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Arthur Bliss: Sir Arthur Bliss, original name in full Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss, (born August 2, 1891, London—died March 27, 1975, London), one of the leading English composers of the first half of the 20th century, noted both for his early, experimental works and for his later, more subjective compositions.
Arthur Bliss studied under Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst. Up to the early 1920s, his music was frequently experimental, e.g., Rhapsody (1919), for solo voices and chamber ensemble, in which the voice plays an instrumental role, singing vocalises (meaningless syllables), and A Colour Symphony (1922, revised 1932), whose four movements are intended to suggest the colours purple, red, blue, and green. Later, although he never abandoned experimentation, he began composing in classical forms, e.g., the quintets for oboe and strings and for clarinet and strings, the Piano Concerto, and the Conversations for chamber orchestra. He composed the scores for three films, including Things to Come (1935; after H.G. Wells). Other works include the television opera Tobias and the Angel (1960) and his choral symphony Morning Heroes (1930). His ballets are Checkmate (1937; choreographed by Ninette de Valois), Miracle in the Gorbals (1944; choreographed by Robert Helpmann), and Adam Zero (1946; Helpmann). His last composition, a choral work called Shield of Faith, was performed initially a few weeks after his death, at the 500th anniversary celebration at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Arthur Bliss was knighted in 1950 and in 1953 became Master of the Queen’s Musick.
Although Sir Arthur Bliss was born in London, he had an American father, married an American woman and spent two considerable periods in the United States. Possibly it was these affiliations that gave him his breezy, adventurous, outlook on life in spite of a conventional upbringing at Rugby, at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and at the Royal College of Music, where he studied under Stanford and Vaughan Williams.
After distinguished war service (1915-18) Bliss produced between 1918-20 the works by which he first became known: Madam Noy, Rhapsody and Rout, all involving solo voices with chamber ensemble. Two years later came his first truly large-scale orchestral work, the well-known Colour Symphony. During 1923-5 Bliss made his first extended visit to America, settling down to work at Santa Barbara. Returning to England, he embarked upon a series of vocal works built round anthologies of English texts on an identical theme: the Pastoral for chorus and strings (1928), the Serenade for baritone and chamber orchestra ( 1 929) and - perhaps his finest work - the choral symphony Morning Heroes (1930).
During 1939-41 Bliss made his second visit to America, but on returning to England spent the war years 1941-4 in administrative work at the BBC, becoming director of music. Composition was resumed with The Olympians, the 1949 opera for Covent Garden for which J. B. Priestley wrote the libretto. The last twenty-five years of Bliss's life (1950-75) saw public recognition of his work by many honours, including that of Master of the Queen's Musick (1953). His later works include the John Blow Meditations for orchestra, the choral Beatitudes and the 'Cello Concerto for Rostropovich.
In Madam Nov and other early works Bliss trod an unconventional path - always lively, scoring for unusual combinations and showing the influence of the French Les Six and early Stravinsky. Later this gave way to a more traditional English outlook, possibly induced by Bliss's admiration for Elgar, as typified in Morning Heroes. Other works written at this time - 1930-40 - including the Music for Strings, the Clarinet Quintet and the Viola Sonata, are among the finest he wrote.
In the latter part of his life Bliss turned more and more to illustrative music, the prop of a story or situation apparently kindling his imagination more readily than the abstract manipulation of themes in sonata, quartet or symphony. Thus his three ballets - Checkmate (1937), Miracle in the Gorbals (1944) and A dam Zero (1946) - are all first rate, whilst his elaborate film scores such as Things to Come (H. G. Wells) and Men of Two Worlds constitute a pioneering achievement in their field. It is by the above-mentioned works, rather than by his later choral and orchestral ones, that Bliss is likely to be remembered.
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