Born in 1891 of an English father and American mother, Arthur Bliss was destined to display characteristics of both nations, his profound romanticism balanced by an unquenchable energy and optimism. After studying at the Royal College of Music under Stanford, he served as an infantry officer in the First World War.
With the return of peace, Bliss’ career took off rapidly as a composer of what were, for British audiences, startlingly new pieces often for unusual ensembles, such as a concerto for wordless tenor voice, piano and strings, and ‘Rout’ for soprano and chamber orchestra, in which the voice sings phonetic sounds rather than words. Much of his early music shows the influence of Stravinsky and Debussy . A landmark was his ‘Colour Symphony’ of 1922 which explores the idea of the musical associations of different colours.
From the late twenties onwards Bliss moved more into the traditional English scene with choral works such as ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Morning Heroes’, and in the 1930s he wrote the music for the film ‘Things to Come’ and the ballet ‘Checkmate’. Bliss was always an ambitious, prolific composer, and some of his works were clearly intended for a wider international audience than they actually received. The ‘Introduction and Allegro’ and the Piano Concerto are examples, the concerto being premiered by Solomon at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
During the Second World War Bliss became Director of Music at the BBC, and formed ideas which led to the division of music broadcasting into categories after the war, such as the present day radios 1 and 3. In 1953 he was appointed to succeed Arnold Bax as Master of the Queen’s Music.
The post-war period illustrates Bliss’ curious failure to attain the success he aimed for. His opera ‘The Olympians’ despite a full-scale production at Covent garden, was not popular, his oratorio ‘the Beatitudes’ was forgotten beside the success of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ at the 1962 Coventry festival, and his cello concerto, written for the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to play at the Aldeburgh Festival, was overshadowed by those of Britten and Lutoslawski. Bliss recorded fine interpretations of several of his major works, but they were not taken up widely by other conductors. His swansong, ‘Metamorphic Variations’, a large orchestral work, was first performed in 1972, but not by the great Stokowski as Bliss had hoped.
Since his death Bliss’ music has undergone a modest revival on radio and recordings, but his reputation remains insecure. His music undoubtedly has a personality of its own and is loved by its adherents.