• Arthur Bliss
  • A Knot of Riddles (1963)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the BBC

  • 1(pic)1110000hpstr(min 1.1.1.1.1)
  • Baritone
  • 17 min
  • Arthur Bliss
  • Kevin Crossley-Holland

Programme Note

During 1963 I was occupied with two works of widely differing character. The first, a song cycle, originated in my seeing in The Listener a number of translations by Kevin Crossley-Holland, of old English riddles from the Exeter Book. These Anglo-Saxon puzzles were chosen from some hundreds that can be found in the library of Exeter Cathedral, and may date back to the eighth century. The subjects are drawn from nature, from animal and bird life, and from such objects as were in familiar use at the time: they were probably recited as part of the entertainment customary at feasts.

I chose seven of these riddles. The singer first gives the clues (often as obscure as a Torquemada Crossword) and then announces the solutions.

The finding of these poems came in very handy for me, as I had accepted an invitation from the BBC to write a new work for the Cheltenham Festival and, as usual, I was waiting for the needed impetus. The texts gave plenty of opportunity for musical realism (an additional help, perhaps, to the verbal clues) and seemed to demand a chamber orchestra with a solo baritone. So I scored the music for a string quintet, a wind quintet and harp, and under its title of A Knot of Riddles it was first given at Cheltenham in July 1963. It had a perfect première, as my colleagues were the singer John Shirley-Quirk, and the famous Melos Ensemble of instrumentalists. I could not forbear putting the words ‘Hommage modeste à Maurice Ravel’ at the top of the fifth riddle ‘A Book Worm’, for in imagining the grub boring its way, without benefit, through some classic masterpiece I thought of the quotation with which Ravel heads his own Valses nobles et sentimentales – ‘Le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile’.

The other work completed that year, for the Worcester Festival in September, was of a very different character. It was a sacred cantata, Mary of Magdala, whose subject comes from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of St John, and describes how Mary Magdalene goes to the sepulchre and meets the risen Christ.

© Sir Arthur Bliss