• Arthur Bliss
  • Two Studies for Orchestra (1920)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • 2(pic)2(ca)3(bcl)3(cbn)/4231/timp.2perc/hp.cel/str
  • 12 min

Programme Note

The Two Studies for Orchestra were long thought to have perished in a warehouse of the publisher Goodwin & Tabb during an air raid in 1940, and the manuscript only came to light after the composer's death. They were given their first performance under the composer's direction at a Patrons' Fund concert promoted by the Royal College of Music in February 1920, and are a fine example of his vigorous early style. The manuscript and material were prepared by John Blood and myself.

The Two Studies are not merely his first orchestral score to survive, or even his first mature one; they are the first orchestral works of any kind he wrote at all, being composed after Madam Noy and the Rhapsody but before Conversations and Rout. He wrote them in the winter of 1919/20, not many months after experiencing the horrors of the front, where he was a serving officer during the war. Although he did not feel able to come sufficiently to terms with his feelings to express them adequately for another 10 years, when he articulated them so eloquently in his moving symphony Morning Heroes, there is certainly more than a hint of them in this work. The first expresses the poignancy of loss, the second the high drama of action, thinly disguised by a detachment that might be mistaken for flippancy.

Study 1 is marked Adagio ma non troppo, and the mood is wistfully grave and unsolemn. It is based on two main thematic ideas, which are treated to ornamentation rather than development. The first is a tender searching melody in F minor, heard at the outset pianissimo on clarinets and lower strings. The second in E major is a more animated, flowing 12/8 theme in quavers, with a distinctly modal feel. The colours of the scoring are always changing with delicate touches and resourcefulness. A climax of great power is built up before the movement, which lasts a little over 7 minutes, closes with the tranquillity with which it opened.

Study 2 is a vigorous Allegro, and a staggering display of ingenious instrumentation. It bounds along with enormous vitality and moods succeed each other with bewildering rapidity. Deftly scored darting figures are interspersed with ferocious outbursts on brass and 'across the bar' counter-subjects. The two isolated moments of repose serve only to reinforce the overall impression of tumultuous energy. The movement, amazingly, lasts less than 5 minutes. Brief echoes of other composers - Ravel and Stravinsky, for example - are noticeable here and there, but the themes and their treatment everywhere proclaim the composer's personality in the most positive and uninhibited way. The problem some commentators have found in reconciling the disparate facets of his character: Bliss the impressionist dreamer, weaver of seductive sounds (Rhapsody) and Bliss the wild incomprehensible overturner of altars (The Tempest, Rout) are here solved in this often beautiful, always gripping work.

© 1980 Giles Easterbrook


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