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ClassicsOnline Home » BLISS: Checkmate / Melee Fantasque
Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen’s Music from 1953, was one of the leading British composers of his generation. The sparkling Mêlée Fantasque (1921), which the composer considered to be his first ballet score, shows the influence of Stravinsky and Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes. Checkmate (1937), a collaboration with the great choreographer, Ninette de Valois, is a masterpiece of English ballet, full of striking ideas and colourful effects. This disc offers a rare opportunity to hear the complete ballet, which remains in the repertoire to this day.
Arthur Bliss, who was half-American, studied at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. During the First World War he served with distinction, and in the post-war years his career was launched with a series of bold ensemble works such as Rout (1920). These gained him the reputation as an avant-garde experimentalist, as did his first major orchestral work A Colour Symphony (1921-2). His musical language reached its maturity in the late 1920s as heard in the Oboe Quintet (1927) and Pastoral (1928). In the 1930s his memories of war inspired the profound choral symphony Morning Heroes (1930), whilst his Music for Strings (1935) demonstrated his mastery of musical structures.
A characteristic of Bliss’s career was his partnerships with major artists of other genres, beginning, in 1934-5, with the score for Alexander Korda’s film Things to Come, based on H.G. Wells’s novel. Ballet was an important medium for him and he collaborated with Ninette de Valois on Checkmate (1937) and with Robert Helpmann on Miracle in the Gorbals (1944) and Adam Zero (1946). Other collaborators included J.B. Priestley, who wrote the libretto for the opera The Olympians (1948-9).
Among orchestral works are concertos for piano (1939), violin (1955) and cello (1970), as well as Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955) and Metamorphic Variations (1972). His formidable organisational talents were brought into play as director of music at the BBC during the Second World War, and from 1953 as Master of the Queen’s Music. He was knighted in 1950, and his autobiography As I Remember is a fascinating portrait of his life and times.
In the years immediately before and after the First World War, Bliss’s enthusiasm for ballet was fostered by the brilliance of Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes on their visits to London. In particular Stravinsky’s great scores made a huge impression, and his influence on Bliss in the post-war years was significant, as is apparent in Mêlée Fantasque. Composed in 1921, it was Bliss’s first orchestral work to be performed in public when Henry Wood invited the composer to conduct it in his Promenade Concerts that year. It was dedicated to the memory of the artist and theatre designer Claude Lovat Fraser, with whom Bliss had collaborated on productions of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and The Tempest. As he acknowledged in his programme note, Bliss considered Mêlée Fantasque his first ballet score; in it he aimed ‘to convey the rhythmic verve and Bakstlike colour of Lovat Fraser’s paintings’. These were ‘evoked in colourful episodes’, which Bliss contrasted with ‘elegiac passages which hint at the loss of this gifted friend’. Bliss had a great affection for this work and twice revised it.
Checkmate was inspired by another of Bliss’s enthusiasms, chess, and as he explained in an article Death on Squares, written in 1938, the seeds for the ballet were sown at a dinner party when the conversation turned on subjects suitable for ballet. Games were mentioned, and ‘the idea of the pitiless queen in chess leapt from someone’s brain’. Nothing came of the concept at the time, but when Bliss was asked to write a work for the Vic-Wells Ballet he returned to the idea. Bliss wrote his own scenario, but was greatly helped by the theatre director W. Bridges Adams. Checkmate was composed in 1936-7, with choreography by Ninette de Valois and designs by E. McKnight Kauffer. De Valois’ choreography combined classical steps, English traditional dance like Morris, as well as the sinister goose-steps of the Nazis which inevitably linked the ballet’s subject to the mood of the times when war clouds were gathering.
The première on 15th June 1937 at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris was a glittering occasion, danced by a cast with now legendary names, including Frederick Ashton (Death), Robert Helpmann (Red King), Harold Turner (Red Knight), June Brae (Black Queen), Pamela May (Red Queen) and Margot Fonteyn leading the Black Pawns. Constant Lambert conducted the Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux. The British première took place on 5th October the same year at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, and the combined talents brought about a masterpiece of English ballet which remains in the repertoire today.
In the description of the action that follows the quotations are taken from both Bliss’s scenario and the stage directions. The music of the Prologue is sombre, characterized by a brooding viola melody. As the curtain rises two players, one in gold armour, the other in black, sit motionless with a chess-board between them. The gold player removes his visor; he is Love: the black player strips off his gauntlet revealing the skeletal arm of Death. Choosing red and black respectively, they will fight for the lives of their subjects. The curtain slowly falls.
