Dates: 02 August 1891 – 27 March 1975
Bliss was an English composer and conductor.
Bliss’s musical training was cut short by the First World War, in which he served with distinction in the army. In the post-war years he quickly became known as an unconventional and modernist composer, but within the decade he began to display a more traditional and romantic side in his music. In the 1920s and 1930s he composed extensively not only for the concert hall, but also for films and ballet.
In the Second World War, Bliss returned to England from the US to work for the BBC and became its director of music. After the war he resumed his work as a composer, and was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music.
In Bliss’s later years, his work was respected but was thought old-fashioned, and it was eclipsed by the music of younger colleagues such as William Walton and Benjamin Britten. Since his death, his compositions have been well represented on record, and many of his better-known works remain in the repertoire of British orchestras.
Early years – Bliss was born in Barnes, a London suburb, the eldest of three sons of Francis Edward Bliss (1847–1930), a businessman from Massachusetts, and his second wife, Agnes Kennard née Davis (1858–1895). Agnes Bliss died in 1895, and the boys were brought up by their father, who instilled in them a love for the arts. Bliss was educated at Bilton Grange preparatory school, Rugby and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied classics, but also took lessons in music from Charles Wood. Other influences on him during his Cambridge days were Edward Elgar, whose music made a lasting impression on him, and E.J. Dent.
Bliss graduated in classics and music in 1913 and then studied at the Royal College of Music in London for a year. At the RCM he found his composition tutor, Sir Charles Stanford, of little help to him, but found inspiration from Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst and his fellow-students, Herbert Howells, Eugene Goossens and Arthur Benjamin. In his brief time at the college he got to know the music of the Second Viennese School and the repertory of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with music by modern composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky.
When the First World War broke out, Bliss joined the army, and fought in France as an officer in the Royal Fusiliers until 1917 and then in the Grenadier Guards for the rest of the war. His bravery earned him a mention in despatches, and he was twice wounded and once gassed. His younger brother Kennard was killed in the war, and his death affected Bliss deeply. The music scholar Byron Adams writes, “Despite the apparent heartiness and equilibrium of the composer’s public persona, the emotional wounds inflicted by the war were deep and lasting.” In 1918, Bliss converted to Roman Catholicism.
Early compositions – Although he had begun composing while still a schoolboy, Bliss later suppressed all his juvenilia, and, with the single exception of his 1916 Pastoral for clarinet and piano, reckoned the 1918 work Madam Noy as his first official composition. With the return of peace, his career took off rapidly as a composer of what were, for British audiences, startlingly new pieces, often for unusual ensembles, strongly influenced by Ravel, Stravinsky and the young French composers of Les six. Among these are a concerto for wordless tenor voice, piano and strings (1920), and Rout for wordless soprano and chamber ensemble (subsequently revised for orchestra), which received a double encore at its first performance. In 1919, he arranged incidental music from Elizabethan sources for As You Like It at Stratford-on-Avon, and conducted a series of Sunday concerts at Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, where he also conducted Pergolesi’s opera La serva padrona. Viola Tree’s production of The Tempest at the Aldwych Theatre in 1921, interspersed incidental music by Thomas Arne and Arthur Sullivan, with new music by Bliss for an ensemble of male voices, piano, trumpet, trombone, gongs and five percussionists dispersed through the theatre.
The Times wrote that “Bliss was acquiring a reputation as a tearaway” by the time he was commissioned, through Elgar’s influence, to write a large-scale symphonic work (A Colour Symphony) for the Three Choirs Festival of 1922. The work was well received; in The Manchester Guardian, Samuel Langford called Bliss “far and away the cleverest writer among the English composers of our time”; The Times praised it highly (though doubting if much was gained by the designation of the four movements as purple, red, blue and green) and commented that the symphony confirmed Bliss’s transition from youthful experimenter to serious composer. After the third performance of the work, at the Queen’s Hall under Sir Henry Wood, The Times wrote, “Continually changing patterns scintillate … till one is hypnotised by the ingenuity of the thing.” Elgar, who attended the first performance, complained that the work was “disconcertingly modern.”
In 1923 Bliss’s father, who had remarried, decided to retire in the US. He and his wife settled in California. Bliss went with them and remained there for two years, working as a conductor, lecturer, pianist and occasional critic. While there he met Gertrude “Trudy” Hoffmann (1904–2008), youngest daughter of Ralph and Gertrude (Wesselhoeft) Hoffmann. They were married in 1925. The marriage was happy and lasted for the rest of Bliss’s life; there were two daughters. Soon after the marriage, Bliss and his wife moved to England.
Bliss began the 1930s with Pastoral (1930). In the same year he wrote Morning Heroes, a work for narrator, chorus and orchestra, written in the hope of exorcising the spectre of the First World War: “Although the war had been over for more than ten years, I was still troubled by frequent nightmares; they all took the same form. I was still there in the trenches with a few men; we knew the armistice had been signed, but we had been forgotten; so had a section of the Germans opposite. It was as though we were both doomed to fight on till extinction. I used to wake with horror.”
