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ClassicsOnline Home » BLISS: Colour Symphony / HINDEMITH: Symphony, "Mathis der Maler" (Bliss, Hindemith) (1955)
BLISS: Colour Symphony /
HINDEMITH: Symphony, "Mathis der Maler"
ARTHUR BLISS: A Colour Symphony
 I. Purple: Andante maestoso
 II. Red: Allegro vivace
 III. Blue: Gently flowing
 IV. Green: Moderato
 ARTHUR BLISS: Introduction and Allegro
PAUL HINDEMITH: Symphony, "Mathis der Maler"
 I. Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert)
 II. Grablegung (Entombment)
 III. Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (Temptation of St. Anthony)
Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen's Music in Great Britain from 1953 until his death, eventually followed the late romantic tradition of Elgar in English music, after a more controversial period of composition in youth. In accordance with the perceived duties of his official position, he wrote various ceremonial pieces, in addition to music for the concert-hall, theatre and cinema.
A Colour Symphony, composed between 1921 and 1922, was Bliss's first major orchestral work and its success at home and in the United States of America did much to establish him as both a national and international composer of significance. It was commissioned by the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival at the instigation of Elgar, who had encouraged Bliss during the previous decade. Bliss in his fascinating autobiography, As I Remember, recalled how the invitation arose: '[Elgar] had asked several musicians to have lunch with him… I had no idea who else might have been invited… When I arrived I found Adrian Boult, Anthony Bernard, Eugene Goossens, John Ireland, and W.H. Reed, who was the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra at that time. The luncheon went a bit awkwardly with Elgar at his most nervous; then, when the coffee came, he suddenly told us the reason of our being gathered there. He wanted Howells… Goossens and myself each to write a new work for the Gloucester Festival of 1922.'
For some time Bliss was stumped about what form his new piece might take, and in writing about this hiatus in his autobiography he touched on a key aspect of his artistic sensibility that marked his entire career: "I have always found it easier to write 'dramatic' music than 'pure' music. I like the stimulus of words, or a theatrical setting, a colourful occasion or the collaboration of a great player. There is only a little of the spider about me, spinning his own web from his inner being. I am more of a magpie type. I need what Henry James termed a 'trouvaille' or a 'donnee'."
For weeks Bliss sat staring at a blank sheet of manuscript, then 'one day, looking over a friend's library, I picked up a book on heraldry and started reading about the symbolic meanings associated with the primary colours. At once I saw the possibility of so characterizing the four movements of a symphony, that each should express a colour as I personally perceived it. …' Hence its title Colour Symphony with the sub-titles to the movements of Purple, Red, Blue, Green.'
 Movement I: Purple, Bliss suggested, reflected 'The Colour of Amethysts, Pageantry, Royalty and Death.' With its three themes leading to a climax then reappearing in reverse order, the music suggests a slow processional march approaching then receding from sight. Regal trumpet fanfares, erupting out of the texture like shafts of light from a prism, usher in the movement's climax.
 A fiery, explosive scherzo characterizes II. Red – 'the Colour of Rubies, Wine, Revelry, Furnaces, Courage and Magic'. There are two trios: the first in a flowing 6/8 rhythm; the second marked by irregular cross-rhythms also has 'blues' harmonies, a reminder that jazz was the popular music of the time. Bliss suggested that the movement ends in 'a blaze of scarlet flame'.
 III. Blue – 'the Colour of Sapphires, Deep Water, Skies, Loyalty and Melancholy', is a pensive movement with woodwind arabesques playing like zephyr over a repeated rhythm which Bliss likened to 'the lapping of water against a moored boat or stone pier'. Later in the movement the rhythm takes on an almost tongue-in-cheek syncopated, jazzy character and in the middle of the movement the cor anglais has a melancholy theme set against trilling flutes.
 Bliss capped the symphony with a compositional tour-de-force, a double fugue which portrays IV. Green – 'the Colour of Emeralds, Hope, Youth, Joy, Spring and Victory.' The first fugue subject is an angular string theme, lean and sinewy, leading to a life-affirming majestic march (a parallel in structural terms to the funeral march of the opening movement). The second fugue subject is mercurial and begins on the wind. Tension rises as the fugue subject seems trapped by a pedal-point over which trumpets blaze bi-tonal interjections. Both subjects are eventually combined and lead to a gigantic climax when six timpani hammer out the rhythm of the second fugue subject against a dissonant harmonisation of the first. At the end the cadential discords give way to an exultant, shining added 6th chord.
