Arthur Bliss

1891 - 1975



Bliss was an important voice in the England musical renaissance of the early twentieth century. A pupil of Stanford, much of his music embodies a specifically English, late-Romantic expression; however the influence of neo-classicism is heard in his early works, and his often colour-based style also shows the influence of Debussy. He was a prolific composer, writing over 140 works in all genres, including film music (most notably his 1935 score to Things to Come), though it is perhaps in his ballet scores such as Checkmate and Adam Zero that Bliss's music is heard at its finest.


Arthur Bliss was born in London on 2 August 1891. For over 50 years he was a familiar and central figure on the English musical scene. He was educated at Rugby and at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied with Charles Wood. He attended the Royal College of Music for a single term before the First World War broke out and interrupted his studies for the duration. After demobilisation in 1919, he soon won a reputation as a cosmopolitan and advanced composer.

In Madame Noy (1918), Rhapsody (1919) for two voices and chamber ensemble, and Rout (1920), he experimented with instrumental uses of the voice, in wordless vocalisation and nonsense syllables. In 1921, Bliss became conductor of the Portsmouth Philharmonic Society and two years later he moved to California. The Introduction and Allegro (1926), dedicated to the Philadelphia Orchestra and Stokowski, was the first of many works written for virtuoso ensembles or soloists, a series that included the Clarinet and Oboe Quintets, the Viola Sonata, and the Piano, Violin and Cello Concertos.

1930 saw the production, at the Norwich Festival, of one of the most deeply personal of Bliss' works, the choral symphony Morning Heroes (1930), written as a tribute to those who died in World War I. In 1934-35 he moved into a new field: ballet and film music. In the music for H.G. Wells' Things to Come (1935) and the ballet Checkmate (1937), Bliss showed striking ability to write vivid illustrative music in a relatively simple and direct style.

Bliss was in the USA when war broke out in 1939, and he remained there to teach at the University of Berkeley until 1941, when he returned to England, soon becoming Director of Music at the BBC (1942-44). He was knighted in 1950, and appointed Master of the Queen's Music in 1953. His later works include cantatas, several orchestral works, amongst which the Meditations on a Theme of John Blow (1955) stands out as one of his finest scores, and opera for television and many occasional pieces.

He died in London on 27 March 1975. Using original 78 discs recently discovered among Henry J. Wood's papers at the Royal College of Music, Philip Lane has reconstructed and re-arranged Bliss' complete score for the 1936 Alexander Korda film 'Things to Come' in a form as faithful as possible to the composer's original orchestration and intentions. Conductor Ruman Gamba has recorded the score with the BBC Philharmonic, this cd was released by Chandos in March 2001.



16th June 2024

London Symphony Orchestra
Dirk Brossé
Barbican Centre, London, United Kingdom