Arthur Bliss

2 August 1891 – 27 March 1975

Although the war had been over for more than ten years, I was still troubled by frequent nightmares; they all took the same form. I was still there in the trenches with a few men; we knew the armistice had been signed, but we had been forgotten; so had a section of the Germans opposite. It was as though we were both doomed to fight on till extinction. I used to wake with horror.

Portrait of Captain Arthur Bliss, 13th Royal Fusiliers So wrote Sir Arthur Bliss in his autobiography As I Remember (1970, p.96) explaining the motivations behind composing his choral symphony Morning Heroes of 1930, a work of great passion and solemnity, but also one which addresses the impetus that he and his generation felt to fight in World War I.

Bliss served with distinction in that conflict; although physically he survived relatively unscathed, his autobiography details some horrific experiences. He was injured at the Somme in 1916 and gassed at Cambrai 1918. He also lost a brother, Kennard, in September 1916 and many friends and fellow officers. Bliss's war as remembered in his diaries and letters is not a glamorous one (as few true accounts are), but gives a frank impression of a young man comprehending the unrelenting difficulties with a weary logic and resillience.

Moreover, his experience profoundly changed Bliss's attitude towards the predominantly German-influenced school of composition taught at the Royal College of Music. After the war, he looked back to the teaching of his Cambridge tutor Edward Dent whose correspondence gives a picture of a man vehemently against the Brahmsian school of composition. Bliss summed up his feelings towards the Germans in an open letter to several publications while recovering in October 1916:

As one of those musicians who have fought German aggression in France, I should like to express my thanks to Edwin Evans and 'Musicus' for their championship of English music and their fight against the predominating influence of Germany at home. I do not know whether as a class musicians have been less affected (except financially) than other professions, but when straight from being wounded on the Somme I went into a London concert hall and heard a public vociferously applauding a German soloist, it gives me furiously to think.

Indeed, in spite of or perhaps because of the war, Bliss became an innovator in his post-war compositions, which initially led to him apparently being considered as something of an enfant terrible to conservative concert-goers. Straight after being demobbed in 1919, he started a-fresh, surpressing the majority of his pre-war work (with the exception of his Pastoral for clarinet and piano of 1916, possibly due to its connection with Kennard, who was a talented clarinetist).

As Hugh Ottaway notes, Arthur's development as a composer had been delayed by four years, and by the time the war was over he was nearer 30, but perhaps as a result the 1920s were an extraordinary prolific one for the composer. Andrew Burn notes:

His abhorrence of time-wasting was a further result of his war years. He knew how fortunate he was to have survived, and was determined not to lose a moment's opportunity—as witnessed by contemporary descriptions of him immediately after the war which portray a forthright young man bursting with energy and purpose. (ODNB)

Bliss established himself writing unusual works for chamber ensembles such as Madame Noy (1918), a comic "witchery song" which he considered his opus 1, and Rout (1920), which features a female solo line made up of nonsense syllables. Even his more traditionally-scored Colour Symphony for the Three Choirs Festival in 1922 was considered "disconcertingly modern" by Elgar, despite Bliss's evident desire for the older composer's approval; Bliss had carried a pocket score of the Cockaigne Overture with "good luck" inscribed by Elgar with him to the Front.

Although Bliss was briefly schooled in composition at the RCM prior to the war, the style of music he produced afterwards continued the ideals he learnt at Cambridge from Edward Dent, and he looked as much to French and Russian composers (especially Stravinsky) as German Romantic music for inspiration.

Perhaps the closest in style pre-war was his fellow Rugby School and Cambridge attendee, William Denis Browne, who was killed in action in 1915. Given Bliss's later penchant for staged dance music, perhaps the comparison is a pertinent one.

Arthur Bliss became widely respected, especially as a composer of orchestral works; after a substantial revision of the Colour Symphony, his Morning Heroes (essentially a second symphony), with its mixture of Classical texts and war poetry can be seen as a prototype of what Benjamin Britten achieved with his much later War Requiem (1960).

Bliss's three ballet scores for Sadler's Wells Checkmate (1937), Miracle in the Gorbals (1944) and Adam Zero (1946) are also particularly fine. Although his music became less fashionable and arguably more tonally conservative after World War II, he took over the mantle of Ralph Vaughan Williams as a sort-of father figure of British music, being knighted and becoming Master of the Queen's Music, a post he held with distinction from 1953 to his death in 1975.

Amongst the war composers, Bliss is important, not only as a figure spanning 20th century British music, but one that offers a yardstick for many of the composers who died in that conflict. Bliss freely admitted that few of his pre-WW1 compositions were of any quality (indeed, he later withdrew almost all of them), and his post-war success and standing gives hints as to what some of the other war composers may have become.

Robert Weedon, March 2014

Sir Arthur Bliss can be heard in a 1972 edition of Desert Island Discs
Bliss, Sir Arthur, As I Remember (London: Thames Publishing, 1989).
Bliss, Sir Arthur, Bliss on Music, ed. Gregory Roscow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
Burn, Andrew, ‘Arthur Bliss: From Rebel to Romantic’, Musical Times, Vol. 132, No. 1782, (August 1991), 383-386.
Burn, Andrew, ‘Bliss, Sir Arthur Edward Drummond (1891–1975)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Burn, Andrew, "'Now, Trumpeter for Thy Close': The Symphony Morning Heroes: Bliss's Requiem for His Brother" Musical Times, Vol. 126, No. 1713 (Nov., 1985), pp. 666-668
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1996).
Evans, Edwin, ‘Arthur Bliss (concluded)’, Musical Times, Vol. 64, No. 960, (Feb. 1, 1923), 95-99.
Foreman, Lewis (ed.) From Parry to Britten: British music in letters, 1900-1945 (London: Amadeus, 1987) Ottaway, Hugh, CD notes for Morning Heroes, EMI5 05909 2 (1983)
Palmer, Christopher, ‘Aspect of Bliss’ Musical Times, Vol. 112, No. 1542 (August 1971), 743-745.
Robertson, Alec, ‘Arthur Bliss’ in British Music of Our Time, ed. A.L. Bacharach (London: Penguin Books, 1951).