitted loss of inspiration and direction, things began to pick up for Bliss – much, it has to be said, thanks to the continued support of Christopher Hassall.

In November Bliss was requesting, and received, the short Latin Easter Hymn, 'Haec Dies quam feci! Dominus exultemus et laetemur in ea Hallelujah' [This is the day that the Lord made: let us be glad and rejoice in it], which he interweaves with George Herbert's 'I got me flowers'.

Feeling much better about the whole thing but still having problems, Bliss wrote to Hassall airing the following:

I have finished - in sketch form - the music down to the end of 'The Call' on your page 3. The timing is already 25 minutes, without the short orchestral introduction to the whole work, and I still have 5 Beatitudes, 3 poems and an Epilogue [the Taylor prayer] to squeeze in!!!”

Squeezing in left over Beatitudes around Dylan Thomas, smoothing out ‘The Muse’, breaking mirrors to create the “absolute necessity of contrasts of mood” all caused something of a log-jam. This was finally broken by wrapping the four remaining Beatitudes – merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and persecuted into one, following a violent orchestral interlude and before the Dylan Thomas – ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’.

Interestingly, Bliss did not include Thomas’ first verse considering it “too raw” for the desired mood.

He was getting close and could feel the excitement of it. Updating Hassall, Bliss wrote:

“Just after the last Beatitude and immediately before the Jeremy Taylor Epilogue I feel the need for a short angry chorus - the roar of a crowd out for trouble (The crowd will then suddenly be stilled by the [tenor soloist's] words "O Blessed Jesu").”

In mid-August he wrote: 

I am writing an orchestral 'Prelude' that leads straight into the choral setting of [Henry Vaughan's] 'The Mount of Olives' - this Prelude will be disturbed and anxious and will express the World troubled and anguished but from this 'agitato' [the score actually marks the Prelude ‘Allegro Violento’] will arise the quiet cool chorus chords of 'Sweet, sacred hill’.”

Something was missing – he needed a piece of text to head up the Prelude – something from the metaphysical poets – a one liner to describe a ‘rent world’ is what he asked of Hassall.

Hassall's reply exemplifies the lengths to which he went to support Bliss and for which Bliss was so grateful:

“…about the Prelude to [The Beatitudes] and the Quotation; I have gone through Donne and Vaughan, also Beddoes. In the latter (in an unfinished poem called 'Doomsday') comes the line:

'World, wilt thou yield thy spirit up and be convulsed and die?'

In 'The Storm' (Donne) comes:

'All things are one, and that one none can be, so that we, except God say another Fiat, shall have no more day'.”

We, except God say another Fiat, shall have no more day became the phrase believed to capture the essence of the work’s Prelude a troubled world.

[Left - John Donne (19 June 1572 – 31 March 1631) was an English metaphysical poet, satirist, lawyer and Protestant priest.]

Bliss was complete – The Beatitudes had become a work of powerful contrasts.

The contrasts which Bliss was so keen to bring out in The Beatitudes have a moral as well as musical dimension. To add context, these are Bliss’ words about Beethoven with which he significantly chose to close his autobiography:

'…all Beethoven's music is a continual protest against the cruelty, misery and evil in this world, but he does, after a lifetime's struggle, supply an answer in the music of his last period, envisaging a world of compassion and serenity’.

The assertion of faith, healing and serenity that underlies The Beatitudes acquires meaning for Bliss precisely because it emerges victor in that very protest and struggle against 'the cruelty, misery and evil in this world’.


For more information read on...

(Short code to Coventry Cathedral website)

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Bliss – The Beatitudes – Conception I


When Bliss was first invited and commissioned to write a musical celebration to be performed after the Consecration of Coventry Cathedral, he was at the peak of his prolific career. He was an approved part of the establishment having spent a number of war time years as Assistant Director of Music at the BBC. And in 1953 he was appointed Master of the Queen's Music.

He might be said to have come ‘by Royal Appointment’ and was certainly befitting the importance of the global spotlight that was to shine on the occasion in May 1962.

The Bliss 'Welcome the Queen' March was the fruit of his work as Master of The Queen's Music, a position he took very seriously. He wrote the March for the Pathé newsreel to celebrate the return of young Queen Elizabeth from the incredible Commonwealth tour she undertook just a few months after her Coronation.

It was at this time (late ’58 / early ’59) that Arthur Bliss and his librettist friend Christopher Hassall were in the final stages of completing their opera for television Tobias and the Angel. This innovative work  has received faint praise, but even though it may not have achieved all it set out to do it has at least – by putting to music such an exciting, spooky story –  lowered the resistance of lowbrows and middle-brows to opera. [Raphael's Tobias and the Angel is pictured, right.]

The nature of its story (from the biblical Book of Tobias) turned out to be so fast and furious (with its depiction of a beautiful slave girl sold to syndicate of tired businessmen, underwater fights with sea monsters; spacemen chasing one another about the stars) that the music became mere background to the action.

He liked to be busy and worked best (though not always successfully) under pressure.

