BLISS: Cello Concerto / Music for Strings / Two Studies

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Arthur Bliss (1891 -1975)

Two Studies

Music for Strings

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra


Within months of the end of the Great War, Arthur Blissexploded onto a music scene that for something like sixty years he successivelyoutraged, intrigued, transformed, enriched, guided and graced. A strikingseries of 'experiments in sound' divided the critics and gripped the public, aperiod recalled by that great Bliss enthusiast Benjamin Brit ten in a letter tothe senior composer on his 75th birthday:


My dear Arthur,

When one is very young, tales of one elder's youthfulexploits set one's sympathy vibrating strongly... In my boyhood you, Arthur, werethe avant gardist of Rout, Conversations and daring, possibly apocryphalParisian exploits. You were almost a myth. ...For me still, the zestful avant gardistpeeps out of the silvery halo of to-day. Happy you who can preserve youthfulexuberance without youthful immaturity!


On this compact disc we can enjoy works from both periods,that of experiment and silvery halo'd youthful maturity, together with aquintessential masterpiece from the height of his commanding powers.


Few things that are not bad for my health or morals giveme more pleasure than to see the Two Studies, his very first orchestralcomposition, recorded. Not only are they a delight which throws light on anexciting period of Bliss's work, but a delight many of us never expected toenjoy.

Bliss was discharged from the army in February 1919, having endured a war inwhich he was wounded, gassed, earned recommendations for gallantry decorations,witnessed inconceivable slaughter and atrocities, saw many friends slain andlost a brother with whom he had been extremely close. He was then 28, naturallya late developer, with his youth poisoned, his family shattered, and with aharrowingly acquired, spurious maturity. He did what many another artist did topreserve his sanity: he went on a kind of binge, cramming his days with travel,lecturing, conducting, performing, reviewing and composing a succession of ground-breakingscores. He forged a highly personal style, while encountering the best Europeancomposers on level terms and establishing a British equivalent.


Amongst the catalogue of idiosyncratic, rather subversiveworks are these Studies, written at some speed to meet a deadline forsubmissions to the Royal College of Music's 'Patrons' Fund Concerts' - semi-publicopen rehearsal/performances, and one of the few openings for orchestral worksby new composers. Bliss conducted the first performance on 17th February, 1921. They were heard perhaps twice more before disappearing from sight for over half acentury. Stylistically, Bliss was then the outsider, with neither sympathy norsense of belonging as regards any of the current British musical schools. It wasto the continent that he looked, and to France that he went, to perform, inNovember 1919. The composer Josef Holbrooke had masterminded a trip to Pariswhere both composer-pianists were to play their respective Piano Quintets

at a pair of concerts. The enterprise degenerated into a combination of farceand debacle (nothing apocryphal about that exploit), but aconcert of sorts eventually was given, where Bliss met Milhaud and establishedan immediate rapport. He also lunched with Ravel, whom he revered. He returnedto London with his head buzzing, and the stimulus of Les Six and the vibrant Parisarts scene must have resonated in his mind as he worked on this score.


The first study, Adagio ma non troppo is abeautifully poised, cool pastoral, at the same time lyrically touching butunsentimental. For a first orchestral work the craftsmanship is astonishing:deft, assured and restrained, the atmospheres precisely imagined and conveyed.

Melodies unfold effortlessly, the invention is fecund, the harmonies logical butpiquant. The climax is perfectly placed -his timing was spot-on from the outsetand never left him - the colours clear, limpid but subdued, like a Corotlandscape that has stood perhaps overlong in the sun; poignant, evocative andunder control. If some scholar discovered it to be a lost sketch from Ravel's MotherGoose, say, few would argue, though it has more an echo of his Rhapsody

(1919). In the second, we are more in the areas of Rout. It is a brief,spirited, genial lampoon, putting its thumb to its nose as it romps through amodest catalogue of new-music targets: the Chinoiserie pentatonic tune, the coarsepercussion outburst, the vulgar trombone whoop, but done with the humour of indulgence- he had a sneaking fondness for such things himself.


During the 1920s, Bliss took the manuscript back,presumably to make revisions.

Other matters must have pressed, however, and socomprehensively did he forget he had it that when his publisher's warehouse wasdestroyed by a bomb in World War II, he was convinced the Studies hadgone with it. It was only after his death that the manuscript surfaced from hispapers, where it had lain all the time. The Piano Quintet was less fortunate.


With one mystery solved, another appears, the title-pagereading Studies for full Orchestra Nos. 2 & 3. If there was, or wasto have been, a 'No.1' we can only speculate. My guess is that it was written,and withdrawn as a result of Bliss's session with Holst their conversation asreported in Arthur's autobiography is clearly about a work that is neither ofthe surviving pieces. It would have had to be an Allegro moderato, moredramatic than the existing first study, less flippant than the second andlonger than either, and it probably ended up recycled into something else.

Strangely enough there is exactly such a work, also dating from 1921. It iscalled Melee Fantasque.


In the years leading up to Music for Strings Blisscovered an enormous distance stylistically, emotionally, intellectually - andgeographically. Gone is the disarming innocence of the Studies, blownaway by his experiences working with the crack American orchestras, replaced bya sophisticated, bravura flair, though with no loss of freshness. The source ofits greatness lies deeper than that, in more spiritual realms: Bliss, the trai11ed,convinced classicist, valuing structure and proportion above gesture andrhetoric, competing with Bliss the theatre-lover, the romantic, fond ofdramatic statement and direct expression. You will find few more successful productsof such confrontation of classic and romantic, of passion amplified bydiscipline. Initially he conceived it as an essay into pure, absolute music,and when commentators described it as an overtly romantic work, he did notquite know whether to take it as a compliment or not. There was also growing inhim the realisation that when you are trying to say something new, not only doyou not really need an experimental language, it can actually get in the way. Hehad learned what he wanted from experiment, and walked away from it with asmile. His war memories he could not walk away from.


Item number 8553383
Barcode 730099438322
Release date 01/01/2000
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Hugh, Tim
Hugh, Tim
Composers Bliss, Arthur
Bliss, Arthur
Conductors Lloyd-Jones, David
Lloyd-Jones, David
Orchestras English Northern Philharmonia
English Northern Philharmonia
Producers Myers, Paul
Myers, Paul
Disc: 1
Study, Op. 16, No. 3: Allegro
1 I. Allegro moderato, energico
2 II. Andante, molto sostenuto
3 III. Allegro molto - Presto
4 I. Allegro deciso
5 II. Larghetto
6 III. Allegro
7 Study, Op. 16, No. 2: Adagio ma non troppo
8 Study, Op. 16, No. 3: Allegro
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