At this time of year especially, our thoughts turn to all those who have lost their lives in conflict. This short blog looks at Sir Arthur Bliss’s choral symphony, Morning Heroes, written as a tribute to those who were killed in the First World War, and in particular to his brother Kennard, who died on 28 September1916 in the battle of the Somme. The composition of the work proved to be a catharsis for Bliss, who wrote in his autobiography As I Remember:
“Although the War had been over for more than ten years, I was still troubled by frequent nightmares: they all took the same form. I was still there in the trenches with a few men; we knew the Armistice had been signed, but we had been forgotten; so had a section of the Germans opposite. It was as though we were both doomed to fight on until extinction …I was now at last decisively to exorcise this fear.”
The work was written for the 1930 Norwich Festival and is for orator, chorus and orchestra. Bliss himself conducted the first performance with the Festival Chorus, the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and Basil Maine as orator. The five movements of Morning Heroes use widely different texts: The Iliad books VI and XIX translated by George Chapman, Walt Whitman’s Drum Taps, Vigil by Li-Tai- Po, Spring Offensive by Wilfred Owen and Dawn on the Somme by Robert Nichols expressing the personal and the universal, timeless experiences of conflict. Bliss chose to use the spoken rather than sung word for the texts by Homer and Wilfred Owen as he felt that this would achieve the most intense dramatic effect. The setting of Spring Offensive which forms the opening section of the fifth movement illustrates this very clearly:
“When I came to select the Wilfred Owen poem…I found its content so poignant and its appeal so immediate, that I knew only a hint of distant gunfire was necessary to punctuate it…” (Bliss. As I Remember). The voice is heard unaccompanied except for three quiet timpani depicting the distant gunfire.
The Arthur Bliss archive in the University Library contains programmes for 30 performances of the work between 1941 and 2002. Sadly, there is only a photocopy of the 1930 Norfolk and Norwich Festival brochure in the collection, but the newspaper reviews which accompany it speak of “…The high heroic aim of the new work is something to recognise even before the crowded ingenuities of the score and the peculiar brilliance of the animated movements.” [Daily Mail 23/10/1930].
The first complete programme in the UL collection, given on February 23rd 1941 as part of the Hallé Concerts Society 1940 – 41 season must have been especially poignant coming just a few months after the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Malcolm Sargent conducted, with John Gielgud as orator. There is a stark reminder of the times on the back of the programme in the note “Please remember to bring your gas mask”.
Although, Morning Heroes has become a work associated with the commemoration of Remembrance Day, not all the programmes in the archive reflect this. Bliss conducted performances at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in December 1956 with Richard Attenborough as orator, in 1967 at the Vancouver Festival and in 1968 at the Proms with Donald Douglas as orator. The 1991 Three Choirs Festival also featured the work conducted by Roy Massey with Brian Kay as orator. Details of the programmes in the archive are currently being added to the Concert Programmes Project website.
Finally, the University Library’s exhibition Dream Voices, Siegfried Sassoon, memory and war runs until 23rd December.