Bliss could, of course, not have known this in 1959 but was already referring in his letters to 'the work for Coventry Cathedral'. The previous summer Bliss had referred, apparently in relation to the proposed masque, to 'choric songs in praise of stone, iron, wood and glass'.  

As it transpired, the new cantata, which he alludes to in a letter of January 1960 - and apparently at that stage still conceived of as 'the Coventry Masque' – was not required until 1962. The lack of urgency allowed Bliss to consider other works – he took his eye off the Coventry City ball!

Unbeknown to Bliss, Britten began to draw up his battle lines with the introduction of War Requiem.

The form and content of the work continued to give Bliss trouble: '[I] as yet cannot alight anywhere. Do I need something more dramatic, I wonder, to get me going?' Perhaps the lack of pressure of a deadline was a further disincentive, or had his disappointment at losing what he saw as the Consecration Festival’s principle commission altered his attitude to the whole project?

By October he promises better: '…yes, I must try and get my mind on the Beatitudes. But for the last 2 weeks I have endured my ‘low period’ when all I can do is lie prone and idly float over an abyss of nothingness.  Far from unpleasant, but remote from anything connected with thinking and doing '.

A new scheme was proposed by Christopher Hassall and this ultimately found favour with Consecration Festival Committee. It was to be a setting of the nine ‘Beatitudes’ from St Matthew’s Gospel.

Hassall and Bliss subsequently evolved a cantata project as a series of reflective or mystical poems which, interspersed, would effectively serve as a comment, or form of meditation, on the biblical texts themselves.

Bliss was especially concerned about possible monotony in a purely reflective hour-long cantata, and sought to counter this by including at four points, as he puts it, 'a mood of violence (force opposing the beatific vision)'. This is evident in his letter to Hassall of 14 June, where he lays emphasis on this contrast: '…and always the reverse to be kept in mind – e g meekness-pride etc, mourning-dance of joy. I feel we can invent a new form – like a necklace with intervening jewellery'.

Both dug deep into their literary experiences (written and read) in search of inspiration.
Bliss looked to Dostoevsky whilst Hassall had been unearthing 'a copy of Jeremy Taylor – who seems to be the only author of classic status who has written a commentary on the Beatitudes! Taylor's prayer, 'O blessed Jesu’ was later adopted for the work's final movement.

O blessed Jesu, who art become to us the fountain of peace and sanctity, of righteousness and charity, of life and perpetual benediction,
Imprint in our spirits these glorious characterisms of Christianity,
That we by such excellent dispositions may be consigned to the infinity of blessedness, which thou earnest to reveal and minister and exhibit to mankind.
For thou, 0 holy Jesu, art our hope, and our life, and glory, our exceeding great reward.   

JEREMY TAYLOR    (15 August 1613 – 13 August 1667)

PART TWO follows shortly.                         In the mean time...

For more information read on...

(Short code to Coventry Cathedral website)


Tuesday, 19 June 2012

"...we, except God say Another Fiat shall have no more day."

Bliss's cantata The Beatitudes was commissioned to mark the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962.

As the building of the cathedral was an act of reconciliation for the destruction of the old cathedral during the bombing of the city in the Second World War, the choice of the Beatitudes as a theme for the work was highly appropriate. Significantly it is dedicated to a representative of the postwar generation, the composer's first grandchild, Susan, born in 1955.

The premiere was fraught with difficulties.

Because of scheduling relating to the opening services and rehearsals for other events - mainly the first performance of Britten's War Requiem - it proved impossible to perform The Beatitudes in the cathedral as planned. Instead, it was performed, most unsuitably, in the cramped and acoustically poor conditions of Coventry Theatre on the evening of 25 May, some hours after the consecration of the cathedral.

The soloists were Jennifer Vyvyan and Richard Lewis with the Coventry Cathedral Festival Choir and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer himself.

Sadly, to this day the work has not been performed in the building for which it was conceived.

Bliss was concerned that in setting the Beatitudes there was the danger of monotony so formed a masterful collaboration with Christopher Hassall (librettist) with whom he had worked previously. Hassall suggested the idea of the Beatitudes as the subject of the work and conceived the choice of texts, which would act as interludes and commentaries on them.

Bliss wrote in his autobiography As I Remember: ' ... each Beatitude shines with the same clear silver gleam, and little contrast of light is possible without deliberately using a distorted mirror’.

He varied their setting by grouping the first two and penultimate four Beatitudes together. However, he felt that further contrast was needed, so he planned to express a mood of violence – ‘force’, he commented, opposing the beatific vision. He did this four times within the work.

Overall, Bliss suggests that in the conflict of contemporary life, the meaning of the Beatitudes has been lost or ignored, as emphasised by a quotation from John Donne’s The Storm which heads the work:

‘…we, except God say
Another Fiat, shall have no more day.’

50 years after its composition the work's message is still valid.  

Using an anthology of texts as a means of providing a structure for a work was a device Bliss had used several times before, for example in Morning Heroes.

Here, the texts comprise the Beatitudes themselves, a passage from the Old Testament, the writings of three great 17th century metaphysical authors, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert and Jeremy Taylor, and one modem master, Dylan Thomas.

