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8.553698 - BLISS: Miracle in the Gorbals / Discourse for Orchestra
Bliss was a Londoner brought up in the Holland Park area of North Kensington. Part English, part New Englander (his father was American), he read music at Cambridge with the Irishman Charles Wood, got to know Elgar, came under the influence of Edward J. Dent, studied briefly with Stanford at the Royal College of Music, and took advice from Holst and Vaughan Williams. The Great War, its horror later given expression in the symphony Morning Heroes, dedicated to the memory of his brother Francis Kennard "and all other comrades killed in battle", saw him wounded on the Somme, gassed at Cambrai, and mentioned in dispatches. Following the success of A Colour Symphony at the 1922 Three Choirs Festival, he settled briefly in Santa Barbara, California (1923-25), there meeting his future wife, Trudy. In England in the 1930s, hailed as Elgar's successor, he left his mark as a man as confident handling classical concert repertory (the Clarinet Quintet, 1932 Vienna ISCM Festival) as progressive film or ballet. Wartime Director of Music at the BBC from 1942 to 1944, he was knighted in 1950 and created Master of the Queen's Musick, succeeding Bax, in 1953. A decade later, in the meantime having headed a British delegation to the USSR and served on the jury of the first Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition, he received the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society and in 1971 was made a Companion of Honour.
Bliss wrote for all mediums, opera, ballet, film, television, orchestral, ceremonial, choral, church, chamber, instrumental, song, and in over half a century of creative activity, from enfant terrible to grand seigneur, had the good fortune to work not only with inspired collaborators, de Valois, Helpmann, Christopher Hassall and J. B. Priestley, but to hear his music played or recorded by some of the century's finest artists, the conductors Boult, Monteux, Stokowski and virtuoso players such as Campoli, Leon Goossens, Mewton-Wood, Rostropovich, Solomon, Lionel Tertis, Frederick Thurston and the Griller Quartet and the Melos Ensemble. "Morning is my only successful time for working," he tells us in his memoirs, As I Remember (London 1970), "especially so after a good night's sleep; afternoons are intended for a rest from mental concentration, but the interval between tea and dinner can be usefully employed in thinking about next morning's work. Planned meticulously like this, the schedule hardly conjures up the popular idea of the wayward inspired creator, forgetful of time or place, wild-eyed and dishevelled in appearance - I am sure there are many of these to be found, but I am not one of them. I am a bit lazy by nature, and if I do not keep to some kind of regular timetable nothing gets done...I am a firm believer in letting the subconscious mind do most of the hard work." Likeable, exacting, understanding, Bliss was the Young Turk turned Establishment courtier, his manner and music charmed by more than "a whiff of transatlantic zestfulness."
Quoting an "understanding" letter from H. G. Wells (16th October 1934), Bliss in his autobiography gives a tangible chronicle of the genesis and difficulties of Things to Come. "Dear Bliss, I am at issue with [Alexander] Korda and one or two others of the group on the question of where you come in. They say - it is the Hollywood tradition - 'We make the film right up to the cutting then, when we have cut, the musician comes in and puts in his music.' I say 'Balls!...' I say 'A film is a composition and the musical composer is an integral part of the design. I want Bliss to be in touch throughout.' I don't think Korda has much of an ear, but I want the audience at the end not to sever what it sees from what it hears. I want to end on a complete sensuous and emotional synthesis...So far from regarding the music as trimming to be put in afterwards I am eager to get any suggestions I can from you as to the main design..." Consequently a good deal of the music was written and prerecorded before the film really got under way; many later modifications had, of course, to be made, but the dramatic essence of each section remained unaltered. Those were the days of size in film production, huge sets, huge orchestras, hundreds of supers: the bigger the ensemble, the more important the film. At Denham whole towns sprang up, to be battered down by bombs and guns, and then rebuilt in a different setting. One section of the film [Machines] was actually shot to my musical score: there was no dialogue in it; the sequence dealt exclusively with the machines of the future. The scene showed the earth being mined, roads made, houses erected, apparently without the aid of manual labour. This was one of the parts of the film in which Wells took a particular interest, watching the 'rushes' as they were shown, and caustically commenting. He had expressed a wish to hear my music before the 'shooting,' so I invited him to come to my house in Hampstead, and there play the music through to him as best I could on the piano. I think at the end his comment was, without doubt, the strangest I have ever heard from any critical listener. Bliss, he said, I am sure that all that is very fine music, but I'm afraid you have missed the whole point. You see, the machines of the future will be noiseless! Assuring him that I would try to write music that expressed inaudibility I went on my own way, and luckily Wells forgot his objections. As the huge film began to take shape, I realised that Wells was becoming disillusioned. At the outset, I knew he wanted his story of the probable future to be an educative lesson to mankind, to emphasize the horror and uselessness of war, the inevitable destruction of civilized life, the rise of gangster dictatorship and oppression... [But] in spite of imaginative direction [William Cameron Menzies], fine acting [the cast included Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Margaretta Scott, Sophie Stewart, Derrick de Mamey and John Clements] and an expert staff of technicians, the financial necessity of having to appeal to a vast audience meant a concession here and a concession there, a watering down in one place, a deletion in another, so that, instead of having the impact of a vital parable, it became just an exciting entertainment."
