BLISS: Checkmate / Melee Fantasque
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Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
M?¬lee Fantasque Checkmate: Ballet in One Scene with a Prologue
Arthur Bliss, who was half-American, studied atCambridge and the Royal College of Music. During theFirst World War he served with distinction, and in thepost-war years his career was launched with a series ofbold ensemble works such as Rout (1920). These gainedhim the reputation as an avant-garde experimentalist, asdid his first major orchestral work A Colour Symphony(1921-2). His musical language reached its maturity inthe late 1920s as heard in the Oboe Quintet (1927) andPastoral (1928). In the 1930s his memories of warinspired the profound choral symphony MorningHeroes (1930), whilst his Music for Strings (1935)demonstrated his mastery of musical structures.
A characteristic of Bliss's career was hispartnerships with major artists of other genres,beginning, in 1934-5, with the score for AlexanderKorda's film Things to Come, based on H.G. Wells'snovel. Ballet was an important medium for him and hecollaborated with Ninette de Valois on Checkmate(1937) and with Robert Helpmann on Miracle in theGorbals (1944) and Adam Zero (1946). Othercollaborators included J.B. Priestley, who wrote thelibretto for the opera The Olympians (1948-9).
Among orchestral works are concertos for piano(1939), violin (1955) and cello (1970), as well asMeditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955) andMetamorphic Variations (1972). His formidableorganisational talents were brought into play as directorof music at the BBC during the Second World War, andfrom 1953 as Master of the Queen's Music. He wasknighted in 1950, and his autobiography As I Rememberis a fascinating portrait of his life and times.
In the years immediately before and after the FirstWorld War, Bliss's enthusiasm for ballet was fosteredby the brilliance of Dyagilev's Ballets Russes on theirvisits to London. In particular Stravinsky's great scoresmade a huge impression, and his influence on Bliss inthe post-war years was significant, as is apparent inM?¬lee Fantasque. Composed in 1921, it was Bliss'sfirst orchestral work to be performed in public whenHenry Wood invited the composer to conduct it in hisPromenade Concerts that year. It was dedicated to thememory of the artist and theatre designer Claude LovatFraser, with whom Bliss had collaborated onproductions of Shakespeare's As You Like It and TheTempest. As he acknowledged in his programme note,Bliss considered M?¬lee Fantasque his first ballet score;in it he aimed 'to convey the rhythmic verve and Bakstlikecolour of Lovat Fraser's paintings'. These were'evoked in colourful episodes', which Bliss contrastedwith 'elegiac passages which hint at the loss of thisgifted friend'. Bliss had a great affection for this workand twice revised it.
Checkmate was inspired by another of Bliss'senthusiasms, chess, and as he explained in an articleDeath on Squares, written in 1938, the seeds for theballet were sown at a dinner party when theconversation turned on subjects suitable for ballet.
Games were mentioned, and 'the idea of the pitilessqueen in chess leapt from someone's brain'. Nothingcame of the concept at the time, but when Bliss wasasked to write a work for the Vic-Wells Ballet hereturned to the idea. Bliss wrote his own scenario, butwas greatly helped by the theatre director W. BridgesAdams. Checkmate was composed in 1936-7, withchoreography by Ninette de Valois and designs by E.
McKnight Kauffer. De Valois' choreography combinedclassical steps, English traditional dance like Morris, aswell as the sinister goose-steps of the Nazis whichinevitably linked the ballet's subject to the mood of thetimes when war clouds were gathering.
The premi?¿re on 15th June 1937 at the The?ótre desChamps-Elysees in Paris was a glittering occasion,danced by a cast with now legendary names, includingFrederick Ashton (Death), Robert Helpmann (RedKing), Harold Turner (Red Knight), June Brae (BlackQueen), Pamela May (Red Queen) and Margot Fonteynleading the Black Pawns. Constant Lambert conductedthe Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux. The Britishpremi?¿re took place on 5th October the same year atSadler's Wells Theatre, London, and the combinedtalents brought about a masterpiece of English balletwhich remains in the repertoire today.
In the description of the action that follows thequotations are taken from both Bliss's scenario and thestage directions. The music of the Prologue is sombre,characterized by a brooding viola melody. As thecurtain rises two players, one in gold armour, the otherin black, sit motionless with a chess-board betweenthem. The gold player removes his visor; he is Love: theblack player strips off his gauntlet revealing the skeletalarm of Death. Choosing red and black respectively, theywill fight for the lives of their subjects. The curtainslowly falls.
At the beginning of the Dance of the Red Pawns,the stage is revealed as a chess-board on which the redpieces are assembling. The pawns, 'light-hearted pages'dance to a carefree woodwind theme, the music ofnovices which captures their youthful ardour. By theend of the dance they are drawn up in a stylistic chessformation. Two Red Knights, 'fierce and powerfulfighters', bound onto the board to an accented stringtheme which is courageous and masculine as they startthe Dance of the Four Knights. The two Black Knightsfollow on a 'reconnoitring visit of chivalry'. To leapingrhythms, they salute and challenge each other todisplays of prowess in which the first Red Knightsurpasses them all. As the dance finishes, the BlackKnights fall on their knees at the approach of theirQueen; the music is ominous, pregnant with danger; sheis the 'most dangerous piece on the board.'The Entry of the Black Queen is epitomized by asensuous clarinet melody offset by harp arpeggios,indicative of both her sexual allure and her deadly, coldheartednature. She mesmerises the red pieces,especially the Red Knight and to a melting solo violinphrase flings him a rose; he is ensnared by her guile. Heis exultant in having, supposedly, gained her love and inThe Red Knight's Mazurka responds with an athletic,elated solo in which his main theme is contrasted by atender idea on woodwind. Towards the end the musicturns sinister, as if presaging his doom.
The Ceremony of the Red Bishops is evoked by achiming bell and a chant-like fragment on the strings.
The pawns slowly dip the banners of their knights 'togive the stage the appearance of a chapel', but theblessing is interrupted by the Entry of the Red Castleswho, with their brutish strides to clashing cymbals,suggest that 'force is the final arbiter'. For this sectionBliss re-used music from the sequence 'The Building ofthe New World' from the film Things to Come, as he feltthat music portraying robotic machinery equallycharacterized the castles which he described as'inhuman and menacing monsters'. Brilliant 'Pomp andCeremony' fanfares ring out as the Red King and Queenapproach. The Entry of the Red King and Queen ismarked by a regal horn solo with florid decoration asthe old and feeble Red King, the weakest piece on theboard, is borne in on a palanquin. On the last chord ofthis movement the pawns adopt a fighting position: 'acomplete set of red pieces in their chess positions is thusshown to the audience.'With The Attack the 'Game begins' as brass andwind play a forceful theme and the stage becomes 'alivewith the intricate manoeuvres of the chess battle'. Thecorps de ballet alternate with the Black Queen's solos,the latter's sallies accompanied by castanets. As themusic slows, massive dissonant chords indicate that 'aclear opening to the Red King is laid bare; the BlackQueen's menacing manoeuvre results in 'the CHECK!of the King' to two jabbing chords. He summons hisBishops to assist him; they intercede to their chant, butare imperiously dismissed by the ruthle