Sir Arthur Bliss is generally remembered as an English composer, a pillar of the British musical establishment, but he was in fact half-American (on his father’s side), and America was to play an important part in his life and career.
Bliss was born in London on 2 August 1891 and was educated at Rugby School and Pembroke College, Cambridge. In the spring of 1914 he attended the Royal College of Music – only for a term, but long enough to receive valuable instruction and advice from Vaughan Willliams and Holst. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. Bliss obtained a commission, to servein France, first with the Royal Fusiliers, and then with the Grenadier Guards. He was wounded on the Somme in 1916 and, two years later, gassed at Cambrai, and his bravery was commended in despatches, but he survived – unlike his brother Kennard, whose loss he felt keenly.
Bliss began to make an impact as a composer shortly after the War, with works like _Madam Noy_ (1918) and _Rout_ (1920), and he also began to be noticed as a conductor. The modernity of these early works had gained him a reputation as an _enfant terrible_ but a more mature tone entered his voice with the _Mêlée Fantasque_ of 1921 and, in particular, the _Colour Symphony_, first performed at the Three Choirs Festival in 1922; it was commissioned at the behest of Elgar, whom Bliss had first met in 1912.
In 1923 Bliss went with his father to the United States, composing little during this period but becoming highly active as a conductor, pianist, lecturer and writer; he also heard his music played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. During this period he met Trudy Hoffmann, whom he married in 1925; early the following year they returned to England and the stream of compositions began to flow again: _Introduction and Allegro_ for orchestra (1926), a quintet for oboe and strings (1927), _Pastoral_ ("Lie strewn the white rocks") for soprano, chorus, flute, timpani and strings (1928) and a _Serenade_ for baritone and orchestra (1929). In the late 1920s Bliss began work on the score that may well be his masterpiece, _Morning Heroes_, a symphony for orator, chorus and orchestra dedicated to the memory of his brother Kennard and "all other comrades killed in battle". With it, Bliss said, he exorcised his own horrific memories of action in the First World War.
One of Bliss’ most influential scores was his film music for Alexander Korda’s version of H. G. Wells’ _Things to Come_ (1934–35), which set a benchmark for future composers. This was followed by three equally influential ballets: _Checkmate_ (1937), _Miracle in the Gorbals_ (1944) and _Adam Zero_ (1946). Bliss always responded to the stimulus of writing for individual musicians, and his _Piano Concerto_ (1939) was composed for Solomon, the _Violin Concerto_ (1955) for Alfredo Campoli and the _Cello Concerto_ (1970) for Mstislav Rostropovich. He also continued to produce a number of impressive orchestral scores, not least the _Meditations on a Theme of John Blow_ (1955) and the late _Metamorphic Variations_ (1972).
Bliss’s only attempt at a stage opera, _The Olympians_ (1949), to a libretto by J. B. Priestley, was only moderately successful, and he attempted the _genre_ only once again, in the TV opera _Tobias and the Angel_ (1960), to a text by Christopher Hassall. He continued to enjoy writing for voice: _The Enchantress_ (1952), a scena for contralto and orchestra, was composed for Kathleen Ferrier, and _The Beatitudes_ (1962) is an extensive cantata for soprano, tenor, chorus and orchestra. His last major work was another cantata, _Shield of Faith_ (1975).
Bliss was always at the centre of British musical life: he worked in the Overseas Music Service of the BBC in 1941, and was the BBC’s Director of Music from 1942 to 1944. He was knighted in 1950, and was appointed Master of the Queen’s Musick in 1953, in succession to Sir Arnold Bax. He died on 27 March 1975.
Arthur Bliss is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
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