The first performance in Gloucester Cathedral on 7 September 1922 was not a happy experience for Bliss, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra; there was insufficient rehearsal time and inadequate space for all the players on the platform. It was hardly surprising that he felt the performance was unsatisfactory. The work was too modern for many in the audience (including Elgar), but the perceptive critics praised it. As the critic of The Times aptly commented: 'one feels a razor-edge mind is at work.' Indeed it is, and Bliss's own description of the finale holds true for the whole work, for this is young man's music, 'as spring-like as anything I can write - growing all the time'.
A Colour Symphony has an innate dramatic quality which points to Bliss's later work in film, ballet and opera.
 The Introduction and Allegro of was written four years later, in 1926, and came after he had spent a few years in the United States. After his return in 1925, Bliss threw himself into composition and if the Colour Symphony is a young man’s work, the Introduction and Allegro is a work of his next development. It was dedicated to the Philadelphia Orchestra and its conductor Leopold Stokowski and was the first of many works written for virtuoso ensembles or soloists.
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)
Respected as one of the most distinguished viola-players of his time, Hindemith devoted the earlier part of his career to performance, first as a violinist and then as violist in the Amar-Hindemith Quartet, while developing his powers as a composer and his distinctive theories of harmony and of the place of the composer in society. His name is particularly associated with the concept of Gebrauchsmusik, and the composer as craftsman. He was prolific in composition and wrote music in a variety of forms. Attacked by the National Socialists, he left his native Germany in 1935, taking leave from the Berlin Musikhochschule, where he had served as professor of composition for some eight years. In 1940 he settled in the United States, teaching at Yale University, a position he combined after the war with a similar position at the University of Zurich. He died in his native city of Frankfurt in 1963.
In 1932, the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler invited Hindemith to write a Philharmonic Concerto to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Two years later came the Mathis der Maler Symphony, a composition that gave a foretaste of Hindemith's new opera Mathis der Maler, and this too was performed under Furtwängler with some success.
As a composer Hindemith was very prolific, able to write music very quickly, often responding to the immediate demands of performers or circumstances. His theories on the craft of composition led to idiosyncratic teaching and to the cultivation of a tonal and contrapuntal style that is highly characteristic, if less effective in the hands of his followers.
It was in 1932 that Hndemith began to seek a subject for a new opera. At one time he considered Gutenberg, but accepted the more fruitful suggestion of the painter Matthias Grünewald. As his correspondent Franz Willm pointed out, Grünewald's career coincided with the Peasants' War and the Renaissance, and there were, therefore, marked similarities with their own age. Hindemith expressed his anxiety not to invite comparison in his new opera with Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, but he remained optimistic about any political considerations there might be, seeking to conceal from officialdom, at least, any such implications. His immediate intention, in any case, was to write Vorspiele (Preludes) for concert use, and the first of these, the slow movement of the symphony, was completed on 30 November 1933. Two weeks later the Engelkonzert that forms the first movement was finished. The third movement, Versuchung, actually arranged rather than taken directly from the opera, caused more trouble, but was eventually completed on 27 February 1934 and the work was successfully performed in Berlin on 12 March.
Hindemith had originally intended to write four movements, but the concept of three movements fitted exactly with the pictorial source, the Isenheim Altar-piece by Grünewald, a two-sided triptych. The three pictures provide representations that correspond to the three movements, the Concert of Angels, () in which Hindemith uses the traditional song 'Es sungen drei Engel ein süssen Gesang'(Three angels sang a sweet song). The second movement () corresponds to the depiction of the Entombment, with two contrasted themes, and the third () with the Temptation of St. Anthony, which has the added words 'Ubi eras, bone Jhesulubi eras, quare non affuistilut sanares vulnera mea?' (Where were you, good Jesus, where were you, why were you not there to heal my wounds?). In the opera the temptation is that of Grünewald, who is eventually persuaded by the Archbishop to use his talents that God has given him as a painter, thus putting art before political considerations, to give explicit expression to the concealed implication: The final movement, starting with muted strings in a long melodic line, leads to a fugato and to the final sound of the Lauda Sion for woodwind and brass, with its resounding concluding Hallelujah.
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BLISS: Colour Symphony / HINDEMITH: Symphony, "Mat...