During the decade Bliss wrote chamber works for leading soloists including a Clarinet Quintet for Frederick Thurston (1932) and a Viola Sonata for Lionel Tertis (1933). In 1935, in the words of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “he firmly established his position as Elgar’s natural successor with the Romantic, expansive and richly scored Music for Strings.” Two dramatic works from this decade remain well known, the music for Alexander Korda’s 1936 film of H. G. Wells’s Things to Come, and a ballet score to his own scenario based on a chess game. Choreographed by Ninette de Valois, Checkmate was still in the repertoire of the Royal Ballet in 2011.
By the late 1930s, Bliss was no longer viewed as a modernist; the works of his juniors William Walton and the youthful Benjamin Britten were increasingly prominent, and Bliss’s music began to seem old-fashioned. His last large-scale work of the 1930s was his Piano Concerto, composed for the pianist Solomon, who gave the world premiere at the World’s Fair in New York in June 1939. Bliss and his family attended the performance and then stayed on in the US for a holiday. While they were there, the Second World War broke out. Bliss initially stayed in America, teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. He felt impelled to return to England to do what he could for the war effort, and in 1941, leaving his wife and children in California, he made the hazardous Atlantic crossing.
1940s – At first, Bliss found little useful work to do in England. He joined the BBC’s overseas music service in May 1941, but was plainly under-employed. He suggested to Sir Adrian Boult, who was at that time both the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC’s director of music, that Boult should step down in his favour from the latter post. Bliss wrote to his wife: “I want more power as I have a lot to give which my comparatively minor post does not allow me to use fully.” Boult agreed to the proposal, which freed him to concentrate on conducting. Bliss served as director of music at the BBC from 1942 to 1944, laying the foundations for the launch of the Third Programme after the war. During the war, he also served on the music committee of the British Council together with Vaughan Williams and William Walton.
In 1944, when Bliss’s family returned from the US, he resigned from the BBC and returned to composing, having written nothing since his String Quartet in 1941. He composed more film music, and two ballets, Miracle in the Gorbals (1944), and Adam Zero (1946).
In 1948, Bliss turned his attention to opera, with The Olympians. He and the novelist and playwright J. B. Priestley had been friends for many years, and they agreed to collaborate on an opera, despite their lack of any operatic experience. Priestley’s libretto was based on a legend that “the pagan deities, robbed of their divinity, became a troupe of itinerant players, wandering down the centuries”. The opera portrays the confusion that results when the actors unexpectedly find themselves restored to deity. The opera opened the 1949–50 Covent Garden season. It was directed by Peter Brook, with choreography by Frederick Ashton. The doyen of English critics, Ernest Newman, praised it highly: “here is a composer with real talent for opera … in Mr. Priestley he has been fortunate enough to find an English Boito”, but generally it received a polite rather than a rapturous reception. Priestley attributed this to the failure of the conductor, Karl Rankl to learn the music or to cooperate with Brook, and to lack of rehearsal of the last act. The critics attributed it to Priestley’s inexperience as an opera librettist, and to the occasional lack of “the soaring tune for the human voice” in Bliss’s music. After the Covent Garden run of ten performances, the company presented the work in Manchester, but did not revive it in subsequent years; it received a concert performance and broadcast in 1972.
Later years – In 1950, Bliss was knighted. After the death of Sir Arnold Bax he was appointed Master of the Queen’s Music in 1953, to the relief of Walton, who feared he would be asked to take the post. In The Times, Howes commented, “The duties of a Master of the Queen’s Music are what he chooses to make of them, but they include the composition of ceremonial and occasional music”. Bliss, who composed quickly and with facility, was able to discharge the many duties of the post, providing music as required for state occasions, from the birth of a child to the Queen, to the funeral of Winston Churchill, to the investiture of the Prince of Wales. Howes commended Bliss’s Processional for the 1953 coronation, and A Song of Welcome, Bliss’s first official pièce d’occasion.
In 1956, Bliss headed the first delegation by British musicians to the Soviet Union since the end of the Second World War. The party included the violinist Alfredo Campoli, the oboist Léon Goossens, the soprano Jennifer Vyvyan, the conductor Clarence Raybould and the pianist Gerald Moore. Bliss returned to Moscow in 1958, as a member of the jury of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, with fellow jurors including Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter.
In 1961, Bliss and Hassall collaborated on a cantata, The Beatitudes, commissioned for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral. Reviews were friendly, but the work has rarely been performed since, and has been eclipsed by another choral work written for Coventry at the same time, Britten’s War Requiem. Bliss followed this with two further large-scale choral works, Mary of Magdala (1962) and The Golden Cantata (1963).
Throughout his life, Bliss was vigilant on the state of music in Britain. He had written extensively on the subject since the 1920s, and in 1969 he publicly censured the BBC for its plan to cut its classical music budget and disband several of its orchestras. He was delegated by his colleagues Walton, Britten, Peter Maxwell Davies and Richard Rodney Bennett to make a strong protest to William Glock, the BBC’s controller of music. In the 1970s, he looked to the future of Britain’s orchestras by working with the young players of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra for some years.
Bliss continued to compose into his eighth and ninth decades, in which his works included the Cello Concerto (1970) for Mstislav Rostropovich, the Metamorphic Variations for orchestra (1972) and a final cantata, Shield of Faith (1974), for soprano, baritone, chorus and organ, celebrating 500 years of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, setting poems chosen from each of the five centuries of the Chapel’s existence.
Bliss died at his London home, at the age of 83. His wife Trudy outlived him by 21 years, dying in 2008 at the age of 104.