Arthur Bliss (1891 -1975)
A Colour Symphony
Adam Zero (Ballet in one scene)
A Colour Symphony, composed between 1921 and 1922, was Bliss's first major orchestralwork and its success at home and in the United States of America did much to establish him as both anational and international composer of significance. It was commissioned by theGloucester Three Choirs Festival at the instigation of Elgar, who hadencouraged Bliss during the previous decade. Bliss in his fascinatingautobiography, As I Remember, recalled how the invitation arose: '[Elgar]had asked several musicians to have lunch with him... I had no idea who elsemight have been invited... When I arrived I found Adrian Boult, AnthonyBernard, Eugene Goossens, John Ireland, and W. H. Reed, who was the leader ofthe London Symphony Orchestra at that time. The luncheon went a bit awkwardlywith Elgar at his most nervous; then, when the coffee came, he suddenly told usthe reason of our being gathered there. He wanted Howells... Goossens andmyself each to write a new work for the Gloucester Festival of 1922.'
For some time Bliss was stumped aboutwhat form his new piece might take, and in writing about this hiatus in hisautobiography he touched on a key aspect of his artistic sensibility that markedhis entire career: 'I have always found it easier to write "dramatic"music than "pure" music. I like the stimulus of words, or atheatrical setting, a colourful occasion or the collaboration of a greatplayer. There is only a little of the spider about me, spinning his own webfrom his inner being. I am more of a magpie type. I need what Henry Jamestermed a "trouvaille" or a "donnee".'
For weeks Bliss sat staring at a blanksheet of manuscript, then 'one day, looking over a friend's library, I picked upa book on heraldry and started reading about the symbolic meanings associatedwith the primary colours. At once I saw the possibility of so characterizingthe four movements of a symphony, that each should express a colour as Ipersonally perceived it. ...' Hence its title Colour Symphony with thesub-titles to the movements of Purple, Red, Blue, Green.'
'Purple', Bliss suggested, reflected'The Colour of Amethysts, Pageantry, Royalty and Death.' With its three themesleading to a climax then reappearing in reverse order, the music suggests aslow processional march approaching then receding from sight. Regal trumpetfanfares, erupting out of the texture like shafts of light from a prism, usherin the movement's climax. A fiery, explosive scherzo characterizes 'Red - theColour of Rubies, Wine, Revelry, Furnaces, Courage and Magic'. There are twotrios: the first in a flowing 6/8 rhythm; the second marked by irregularcross-rhythms also has 'blues' harmonies, a reminder that jazz was the popularmusic of the time. Bliss suggested that the movement ends in 'a blaze ofscarlet flame'.
'Blue - the Colour of Sapphires, DeepWater, Skies, Loyalty and Melancholy', is a pensive movement with woodwindarabesques playing like zephyr over a repeated rhythm which Bliss likened to'the lapping of water against a moored boat or stone pier'. Later in themovement the rhythm takes on an almost tongue-in-cheek syncopated, jazzycharacter and in the middle of the movement the cor anglais has a melancholytheme set against trilling flutes.
Bliss capped the symphony with acompositional tour-de-force, a double fugue which portrays 'Green - the Colourof Emeralds, Hope, Youth, Joy, Spring and Victory.' The first fugue subject isan angular string theme, lean and sinewy, leading to a life-affirming majesticmarch (a parallel in structural terms to the funeral march of the openingmovement). The second fugue subject is mercurial and begins on the wind.
Tension rises as the fugue subject seems trapped by a pedal-point over which trumpetsblaze bi-tonal interjections. Both subjects are eventually combined and lead toa gigantic climax when six timpani hammer out the rhythm of the second fuguesubject against a dissonant harmonisation of the first. At the end the cadentialdiscords give way to an exultant, shining added 6th chord.
The first performance in GloucesterCathedral on 7th September 1922was not a happy experience for Bliss, who conducted the London SymphonyOrchestra; there was insufficient rehearsal time and inadequate space for allthe players on the platform. It was hardly surprising that he felt theperformance was unsatisfactory. The work was too modern for many in theaudience (including Elgar), but the perceptive critics praised it. As thecritic of The Times aptly commented: 'one feels a razor-edge mind is atwork.' Indeed it is, and Bliss's own description of the finale holds true forthe whole work, for this is young man's music, 'as spring-like as anything Ican write - growing all the time'.
A Colour Symphony has an innate dramatic quality which points to Bliss's later workin film, ballet and opera. In 1937 he wrote a brilliant score to complement theequally superb choreography of Ninette de Valois for the ballet, Checkmate,now regarded as a classic of its time. His next dance venture, Miracle inthe Gorbals, had a scenario by Michael Benthall and choreography by Robert Helpmann;performed by Sadlers Wells Ballet in 1944 it also enjoyed considerable success.
Miracle in the Gorbals was followed by another project for Sadlers Wells Ballet involvingthe same collaborators, Adam Zero. Benthall's scenario was conceived asmuch as a vehicle for Helpmann the dancer as a choreographer. The balletreceived its first performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 8th
April 1946, with Constant Lambertconducting (Lambert had directed the first performances of all three balletsand Bliss dedicated Adam Zero to him). Benthall, who also produced theballet, summarized the plot in a note for the original programme.
'There is a philosophy that life movesin an endless series of timeless cycles. As Nature passes through Spring,Summer, Autumn and Winter, so man is born, makes a success in his ownparticular sphere, loses his position to a younger generation, sees his worldcrumble before his eyes and only finds peace in death. This age-old story istold in terms of a Company creating a ballet and calling on the resources ofthe theatre to do so. Lighting, stage mechanism, dance conventions, musicalforms and costumes and scenery of all periods are used to symbolize the worldof Adam Zero.
The creation of a ballet is thus seen asan allegory for the span of human life; and it opens and closes with a bare,dark stage, which gradually becomes filled with light and scenery as the actionproceeds. Among the characters are the Principal Dancer (Adam Zero), StageDirector (representing Omnipotence),
Choreographer (both Adam's creator anddestroyer), Adam's Fates (the Designer, Wardrobe Mistress and Dresser), theBallerina (his first love, wife and mistress), and the Understudies (his sonand daughter).