About this Recording
8.572226 - BLISS, A.: Christopher Columbus Suite / Seven Waves Away / Men of 2 Worlds (Slovak Radio Symphony, Adriano)

Film Music of Sir Arthur Bliss (1891–1975)


Of the eight films for which Arthur Bliss provided the scores (that actually reached the screen) only two can be described as for major productions, and of these, only one has any claim to be regarded as any sort of classic or even cult success. Indeed it is probably fair to say that it is the music alone that saves them from being at best mere curiosities. The exception is, of course, Things to Come, Korda’s lavishly stunning, if flawed, masterpiece of 1935, supported by one of the great European film scores of all time, which was prevented from making its true impact only by being overtaken by the very events it prophesied.

Apart from this, and the titles here receiving their first recording, Bliss collaborated on a semi-documentary production Conquest of the Air (produced 1937, released 1940—again Korda) Peter Brook’s The Beggar’s Opera of 1953, a newsreel sequence Welcome the Queen (1954) and a British Ministry of Information film (Anglo-French co-production) entitled Présence au Combat (1945) which, incidentally, also turns up, in part, in another government film. Faster than Sound (1949). In addition to these, Bliss was for a time involved in the film Caesar and Cleopatra, for which he wrote in 1944 a considerable amount of music before withdrawing from the project over differences with the director, Gabriel Pascal.

Although fascinated from the outset by the idea of music for the cinema, Bliss soon discovered that in film “music in the final synthesis took a very humble position” and—worse—suffered “unforgettable experiences with one director who, where music was concerned, was a certifiable lunatic”. Fortunately there were others “who instinctively understand the value of a musical score, though untrained themselves. They leave a composer free; and so work with them becomes pleasurable and worth-while”, (John Huntley, British Film Music, Focal Press, 1957).

The composer’s point of view is excellently presented elsewhere in the same publication: “I do notseriously think we are in danger, as pure musical sound will always have a wide importance on the film. It is powerfully expressive. It can bring nostalgia to a landscape, drama to any hour of day or night; it can express undercurrents of human emotion when actors involved show little of it outwardly. It can suggest what is going to happen, it can recall what has happened; most important of all, perhaps, it can make what has turned dead and dull in a picture come alive and exciting”. Bliss’s brilliant orchestral technique and versatile musical genius were particularly welcome at that time, when European film music was gaining recognition as an increasingly important (and eventually commercial) element by the industry. Much of this is due to the almost single-handed efforts of Muir Mathieson (1911–1975) who not only conducted over two hundred British film scores between the 1930s and 1960s, but also had responsibilities for commissioning and promoting them. It was his pioneering zeal and indefatigable energy that raised film music in this country to a pinnacle undreamt of before and unsurpassed afterwards, involving major composers like William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, Arthur Benjamin, Lord Berners, John Ireland, Constant Lambert, Alan Rawsthorne, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and others. Especially valuable was the issue on disc of excerpts from these scores, often with remarkable commercial success considering the challenging nature of much of the music.

Men of Two Worlds

Thorold Dickinson’s picture Men of Two Worlds (1946) tells the story of Kisenga, an African composer/pianist who has studied music in Europe, and it opens with a performance of his Piano Concerto. After he has returned to his village in Tanganyika to become a schoolmaster, an epidemic of sleeping sickness breaks out. Kisenga comes into conflict with the forces of witchcraft, as practised by the traditional witch doctor, Magole, and comes to question the western convictions he has acquired: a struggle between ten years of European culture and ten thousand years of African tradition make him indeed a Man of Two Worlds. Having himself succumbed to the hallucinatory sickness, he recovers to lead his people to a healthier place, breaking his rival’s influence and thus reconciling the conflicts within him.

When Bliss received his commission to write the music, he was sent some recordings of authentic East African music to whet his appetite, and an outstanding feature of this score is the way in some sequences he combines totally original music with ethnically derived material, skillfully woven together. For instance, many of the climactic sections, such as the Village Fire and Finale turn out to be developed re-statements of a children’s song which opens the main title.

As was a common fate of film music of the period, a lot of the score has simply vanished, including the Main Title, the hallucinatory passage and all the choral numbers, or much more would have been recorded here. The most important ‘survivor’ is the Concert Piece for piano and orchestra, Baraza. (This has appeared on disc previously on a Decca 78, performed by Eileen Joyce and the National Symphony Orchestra under Muir Mathieson and issued in the same year as the film). The African element is provided by the use of a male chorus, set against the more deliberately European discussion in council between an African chief and his headman. The Habanera-like slow movement also appears (without piano) elsewhere in the film, and another quotation—following a short choral refrain—is used after the Village Fire. These sections have required some slight arranging for the recording. In addition there are some forty bars of manuscript and sketches for drumming sections which it has not been possible to incorporate. Baraza apart, Bliss’s score is untitled, so names of movements given here have been coined specially for this recording.

The film, alas, was not a commercial success, as a number of countries refused to distribute it. Bliss always liked it, however, and its director Thorold Dickinson “…who was one of the nicest people (I’d) ever come across to work with”.