[ Left - 3 great poets of Wales;
300 years of Welsh literature
... superbly combined for The Beatitudes. ]

What an extraordinary combination...

They form a logical and dramatic sequence that reaches a climax in the outburst of violent hatred personified by the 'Voices of the mob' and in Taylor's great prayer of peace which provides the work's resolution. Further unity is established musically by a fanfare motif that prefaces the settings of the Beatitudes; it is heard in a variety of imaginative vocal and instrumental scorings in which the harp is prominent.

The work has many high spots: for example, the anguished orchestral prelude that depicts ‘A troubled world'; and the disturbing outburst of hate of the 'Voices of the mob' ending on their shout of 'Kill!'

Such intrusions of violence contrast with the setting of Herbert's 'Easter', with its exultant, melismatic 'alleluias' of the soloists, and effective musical imagery at 'Awake my lute', scored for soprano and harp, followed by the lyrical tenderness of 'I got me flowers to strew thy way' into which Bliss introduces the Easter antiphon 'Haec dies quam fecit Dominus'.

Particularly memorable is the defiant mood of Thomas' 'And death shall have no dominion', Bliss's rapt response to Taylor's '0 Blessed Jesu', and the majestic, glorious 'Amen' with which The Beatitudes ends.

Consider these extreme components, pulled together by Bliss and Hassall to create a singular message for peace and reconcilliation:

Blessed are they... http://bit.ly/M9t8ij watch this You Tube video to understand Bliss' concerns about their being "...little contrasts of light...".

Now, meet one of the interludes so vividly created by "...using a distorted mirror.": http://bit.ly/M9unxZ (another You Tube video illustrating the depressive reality of a setting to which Thomas' And death shall have no dominion is so often set).

For more information read on...

(Short code to Coventry Cathedral website)

Monday, 18 June 2012

Bliss ~ some background to the concert that never was.

Sir Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss, CH, KT, KCVO; 2 August 1891 – 27 March 1975.
Cambridge classicist; distinguished military career in The First World War as officer with the Fusiliers then Grenadier Guards – twice shot and once gassed; successful musical portfolio and career; Master of the Queen’s Music.

A man more different to Britten would be hard to find. Despite the prominence of his career his impact was somewhat sotto voce when it came to public recognition or perhaps acceptance – his style being somewhat ‘modernist’ for traditional ears to accept. But this changed with time.

This portrait of Sir Arthur Bliss by Mark Gertler (oil on canvass 1932) hangs in the National Portrait Gallery

His early musical abilities were demonstrated at Rugby School from where he went on to Pembroke College Cambridge to read Classics and Music where he became very much part of the musical life on campus.

Technical training and inspiration came in 1913 when he entered The Royal College of Music where he became mat and spent time with Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst – their advice and encouragement were invaluable.

But, war broke and his musical training was cut short. Bliss volunteered as a private soldier in the Thirteenth Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. His leadership and gallantry soon gained him a commission and later transfer to First Battalion, Grenadier Guards.

For much of the time between the wars, Bliss lived in California (his Father was an American businessman so the States was a natural ‘next step’). This was a prolific time for Bliss A number of successes followed.

Perhaps one of Bliss’s most important and personal works is his ‘symphonic’ Morning Heroes. This was written in memory of his brother Francis Kennard Bliss who had died at the Western Front. It is a powerful piece of music that was inspired by a deep personal emotion. Quoting Alec Robertson it 'shows no trace of either sentimentality or jingoism.’

The first performance of the impressive Music for Strings was given at the Salzburg Festival in 1935 and was conducted there by Sir Adrian Boult. It was in the same year that Bliss provided the music for Francis Korda’s frightening film Things to Come, based on the famous book by H.G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come:

Work upon work and recognition after recognition fuelled an energy in Bliss that saw more and more subtle fame and calm recognition. He returned to Britain during the Second World War and began working with the BBC during which time he coveted their policy of contemporary Britishness in music, which in itself encouraged the work of fresh musicians and composers.

King George VI Knighted him in 1950 and the new Queen Elizabeth II appointed him Master of the Queens Music shortly after her accession in 1953.

Bliss, who composed quickly and with facility, was able to discharge the many duties of the post. He provided music as required for state occasions, from the birth of a child to the Queen, to the funeral of Winston Churchill, and the investiture of the Prince of Wales.

In 1956, Bliss headed the first delegation by British musicians to the Soviet Union since the end of the Second World War. The party included the soprano Jennifer Vyvyan and the pianist Gerald Moore. He returned to Moscow in 1958, as a member of the jury of the International Tchaikovsky Competition.

Bliss had proved himself well liked, highly regarded in high circles and a not insignificant ambassador.

It was therefore perhaps no great surprise that his status and reputation were right for him to be commissioned to write the notable work that was to musically mark the Consecration of Coventry Cathedral – a world symbol of peace and reconciliation; to be performed on that night in the Cathedral for which it would be written.

Fifty years later, it has still not been performed in the iconic building for which it was created...

until now:

For more information read on...

(Short code to Coventry Cathedral website)