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8.555931 - BLISS: Oboe Quintet / Piano Quartet / Viola Sonata
Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
Piano Quartet • Sonata for Viola and Piano • Oboe Quintet
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 composer’s new Piano Concerto at the World’s 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 Queen’s 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 George’s 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.
Wounded on active service in France in 1916, Bliss was transferred once again to England and in 1917 found himself posted to Prior Park in Bath as an instructor to cadet officers. It was in Bath that a performance was arranged of his Piano Quartet, completed in 1915 and dedicated to his friend Lily Henkel and her quartet, published, thanks to his father and Eugene Goossens, by Novello. The first movement opens in a pastoral mood, the thematic material, with its echoes of folk-song, subjected to further development, as the movement proceeds, in a style in many ways typical of English music of the period. There is a brief and attractive Intermezzo, before the lively final Allegro furioso bursts in.
One of the players in the first performance of the Piano Quartet, at a War Emergencies Concert in London in April 1915, was the great viola-player Lionel Tertis: it was through Tertis that Bliss was inspired, in 1933, to write a viola sonata that the composer gradually came to see rather in terms of a concerto for the instrument than as a chamber work. Tertis first played the sonata at a private gathering in May at Bliss’s house at Hampstead Heath with the pianist Solomon, while William Walton turned the pages. Tertis and Solomon gave the first public performance in November at a BBC Chamber Concert, and Tertis relates how he gave a later performance for the BBC with Rubinstein, who had arrived on the morning of the recital, unperturbed by a rough crossing from the Hook of Holland. Rubinstein read the score at sight and in the evening gave an impeccable performance. The sonata makes use of the fullest possible range of the viola, offering a particular challenge in the highest register. Tertis, when asked by the violist Frederick Riddle how he managed the final ascent to the heights at the end of the Furiant, claimed that the Lord alone knew. Nevertheless he went on in his autobiography to explain his habit of practising such difficulties in a moth-eaten old fur coat, after which feats of this kind in the concert hall became relatively easy.
The first movement of the Viola Sonata makes much use of a three-note descending figure and of shifts between implied major and minor in complex and varied textures that explore the lyrical and technical possibilities of the viola. The second movement is introduced by the plucked notes of the muted viola, over sustained piano chords. A brief chordal passage leads to a melody marked Andante poco maestoso and sonore. Both elements return in the conclusion of a particularly lyrical movement. To this the Furiant provides an immediate contrast, impelled forward in its headlong and technically demanding course. The final Coda offers cadenza-like passages, first for the viola and then for the piano, bringing reminiscences of what has passed, particularly of the first movement.
Bliss met Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in America in 1925. He greatly admired her attitude to musicians, patronage and understanding of music generally, dedicating the first of his Two interludes for piano to her that year. He was therefore delighted to accept her commission for the Oboe Quintet for her Venice Festival of 1927, and the work, inspired by the playing of Leon Goossens, was played in Venice by Goossens and the Venetian Quartet, to be repeated in Vienna, where it won the praise of Alban Berg. The violins, in thirds, open the first movement, its general serenity broken by a passage marked Allegro assai agitato but finally restored with the return of a secondary theme and a whispered conclusion. Melodic interest centres on the oboe in the opening of the second movement. An Allegro moderato brings a change of metre and mood, the opening first violin phrase echoed by the viola. Peace returns and the movement ends as it had begun. The strings unite in the forceful opening of the final Vivace, the melodic line taken up by the oboe. The music leads to Connelly’s Jig, so indicated in the score, motifs from which become fragmented, mingling with the opening material of the movement, before the final oboe display with which the quintet ends.
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