Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Piano Concerto Concerto for Two Pianos Piano Sonata
Arthur Bliss was half-American on his father's side. Hestudied with Charles Wood at Cambridge, where he also came under the influenceof Edward Dent, and then at the Royal College of Music. In 1912 he met Elgarwho encouraged him. After distinguished service in World War I, in which he waswounded, gassed and mentioned in despatches, he returned to England and gaineda reputation of some notoriety with works for ensembles (often exploiting thevoice) such as Madam Noy (1918) and Rout (1920), which were deemed to be modernand experimental.
During the 1920s A Colour Symphony (1921-2), Introductionand Allegro (1926), the Oboe Quintet (1927), and Pastoral (1929) establishedBliss as an important voice. His war experiences found musical expression inthe profound choral symphony Morning Heroes (1930), while the Clarinet Quintet(1932) and Music for Strings (1935) showed his command of absolute forms. In1934-5 he composed the music for Alexander Korda's film of H.G. Wells's Thingsto Come, the first of several remarkable artistic collaborations, which alsoincluded the choreographer Ninette de Valois with the ballet Checkmate (1937),Robert Helpmann, the choreographer of the ballet Miracle in the Gorbals (1944),J.B. Priestley, who wrote the libretto for the opera The Olympians (1948-9),and Christopher Hassall and Kathleen Raine in the choral works The Beatitudes(1961) and The Golden Cantata (1963) respectively. These works indicate therange of Bliss's art, which also included concertos for piano (1938-9), violin(1955) and cello (1970), vocal works and a substantial body of chamber music.Among his other major achievements are the orchestral Meditations on a theme byJohn Blow (1955) and Metamorphic Variations (1972). Bliss was knighted in 1950and appointed Master of the Queen's Musick in 1953, a post he served diligentlywith distinction.
In 1938 Bliss was an adjudicator at the Ysa??e InternationalCompetition for pianists; in his autobiography As I Remember he recalled that'Hearing ... so much brilliant playing made me wish to write a work for theinstrument myself. I must have put intense concentration into the wish foralmost immediately afterwards the opportunity arose'. It came from the BritishCouncil, which commissioned Bliss to compose his Piano Concerto to mark BritishWeek at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The premi?¿re took place on 10th Junethat year, with Solomon as the soloist, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestraunder Adrian Boult.
As to the character of the concerto, Bliss described it inhis own programme note: 'It was to be played by Solomon and dedicated to the peopleof the U.S. so obviously it had to be a concerto in the grand manner and whatis loosely called \romantic". Surely the Americans are at heart the mostromantic in the world'. 'Grand' and 'romantic' are certainly the key words forit is both. Here is a big-boned work, energetic, ebullient, and forthright, butwithin this expansive framework there is also room for quieter, more personalemotions portrayed in a rich vein of lyricism. The adjective 'romantic' isequally appropriate for a work following in the tradition of concertos byLiszt, Tchaikovksy and Busoni. Indeed the ferocious double octaves at theopening of the work indicate Bliss's intentions and a virtuoso of a high orderis required to fulfil them.
The first movement grows from four principal ideas: first, adynamic theme sweeping upwards announced by the full orchestra andincorporating a triplet rhythm; secondly, the bitter-sweet fall of a minorninth on the violins revealing a characteristic fingerprint of Bliss's whichrecurs in all three movements; thirdly, a fanfare-like theme which injects ahint of unease into the otherwise urbane mood; fourthly, a theme of calm beautyin marked contrast to the first three. The first three of the themes dominatethe development culminating in a climax where, against an exultant violincounter-melody and the piano's syncopated decoration, the opening theme isheard in the bass of the orchestra. After a cadenza the recapitulation allowsthe contrasting theme to come into its own. A phrase of utter simplicity opensthe Adagietto, the peaceful meditative outer sections of which frame a moreanimated core. Once more the minor ninth interval is in evidence and themovement closes magically with the piano's final astringent, questioning chord,answered by the strings' affirmative answer. A delight in rhythm is apparent inthe finale. First, a pizzicato theme for cellos and basses hints expectantly atfuture possibilities, but is forgotten as the moto-perpetuo-like rondo themesweeps in. From here on, apart from one brief respite, the pace is relentlessand high spirited with cross-rhythms abounding. The episodes are varied incharacter: one is purposeful and direct, while another has a jazzy, syncopatedtheme. Time and again, though, the rondo theme is in the background, ever readyto steal the limelight, as when the entire orchestra takes it up fortissimo. Asthe movement reaches its climax, the pizzicato theme from the start of themovement is revealed as a richly harmonized melody which surges to a majestic close.
Apart from Solomon, another early exponent of the PianoConcerto was the Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood. His performances of theconcerto led Bliss, in 1952, to compose his Piano Sonata for him and he gavethe premi?¿re in a BBC broadcast the following year. It has a similar overallromantic and heroic mood to the concerto. The first movement has a relentless,driving force and grows from a rhythmic figure in triple time marked by acharacteristic upbeat. Contrast arrives with a singing melody decorated bygrace notes. Two climaxes are shaped from these ideas but the movement endswith a mysterious coda. A set of variations on the calm sequence of richlyharmonized chords forms the basis of the Adagio, while the finale opens with apassionate dramatic statement, which is immediately recast in a lyrical vein. Asecond idea appears in dotted rhythm which gradually assumes the character of aswirling dance, to lead to the calm centre of the movement with the initialidea played in an almost improvisatory manner. The tempo takes off again andthe sonata ends in bravura display.
The Concerto for Two Pianos has its origins in one of theexperimental works exploiting the voice that Bliss wrote in the yearsimmediately after the first World War, the Concerto for piano, tenor andstrings of 1921, which is now lost. Realising that this unusual combinationwould be a hindrance to further performances, yet being fond of the work, Blissdecided to recast it as a concerto for two pianos accompanied by an orchestraof wind, brass and percussion. In this form it received its premi?¿re in Bostonin 1924. Bliss was still not satisfied, however, and reorchestrated it for fullorchestra, and as such it was first heard at the Proms in 1929. A finalrevision in 1950 resulted in the work heard here, although there was to be yetone more metamorphosis, for Bliss sanctioned a version for three hands in 1968for the pianists Phyllis Sellick and Cyril Smith.
Although the concerto is cast in one continuous movement, itis clearly divided into three distinct parts, in which the principal musicalideas are all derived from a short two-bar theme heard in octaves in the secondbar of the work. In his programme note for the 1924 version, Bliss likened thedevelopment of this theme to 'an Oriental print' which 'is often developed fromone small and seemingly inconspicuous pattern'. In the original piano and tenorconcerto, Bliss had suggested that there was a third soloist, a xylophone, andthe part remai