Among the most extraordinary landmarks of cinematic history, Things to Come, released in February 1936, remains "a leviathan among films...a stupendous spectacle, an overwhelming, Dorean, Jules Vemesque, elaborated Metropolis, staggering to eye, mind and spirit, the like of which has never been seen and never will be seen again" (Sunday Times). Redolent of Tchaikovsky and Chausson as much as Elgar or Holst yet with an energy, sound and vision unmistakeably, splendidly, its own, Things to Come included ten numbers: Prologue, Ballet for Children, March, Attack, The World in Ruins, Pestilence, The Building of the New World (later re-used in Checkmate: Entry of the Red Castles), Machines, Attack on the Moon Gun, Epilogue (Theme and Reconstruction). Several months before the first film screening, an orchestrally scaled-down six-movement concert suite was presented under the composer in a concert broadcast from the Queen's Hall, London on 12th September 1935. The original orchestration, reflected in the present five movements taken from Christopher Palmer's 1975 reconstruction (Attack on the Moon Gun aside, the autograph is lost), called for massive forces: triple woodwind, quadruple brass, three percussionists, including xylophone and gong, piano, two harps, organ (in the film, mixed chorus) and strings.
Discourse for Orchestra, composed in 1957 and revised in 1965, was written for, and dedicated to, the Louisville Orchestra, which, under its conductor, Robert Whitney, gave the first performance in Louisville's Columbia Auditorium on 23rd October 1957. "Later," Bliss wrote in a programme note, "I had second thoughts about this work and kept it from performance during the intervening years. [In 1965] I devised an entirely new score for slightly larger orchestra and altered the proportions of the work, cutting out one section altogether. The subject of this 20-minute [sic] dissertation is announced in the first few bars. The work can be divided into six clearly-defined sections: I. preliminary statement - (a) emphatic (allegro); (b) calm (larghetto); 2. A gayer and more impudent view (vivace); 3. A contemplative view (andante tranquillo); 4. A restatement of 1(a) with a brief return to (2), leading to 5. the peroration, and 6., a quiet and enigmatic close. As in all speeches, there are a few anecdotes and small digressions, but I hope the subject appears sufficiently throughout, in one form or another, to warrant the title I have given the work." The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer, gave the first performance of the new version at the Royal Festival Hall on 28th September 1965, as part of the Commonwealth Arts Festival. The revised orchestration calls for expanded woodwind and brass sections, and a battery of percussion including glockenspiel, xylophone and gong.
A cyclic morality play in one scene - Christ reborn, re-rexperiencing the events of his Passion - Miracle in the Gorbals, completed in 1944, was the second of Bliss's four ballets. To an allegorical scenario by Michael Benthall, with choreography by Robert Helpmann, the first production was conducted by Constant Lambert on 26th October 1944. Bliss and the London Philharmonic introduced the concert suite at the first Cheltenham Festival in June 1945. “A sordid slum [the Gorbals, the Second World War, 1943-44] near the Glasgow docks - an area now completely transformed. It is late afternoon and people are returning from work. Through the bustle of the crowded street pass first an Official [a dog-collared priest, created by David Paltenghi] and then a Prostitute [Celia Franca], and as darkness begins to fall a Young Girl [Suicide: Pauline Clayden], lonely and pathetic, moves fatefully towards the river [Clyde]. In the half light young lovers [Moira Shearer, Alexis Rassine] embrace before being roughly separated. Later the body of the Young Girl is brought in and the Official comes forward and tries in vain to revive her. At the back of the stage a [Christ-like] Stranger [Robert Helpmann] quietly enters, and stands looking at the scene. He comes down through the crowd, which unconsciously gives way to him. He stretches out his hand to the Girl. Slowly life comes back to her and he begins to dance, expressing her renewed faith and courage. The crowd slowly disperses, night falls, and quiet descends on the street. But the Official is jealous of this Stranger's power over the people; he persuades a gang of young men of the street to attack him. The Stranger offers no resistance, and in a savage scene they murder him. As his body lies there, dawn breaks and signs of life again stir in the street, which itself is the real source of all the evil that has happened" (from the composer's notes). In the Musical Times's 75th birthday tribute to Bliss (August 1966), Clement Crisp remembered Miracle in the Gorbals as "a heavily mimed melodrama...[with] a glowering theatrical libretto by its choreographer... Melodramatic though the action was, it was dignified by Bliss's music which captures all the theatrical vitality of Helpmann's libretto but offers a sustained inspiration of real force and intensity."
Queensland Symphony Orchestra
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