• Arthur Bliss
  • Checkmate: Five Dances (1937)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • 2(pic)2(ca)22/4230/timp.2perc/hp/str
  • 20 min

Programme Note

Associations between chess and warfare are inescapable: war ritualised into allegory certainly, but to excel in chess you need to be decisive, farsighted, calculating and just a shade ruthless. It should not surprise anyone that the idea of Checkmate came to Bliss in about 1921, not that he believed the provenance of the game to be that it was invented by a Persian minister of state as a substitute for war. It cannot either be coincidence that he returned to this very subject when he received the invitation to write a substantial work for the Vic-Wells Ballet, as the war-clouds were again gathering in 1936/37. If you need further evidence then you have only to remember that one section (Entry of the Red Castles - not included in the suites) is taken directly from a particularly militaristic passage in his film music for 'Things to Comes'. The only really major score to come between it and the Clarinet Quintet is Music for Strings - one of his most successful ventures into 'pure' music. With Checkmate (premiered in Paris in Jun 1937) expressiveness is back with a vengeance. It has become one of his most popular and enduring works, and arguably the greatest British ballet score ever composed, continuously in the repertoire both here and abroad for over half a century. What makes its effectiveness more remarkable is that it was his first authentic foray into the medium (though earlier works have actually been choreographed). The reason is easy to see, as it combines his lifelong love of theatre, his genius for colour, his gift of musical characterisation and natural feeling of pace and form, his flair for powerful imagery and orchestration with a subject close to his heart. Unlike music for plays and the cinema, it also afforded him the opportunity of controlling the medium.

In this allegory, the two warring parties are portrayed as Love (Red) and Death (Black). Generally the 'red' music is joyous, optimistic, maybe a shade brittle, while the 'black' pieces are forceful, dramatic or else (as in the Black Queen's Dance) frankly sinister. The range, dynamic and emotional, is enormous and powerful. The five dances are Dance of the Four Knights - two in red and gold, two in black and silver, displaying prowess to their respective admiring pawns. Entry of the Black Queen - majestic and hypnotic, dangerous: she seduces a Red Knight, throwing down a rose. The Red Knight places the rose in his armour. Elated, he dances an exuberant Mazurka. Ceremony of the Red Bishops who bless the arms of the 'forces' before battle, while the pawns (troops) raise and lower the banners and the knights are blessed, kneeling. Finale: Checkmate - the Red King alone is left to oppose the marauding black pieces, in for the kill. In a last act of defiance he turns on them, with a vision of himself as a young and strong ruler, but the ring of foes is too strong. He falls headlong in the circle of enemy lances and spears.

© Giles Easterbrook