BLISS: Clarinet Quintet / String Quartet No. 2
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Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
String Quartet No. 2 Clarinet Quintet
Arthur Bliss, who was half-American on his father'sside, studied at Cambridge with Charles Wood and alsofound in Edward Dent a stimulating mentor. His studiescontinued at the Royal College of Music and in 1912 hemet Elgar who encouraged his aspirations as acomposer. During the First World War he served withdistinction, and in the post-war years his career waslaunched with a series of bold ensemble works, whichoften exploited the voice, such as Conversations (1920)and Rout (1920). These were deemed to be modernistic,with the result that Bliss gained a reputation as an avantgardeexperimentalist, a view confirmed by his firstmajor orchestral work A Colour Symphony (1921-2).
From 1923 to 1925 Bliss lived in the United States,where he married an American, Gertrude Hoffmann.
With his burgeoning domestic happiness his musicallanguage matured rapidly, as heard in the Oboe Quintet(1927) and Pastoral (1928). In the early 1930s hismemories of the carnage of the trenches found musicalexpression in the profound choral symphony MorningHeroes (1930), while the Viola Sonata (1933) and theMusic for Strings (1935) demonstrated his mastery ofmusical structures.
A characteristic of Bliss's career was his manycollaborations with major artists of his day from othergenres. In 1934-5, for example, he composed the scorefor Alexander Korda's film Things to Come based onH.G. Wells's novel; it remains a classic score for themedium and the suite drawn from it is one of Bliss'smost popular works. Ballet was also an importantmedium for him and he collaborated with Ninette deValois on Checkmate (1937) and Robert Helpmann onMiracle in the Gorbals (1944) and Adam Zero (1946),all three premi?¿res being conducted by ConstantLambert. J.B. Priestley wrote the libretto for the operaThe Olympians (1948-9), and with Christopher Hassalland Kathleen Raine he wrote the choral works TheBeatitudes (1962) and The Golden Cantata (1963)respectively.
Bliss's orchestral works include three concertos allwritten for great performers, the Piano Concerto (1938-9) for Solomon, Violin Concerto (1955) for Campoli,and Cello Concerto (1970) for Rostropovich, as well asthe masterly Meditations on a Theme of John Blow(1955) and the Metamorphic Variations (1972). Hisformidable organisational talents were brought into playas Director of Music at the BBC during the SecondWorld War and from 1953 until his death as Master ofthe Queen's Musick, a post to which he brought greatdistinction. He was knighted in 1950 and hisautobiography As I Remember is a fascinating portraitof his life and times.
After composing works with programmatic ordramatic subjects, Bliss frequently felt the need to writea purely abstract work. Hence the Second String Quartetcame in the wake of the opera The Olympians: as hewrote in As I Remember, 'I retreated into the intimateand private world of chamber music'. He composed thequartet in 1950 dedicating it to the members of theGriller Quartet in honour of their twentieth anniversaryand they gave the premi?¿re at the Edinburgh Festivalthat year. Bliss felt that 'it grew into the mostsubstantial chamber work that I had attempted' and it isindeed a powerful and rigorous essay in compositionalskill.
The first movement explodes into life with adramatic theme on the three upper strings marked bytrills. This theme informs much of the musical argumentthat follows. A spacious chordal idea and onepercussive in character complete the first group ofthemes. By contrast a new section commences with arelaxed, flowing theme heard initially on the first violin.
The development reaches its climax with a forcefulstatement of the chordal idea and in the recapitulationthe principal ideas are heard in a different scoring. Softdissonances, with the strings muted, open the Sostenuto,which is contemplative in character. A short fastersection leads to a brooding climax and on to animpassioned cello solo, unmuted, against the otherinstruments playing tremolando still with their muteson. As if the music is suspended, a still threefoldrepetition of the opening dissonance played pianissimoconcludes the movement.
Bliss described the third movement as having 'thespirit of a Scherzo', and to be played 'at top speed'. Itopens with a bounding rising arpeggio that dominatesthis rhythmically energetic music. The brief trio-likesection is characterised by a dogged, insistent figureplayed by the quartet in rhythmic unison. A fugato onthe arpeggio idea and a swinging viola solo follows,before a second appearance of the trio where the violaagain takes centre stage set against the harmonics of theviolins and the cello's pizzicato, providing a magicaland inspired transformation of its first appearance. Thefinale is shaped from ideas heard in alternate tempos atthe outset. A series of descending chords usher in theLarghetto and are followed by an elegiac viola solo. Bycontrast the Allegro is marked by a purposeful themeintroduced by the first violin. Later in the movement theLarghetto melody is played by both the first violin andcello and it this theme which ends the quartet as awhole, as in the very final bars the music comes to restserenely in the major rather than minor key.
As in many of Bliss's works the inspiration of agreat artist was a powerful stimulus in the compositionof the Clarinet Quintet. In this instance it was FrederickThurston who, together with the Kutcher Quartet, gavethe first performance at the composer's home inDecember 1932. It was dedicated to Bliss's friend thecomposer Bernard van Dieren. Clearly Bliss loved theclarinet, and significantly it was the instrument of hisbrother Kennard, who had been killed in the First WorldWar. As the quintet was the next work to be composedafter Morning Heroes, Bliss's overtly public requiemfor his beloved brother, it is possible to view it as afurther expression of his loss. Undoubtedly the work isone of his finest achievements.
Like Mozart and Brahms in their clarinet quintets,Bliss chose the A clarinet because of its silkier tones. Ina lecture of 1932 he described the instrument'squalities: 'The clarinet has a curiously varied manner ofexpression, being capable of sounding like threedifferent instruments. In its highest register it is brilliantand piercing, with an almost pinched trumpet sound; inits middle octave it is beautifully pure and expressive,with a clear even tone; in its lowest register it is reedy insound, with a dark, mournful and rather hollow quality.
It is an immensely agile instrument, capable of extremedynamic range, extending to a powerful forte to thesoftest pianissimo.'The clarinet is heard to expressive effect at thebeginning of the first movement with an extended solocantilena. Gradually, in a manner that Bliss likened to aconversation, the other instruments steal in tenderlyechoing the clarinet's melody to produce a web ofluminous counterpoint. Surely for sheer beauty thisopening must rank among the most memorable intwentieth-century chamber music? But, as often withBliss, the serenity which marks the first movement iscontrasted with altogether ominous moods in thestabbing rhythms, martial-like fanfares and dissonancesof the succeeding dramatic scherzo. Contrast isprovided by a solo violin melody of aching poignancy,which is followed by a pizzicato passage before thedrama returns. At the heart of the work is the pensiveslow movement which grows from the simplesyncopated violin phrase at the start. The full expressiverange of the clarinet is exploited in long florid lines anddecorated arabesques as the music quickens to a climaxin the movement's centre. After this central point astately sarabande-like melody leads to a return of theprincipal idea. In the predominantly carefree andeffervescent finale the brilliance of the clarinet'