At the beginning of the Dance of the Red Pawns, the stage is revealed as a chess-board on which the red pieces are assembling. The pawns, ‘light-hearted pages’ dance to a carefree woodwind theme, the music of novices which captures their youthful ardour. By the end of the dance they are drawn up in a stylistic chess formation. Two Red Knights, ‘fierce and powerful fighters’, bound onto the board to an accented string theme which is courageous and masculine as they start the Dance of the Four Knights. The two Black Knights follow on a ‘reconnoitring visit of chivalry’. To leaping rhythms, they salute and challenge each other to displays of prowess in which the first Red Knight surpasses them all. As the dance finishes, the Black Knights fall on their knees at the approach of their Queen; the music is ominous, pregnant with danger; she is the ‘most dangerous piece on the board.’
The Entry of the Black Queen is epitomized by a sensuous clarinet melody offset by harp arpeggios, indicative of both her sexual allure and her deadly, coldhearted nature. She mesmerises the red pieces, especially the Red Knight and to a melting solo violin phrase flings him a rose; he is ensnared by her guile. He is exultant in having, supposedly, gained her love and in The Red Knight’s Mazurka responds with an athletic, elated solo in which his main theme is contrasted by a tender idea on woodwind. Towards the end the music turns sinister, as if presaging his doom.
The Ceremony of the Red Bishops is evoked by a chiming bell and a chant-like fragment on the strings. The pawns slowly dip the banners of their knights ‘to give the stage the appearance of a chapel’, but the blessing is interrupted by the Entry of the Red Castles who, with their brutish strides to clashing cymbals, suggest that ‘force is the final arbiter’. For this section Bliss re-used music from the sequence ‘The Building of the New World’ from the film Things to Come, as he felt that music portraying robotic machinery equally characterized the castles which he described as ‘inhuman and menacing monsters’. Brilliant ‘Pomp and Ceremony’ fanfares ring out as the Red King and Queen approach. The Entry of the Red King and Queen is marked by a regal horn solo with florid decoration as the old and feeble Red King, the weakest piece on the board, is borne in on a palanquin. On the last chord of this movement the pawns adopt a fighting position: ‘a complete set of red pieces in their chess positions is thus shown to the audience.’
With The Attack the ‘Game begins’ as brass and wind play a forceful theme and the stage becomes ‘alive with the intricate manoeuvres of the chess battle’. The corps de ballet alternate with the Black Queen’s solos, the latter’s sallies accompanied by castanets. As the music slows, massive dissonant chords indicate that ‘a clear opening to the Red King is laid bare; the Black Queen’s menacing manoeuvre results in ‘the CHECK! of the King’ to two jabbing chords. He summons his Bishops to assist him; they intercede to their chant, but are imperiously dismissed by the ruthless Queen. The Red King’s consort implores mercy in a pleading oboe solo, but the two Black Knights carry her forcibly away.
In The Duel between the Red Knight and the Black Queen, Bliss interweaves fragments of themes from previous sections. Their combat becomes a battle of wills until the Knight has the Queen at his mercy. Torn between duty and infatuation, the Red Knight hesitates to strike as the Prologue melody resounds through the orchestra, building to thudding chords as he drops his sword. The Queen’s alluring theme is recalled; the Knight turns his back as he takes the rose from his breast to the music from the tender section of his Mazurka, As the music veers to the sinister, she stabs him to a distorted version of his theme. The giant figures of the two players appear; Death throws his black gauntlet on the corpse which, to doleful cor anglais and flute solos, is borne off in a funeral cortège.
In a steely, cold-blooded tango The Black Queen Dances, taunting the terrified Red monarch. Her music twists and turns as, to a solo violin passage, she seemingly plays with her victim, finally leaving the stage ‘with a gesture of savage triumph’. At the beginning of the Finale the King looks for means of flight, the music alternating between slow, nervous passages and fast violent outbursts, as his means of escape are blocked. To relentless, ferocious, music the final onslaught begins with the black forces hounding their quarry. Surrounded by his enemies, the King is forced back to his throne, but recalling his youthful, heroic self he shows a brief moment of defiance appearing ‘majestic as a lion at bay’ to thundering percussion. For an instant the black pieces waver. But behind him stands the Black Queen, spear aloft; she plunges it into his back as the music vividly portrays the death blows. ‘It is Checkmate’.
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BLISS: Checkmate / Melee Fantasque