Christopher Columbus

Because of its naïve, absurdly simplistic handling of the story of Christopher Columbus, it is impossible today to look at this lavish Gainsborough Technicolor production of 1949 without a certain amount of amusement. Bliss himself, in a conversation with Muir Mathieson preserved in a Granada TV archive film, recalls the picture as “comic” in many scenes. Directed by David MacDonald, it was beautifully filmed, and the composer called it a “glorious pageant and plenty of chances for Frederic March”, appreciating particularly that its superbly recorded soundtrack “didn’t have a lot of extraneous talking or noises” affording “big sweeps of music without anything else”. In the November / December 1949 issue of Film Music, the composer revealed in a more serious vein that he found the film extremely interesting from the musical standpoint, but that it was “difficult with American and English actors to suggest the atmosphere of Spain—that is what the music has to do—so I have tried using Spanish idioms, and tunes akin to those of Spain which convey the feeling and atmosphere of the age in which Columbus set forth from Spain”.

Bliss himself never made a suite of Columbus, though he allowed the Rank Organisation to issue a promotional ten inch 78 rpm disc of The Voyage Begins and Return to Spain. These two excerpts, with the main title music, were assigned to his publisher, Novello, after his death. No other music has been commercially available at all, in any form. The present suite is the result of close study of the autograph, which comprises some 140 pages, and it soon became obvious that there existed a great deal of beautiful music. As with nearly all film scores, many of the items are brief, some extremely so. Again, at film-editing stage, certain numbers and fragments would be used for different scenes, exactly repeated or slightly tinkered with, so the prime concern has been to assemble the items in the most effective and satisfying format. Thus here where the criteria are musical, not cinematic, the score has been arranged to emphasize flow, variety, and the underlying symphonic thought of Bliss’s music. This has necessitated some careful editing, but has afforded the opportunity of restoring music where the film sequence had ended on the cutting-room floor. Some brief choruses have been omitted, as being incongruous in this context; otherwise we have used as much of the music as possible. Where improvements had been made at the original sessions (presumably with the approval of the composer) and are clearly discernible from the soundtrack, these have been incorporated. A few tiny transitions have been specially provided as links for fragments, and there are occasions when things are transposed into different keys, in the interests of musical sense and continuity. The following will serve to illustrate the sort of thing:

Main Titles: now a genuine Overture in ternary form, the central section being a later cue, with a shortened version of the main subject brought back at the end. Percussion revised.

Struggles and the Messenger: Da capo added for dramatic balance. Some linking material.

Doña Beatriz: as above. Some redeployment of cadenzas to make musical rather than cinematic sense.

Mutiny: A montage of four different cues. Again, da capo added.

The Commission: Three successive cues.

The Voyage Begins, Return to Spain, Land at Last! The inclusion of sections omitted from the soundtrack restores completeness, otherwise absolutely no editing.

As was customary, cues in the manuscript are identified by numbers and letters, though the score is peppered with remarks in Bliss’s writing, (often of a humorous nature) such as “please silence through (Rank) Gong and (Gainsborough) lovely lady”, “Hotsy- Totsy”, “Native chaps”, “Plodding music”, plus the occasional indication (Main Titles) such as “Alla polacca”: indeed, it is solely through these that we know Bliss wrote music to illustrate the souring of the relationship between Columbus and Doña Beatriz (two short cues—not used in this suite) though such a scene does not appear in the available print of the film. Accordingly, with the exception of The Voyage Begins and Return to Spain, names of sections have been specially devised for this suite.

Columbusis scored for the normal symphony orchestra: double woodwind, four horns, three trumpets and three trombones, timpani, extensive percussion, harp and strings. Additionally Bliss employs a harpsichord and guitar. The original soundtrack was recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Muir Mathieson.

Seven Waves Away

Seven Waves Away, released in America under the title Abandon Ship, was produced in 1956 by Copa Productions and released the following year. The setting is an ill-equipped lifeboat, with the action revolving round the usual human and social conflicts. Except that the story takes place in peace-time, not war, it could almost be regarded as a sequel to Hitchcock‘s Lifeboat (1943). It starred Tyrone Power, Stephen Boyd, Moira Lister, May Zetterling and James Hayter, among others; whatever the fate of the lifeboat, the film itself soon sank without trace, despite its apparently “sound and solid dramatic script”. Richard Sale directed.

It has so far proved impossible either to trace any further documentation on the production, or to view an actual print, so while we know that Bliss composed more music than has come down to us in the manuscript, we do not know how much. What have survived in autograph are three pieces, marked respectively Allegro con fuoco, Allegro and Marcia funebre. It is magnificent, powerful music, written when he was at the height of his powers in the year following what is often claimed as his finest orchestral work, the Meditations on a Theme by John Blow (1955). Indeed they deserve their own place in the orchestral repertoire as concert showpieces whose immediacy of appeal would surely convince the many sceptics with reservations about ‘modern’ or ‘film’ music.

Bliss had reservations himself about the whole project initially, and about getting involved in what he thought of as another “unusual subject”, and Muir Mathieson needed all his persuasion to get him to agree. There is a hilarious moment in the archive film interview, mentioned earlier, when Mathieson confessed that his mind was a total blank over the film, unless there was a chance that the score might stir some dim memory. Bliss, however, was not quite so vague, and recollecting Seven Waves Away in the July 1974 issue of Film Dope, he states, with characteristic modesty: “I didn’t do much of a music score—there was a tune for mouth-organ as a sort of theme song: and there was the regular—what shall I say?—hurry-flurry of disaster”. It is scored for double wood-wind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion and strings.

Edited by Giles Easterbrook

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