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8.557394 - BLISS, A.: Clarinet Quintet / String Quartet No. 2 (D. Campbell, Maggini Quartet)
Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)
String Quartet No. 2 • Clarinet Quintet
Arthur Bliss, who was half-American on his father’s side, studied at Cambridge with Charles Wood and also found in Edward Dent a stimulating mentor. His studies continued at the Royal College of Music and in 1912 he met Elgar who encouraged his aspirations as a composer. During the First World War he served with distinction, and in the post-war years his career was launched with a series of bold ensemble works, which often exploited the voice, such as Conversations (1920) and Rout (1920). These were deemed to be modernistic, with the result that Bliss gained a reputation as an avantgarde experimentalist, a view confirmed by his first major orchestral work A Colour Symphony (1921-2).
From 1923 to 1925 Bliss lived in the United States, where he married an American, Gertrude Hoffmann. With his burgeoning domestic happiness his musical language matured rapidly, as heard in the Oboe Quintet (1927) and Pastoral (1928). In the early 1930s his memories of the carnage of the trenches found musical expression in the profound choral symphony Morning Heroes (1930), while the Viola Sonata (1933) and the Music for Strings (1935) demonstrated his mastery of musical structures.
A characteristic of Bliss’s career was his many collaborations with major artists of his day from other genres. In 1934-5, for example, he composed the score for Alexander Korda’s film Things to Come based on H.G. Wells’s novel; it remains a classic score for the medium and the suite drawn from it is one of Bliss’s most popular works. Ballet was also an important medium for him and he collaborated with Ninette de Valois on Checkmate (1937) and Robert Helpmann on Miracle in the Gorbals (1944) and Adam Zero (1946), all three premières being conducted by Constant Lambert. J.B. Priestley wrote the libretto for the opera The Olympians (1948-9), and with Christopher Hassall and Kathleen Raine he wrote the choral works The Beatitudes (1962) and The Golden Cantata (1963) respectively.
Bliss’s orchestral works include three concertos all written for great performers, the Piano Concerto (1938- 9) for Solomon, Violin Concerto (1955) for Campoli, and Cello Concerto (1970) for Rostropovich, as well as the masterly Meditations on a Theme of John Blow (1955) and the Metamorphic Variations (1972). His formidable organisational talents were brought into play as Director of Music at the BBC during the Second World War and from 1953 until his death as Master of the Queen’s Musick, a post to which he brought great distinction. He was knighted in 1950 and his autobiography As I Remember is a fascinating portrait of his life and times.
After composing works with programmatic or dramatic subjects, Bliss frequently felt the need to write a purely abstract work. Hence the Second String Quartet came in the wake of the opera The Olympians: as he wrote in As I Remember, ‘I retreated into the intimate and private world of chamber music’. He composed the quartet in 1950 dedicating it to the members of the Griller Quartet in honour of their twentieth anniversary and they gave the première at the Edinburgh Festival that year. Bliss felt that ‘it grew into the most substantial chamber work that I had attempted’ and it is indeed a powerful and rigorous essay in compositional skill.
The first movement explodes into life with a dramatic theme on the three upper strings marked by trills. This theme informs much of the musical argument that follows. A spacious chordal idea and one percussive in character complete the first group of themes. By contrast a new section commences with a relaxed, flowing theme heard initially on the first violin. The development reaches its climax with a forceful statement of the chordal idea and in the recapitulation the principal ideas are heard in a different scoring. Soft dissonances, with the strings muted, open the Sostenuto, which is contemplative in character. A short faster section leads to a brooding climax and on to an impassioned cello solo, unmuted, against the other instruments playing tremolando still with their mutes on. As if the music is suspended, a still threefold repetition of the opening dissonance played pianissimo concludes the movement.
Bliss described the third movement as having ‘the spirit of a Scherzo’, and to be played ‘at top speed’. It opens with a bounding rising arpeggio that dominates this rhythmically energetic music. The brief trio-like section is characterised by a dogged, insistent figure played by the quartet in rhythmic unison. A fugato on the arpeggio idea and a swinging viola solo follows, before a second appearance of the trio where the viola again takes centre stage set against the harmonics of the violins and the cello’s pizzicato, providing a magical and inspired transformation of its first appearance. The finale is shaped from ideas heard in alternate tempos at the outset. A series of descending chords usher in the Larghetto and are followed by an elegiac viola solo. By contrast the Allegro is marked by a purposeful theme introduced by the first violin. Later in the movement the Larghetto melody is played by both the first violin and cello and it this theme which ends the quartet as a whole, as in the very final bars the music comes to rest serenely in the major rather than minor key.
As in many of Bliss’s works the inspiration of a great artist was a powerful stimulus in the composition of the Clarinet Quintet. In this instance it was Frederick Thurston who, together with the Kutcher Quartet, gave the first performance at the composer’s home in December 1932. It was dedicated to Bliss’s friend the composer Bernard van Dieren. Clearly Bliss loved the clarinet, and significantly it was the instrument of his brother Kennard, who had been killed in the First World War. As the quintet was the next work to be composed after Morning Heroes, Bliss’s overtly public requiem for his beloved brother, it is possible to view it as a further expression of his loss. Undoubtedly the work is one of his finest achievements.
Like Mozart and Brahms in their clarinet quintets, Bliss chose the A clarinet because of its silkier tones. In a lecture of 1932 he described the instrument’s qualities: ‘The clarinet has a curiously varied manner of expression, being capable of sounding like three different instruments. In its highest register it is brilliant and piercing, with an almost pinched trumpet sound; in its middle octave it is beautifully pure and expressive, with a clear even tone; in its lowest register it is reedy in sound, with a dark, mournful and rather hollow quality. It is an immensely agile instrument, capable of extreme dynamic range, extending to a powerful forte to the softest pianissimo.’
The clarinet is heard to expressive effect at the beginning of the first movement with an extended solo cantilena. Gradually, in a manner that Bliss likened to a conversation, the other instruments steal in tenderly echoing the clarinet’s melody to produce a web of luminous counterpoint. Surely for sheer beauty this opening must rank among the most memorable in twentieth-century chamber music? But, as often with Bliss, the serenity which marks the first movement is contrasted with altogether ominous moods in the stabbing rhythms, martial-like fanfares and dissonances of the succeeding dramatic scherzo. Contrast is provided by a solo violin melody of aching poignancy, which is followed by a pizzicato passage before the drama returns. At the heart of the work is the pensive slow movement which grows from the simple syncopated violin phrase at the start. The full expressive range of the clarinet is exploited in long florid lines and decorated arabesques as the music quickens to a climax in the movement’s centre. After this central point a stately sarabande-like melody leads to a return of the principal idea. In the predominantly carefree and effervescent finale the brilliance of the clarinet’s upper range is exploited. Shadows intrude intermittently in more introspective sections, only to be banished once and for all in the sparkling coda.
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