About this Recording
8.553460 - BLISS: Colour Symphony (A) / Adam Zero

Arthur Bliss (1891 -1975)

Arthur Bliss (1891 -1975)

A Colour Symphony

Adam Zero (Ballet in one scene)


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.'


'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 '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'.


'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 '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 7th 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. In 1937 he wrote a brilliant score to complement the equally superb choreography of Ninette de Valois for the ballet, Checkmate, now regarded as a classic of its time. His next dance venture, Miracle in the Gorbals, had a scenario by Michael Benthall and choreography by Robert Helpmann; performed by Sadlers Wells Ballet in 1944 it also enjoyed considerable success.


Miracle in the Gorbals was followed by another project for Sadlers Wells Ballet involving the same collaborators, Adam Zero. Benthall's scenario was conceived as much as a vehicle for Helpmann the dancer as a choreographer. The ballet received its first performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 8th

April 1946, with Constant Lambert conducting (Lambert had directed the first performances of all three ballets and Bliss dedicated Adam Zero to him). Benthall, who also produced the ballet, summarized the plot in a note for the original programme.


'There is a philosophy that life moves in an endless series of timeless cycles. As Nature passes through Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, so man is born, makes a success in his own particular sphere, loses his position to a younger generation, sees his world crumble before his eyes and only finds peace in death. This age-old story is told in terms of a Company creating a ballet and calling on the resources of the theatre to do so. Lighting, stage mechanism, dance conventions, musical forms and costumes and scenery of all periods are used to symbolize the world of Adam Zero.


The creation of a ballet is thus seen as an allegory for the span of human life; and it opens and closes with a bare, dark stage, which gradually becomes filled with light and scenery as the action proceeds. Among the characters are the Principal Dancer (Adam Zero), Stage Director (representing Omnipotence),

Choreographer (both Adam's creator and destroyer), Adam's Fates (the Designer, Wardrobe Mistress and Dresser), the Ballerina (his first love, wife and mistress), and the Understudies (his son and daughter).


The concept was original and the cast strong including (apart from Helpmann as Adam Zero), June Brae (The Choreographer, Ballerina), and Jean Bedells, Julia Farron and Palma Nye (Adam's Fates). However, the ballet was dogged with ill-luck when Helpmann fell and injured himself and never danced the taxing sponymous role again. Bliss recalled ruefully in As I Remember: 'Early in his [Adam's] life cycle he had literally to leap into life, hurling himself from a height into the supporting arms of one of his friends. After a few performances there was a miscalculation and he was sufficiently hurt to have to retire.' Much to Bliss's evident disappointment Adam Zero did not hold the stage, although productions were also mounted in Germany.


An arresting Fanfare Overture precedes the rise of the curtain. Bliss remembered that as it rose to reveal 'The Stage' the 'audience saw the whole of Covent Garden stage right back to the wall, completely empty except for the protagonists', - the ballet Company poised still and expectant as they await the birth of their Principal Dancer, Adam Zero. Over the music for this section Bliss wrote on the score a quotation from Shakespeare's As You Like It:

      ‘All the world's a stage,

      And all the men and women merely players:

      They have their exits and their entrances,

      And one man in his time plays many parts.’


This ballet of life begins with the Birth of Adam; Adam's Fates come forward from the Company to clothe him in a costume synonymous with spirited youth. The Dance of Spring evokes Adam as a vigorous, ardent young man. With the appearance of a young girl Adam is overwhelmed by her beauty and a Love Dance expresses the stirring of tender emotions as he wins her band; they are united in a solemn Bridal Ceremony. Further success is achieved as Adam achieves Power; his Fates reappear to raise him to the zenith of his career so that the Dance of Summer portrays him in the prime of life. Towards the end though the Fates indicate that his fortunes and powers will wane; his successor is waiting in the wings.


With the Approach of Autumn, Adam grows older; his appearance changes; his Fates streak grey in his hair and put lines on his face. They give him a sombre costume denoting his change whilst the Understudy is given his youthful garments. The stage is emptying of scenery; Adam has reached the autumn of his life. In vain he attempts to resist the encroachment of age and sinks into dissipation during a meretricious Night Club Scene; the atmosphere becomes nightmarish, as he faces the Destruction of Adam's World. He recalls his youth, but the memories fade with the Approach of Winter .The dust and ashes of old age assail Adam; it is Winter and the stage is nearly bereft of scenery. Death in the guise of a dignified, beautiful woman, wearing a vast red cloak, dances with Adam finally enshrouding him in a beneficent embrace. In the Finale, the Stage is set again; the company waits as before, and the Fanfare Coda heralds the next cycle of life.


Bliss considered that Adam Zero was 'his most varied and exciting ballet score; the music is instintively theatrical and strongly characterized, as in the virulent zest of Dance of Spring, the commanding sweep of Dance of Summer, and the percussive, insistent rhythm linked to Adam's Fates, heightened by the use of differently pitched metal bars. The most ambitious section is the Night Club Scene with its indication, In modern dance time. Here Bliss uses rhythms from popular music of the day, as well as adding to the orchestra instruments associated with dance music - piano, guitar and tenor saxophone. As the movement develops the music cunningly depicts the sense that Adam is out of control. Syncopated and off-beat rhythms create a maelstrom that manically hurtles to a mighty dissonance with eerie high pitched wind chords as Adam's world crashes around him and an echo of the theme from Dance of Summer agonizingly cries out from the brass.


Finest of all though is the 'Dance of Death' with its inexorable rocking rhythm and portentous theme played on horns. Over its glorious E flat major climax when Adam and Death meet face to face, Bliss wrote 'Lovely and Soothing Death, serenely arriving'. Death clasps Adam; the music fades, and to lilting, softly caressing but poignantly dissonant chords, his eternal sleep begins. [62] (1099)


@ 1996 Andrew Bum



Close the window