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ClassicsOnline Home » BLISS: String Quartets / Conversations
Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
String Quartet No. 1 in B flat major
Conversations for flute, oboe, violin, viola and cello
String Quartet in A major (c 1915)
Arthur Bliss belongs to the generation of English composers who came to maturity in the years between the two World Wars. It was once the accepted view that he had moved from the modernism of the 1920s into a more conventional Elgarian romanticism. It is only now, in a new century, that it is proving possible to see his work in a truer perspective.
The son of a New England businessman and his amateur pianist wife, Arthur Bliss was born in London in 1891. He and his brothers were brought up by their father, after the early death of their mother. Educated at Rugby and then at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was a pupil of Charles Wood and came to know Edward Dent, he spent a year at the Royal College of Music, before joining the army, in which he served from 1914 until demobilisation in 1919. At the Royal College he was a contemporary of Herbert Howells, whose talent he particularly admired, and of Eugene Goossens, Ivor Gurney and Arthur Benjamin, but had little in common with Stanford, his teacher. As an officer in the Royal Fusiliers and later in the Grenadier Guards, Bliss shared the horrors of trench warfare, wounded, later gassed, and mentioned in despatches. His brother Kennard was killed in action, a loss Bliss felt keenly.
In the years after the war Bliss began to make a name for himself in London, writing music that occasionally provoked a hostile reaction from conservative critics. Works of his were heard abroad, and his A Colour Symphony, commissioned by Elgar, together with works by Howells and Goossens, was played at the Three Choirs Festival in 1922, although not on that occasion to his own satisfaction. He spent the years 1923 and 1924 in America with his father and his brother Howard and in 1925 married, before returning with his wife to England, to engage once more in composition, largely neglected during his stay abroad.
Often drawing inspiration from distinguished performers, in the summer of 1939 Bliss found himself in New York, where the pianist Solomon was to give the first performance of the composers new Piano Concerto at the Worlds Fair. Accepting an opportune invitation to teach at Berkeley, he returned to England in 1941 to serve as Director of Music with the BBC from 1942 until 1944. The years brought film and ballet scores, and after the war collaboration with J.B.Priestley on the opera The Olympians. In 1950 Bliss received a knighthood and three years later he succeeded Arnold Bax as Master of the Queens Musick, thereafter contributing the expected ceremonial pieces demanded by his office. At the same time there was a series of major works, including a Violin Concerto in 1955 for Alfredo Campoli, and a Cello Concerto in 1970 for Mstislav Rostropovich, given its first performance under Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival. One of his last works, commissioned for the quincentenary of St Georges Chapel, Windsor, was his 1974 Shield of Faith, a setting of an anthology of poems that he was never to hear. It continued a genre he had explored earlier, notably in 1930 in Morning Heroes, an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of war. He died in March 1975.
Bliss wrote his String Quartet in A major in 1915, during the Great War, and subsequently withdrew it, as he did other early works. The quartet was dedicated to Edward Dent and was performed in London in November of the year of its composition. Bliss had always admired the music of Edward Elgar and received encouragement from him. On this occasion Lady Elgar wrote to Bliss, then serving in France, to tell him of the favourable reception of his work and her own appreciation of music she found full of eager life and exhilarating energy and hope. The first movement seems at once to reflect current English musical trends, while suggesting in texture Blisss early admiration for the music of Ravel. The second movement opens with a melody in the mode of an English pastoral folk-song in which instrument after instrument joins, in imitation. This is followed by a final Allegro vivace con grazia that broadly continues the same mood and textures, with melodies of modal contour, moments of contrapuntal interest, and the energetic spirit that Lady Elgar had observed and praised. The quartet was heard with relative frequency in the recitals of the Philharmonic String Quartet, in which Eugene Goossens, its co-founder, played second violin.
Conversations, scored for flute/bass flute, oboe/cor anglais, violin, viola, and cello, represents a new phase in Blisss career. In Paris after the war he had met the group of young composers loosely banded together as Les Six, and Conversations was later played at the Aeolian Hall in London in a programme that included works by Germaine Tailleferre, Poulenc and Milhaud, to be greeted by the severe strictures of the critic of the Daily Mail. The work was originally intended as a jeu desprit, given in a private performance by five musicians of some distinction, including the flautist Gordon Walker and the oboist Leon Goossens. The first movement, The Committee Meeting, finds the chairman, the violin, in a monotonous mezzo-forte, struggling to make his point, against the often irrelevant interruptions of others, in obvious dissent. In the Wood is gently nostalgic in character, with its intermittent bird-song, a contrast to the following In the Ballroom, with its jaunty violin melody first heard over the plucked notes of viola and cello, before the entry of the bass flute. At the heart of the movement, in which the oboe is silent, is a more sinister passage, introduced by the bass flute. The fourth movement is Soliloquy for cor anglais alone, the first section, which is repeated, frames a livelier central section. Conversations ends with In the Tube at Oxford Circus, a playful evocation of the turmoil and varying scene, the whole work a contemporary reaction to the preceding decade, but no longer as shocking as it seemed to some contemporaries.
Bliss wrote relatively little during his stay in America in the early months of the war. The work later published as String Quartet No.1 in B flat major, however, was written at the invitation of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, and first performed in April 1941 at Berkeley by the Pro Arte Quartet, led by Antonio Brosa, shortly before the composers return to England. The first performance in London was given in the National Gallery by the Griller Quartet in March 1942. The work shows the composers command of the medium in idiomatic string-writing and an equitable distribution of musical interest between the instruments. The first movement opens with a chordal Andante maestoso, moving on to a syncopated figure and a more urgent passage, before the Allegro con brio, with its characteristically wide-spaced melodic contours. There is more lyrical material, all developed before the varied return of the first Allegro theme in recapitulation, and a closing section that recalls the Maestoso opening. There is gentle lilt to the Allegretto grazioso, contrasted with the more overt rhythmical asymmetry of secondary thematic material, to be heard again more emphatically after the return of the opening theme from the viola. There is a similarly clear structure in the slow movement, with its continuing shifts of key centre. Its final tranquillity is broken by the opening dissonance of the last movement, with an energetic first theme that has something of the angularity of Russian music of the time, and more lyrical contrasting material. A closing Presto brings to an end a work that has all the eager life and exhilarating energy that Lady Elgar had detected in the quartet of 1915.
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BLISS: String Quartets / Conversations