Over the last few months, I have been documenting the concert programmes in the Arthur Bliss Archive here at the University Library, and a diverting and engaging time I have had of it. It sounds such a dry task, doesn’t it, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The programmes are housed in two workmanlike filing cabinets deep in the basement under the Anderson Room, a file for each of Sir Arthur’s works all in order of composition. What a treasure trove! Nestled in amongst the programmes is a cornucopia of other material including press cuttings, articles, drafts of talks, record sleeve notes (remember those?), business correspondence and other paperwork all of which gives a fascinating, detailed picture of Bliss’s working life. There are some wonderful surprises such as letters from H. G. Wells to Bliss setting out his thoughts on the approach to the music for the film Things to Come, from Ninette de Valois and Ronald Hynd on Checkmate and a delightful envelope of letters to Lady Trudy Bliss from children aged 6 or 7 at Kidgate School describing their impressions of the Colour Symphony after they had listened to it in class. “My favourite colour is green because it is a dragon sound…”; “Red is a galloping music and its like a swrd fiyd [sic]”. There are also many heart-warming letters to and from Trudy Bliss about performances of Sir Arthur’s works and how greatly they had been enjoyed. You can see how easily and delightfully I was side-tracked from the nitty-gritty of completing the spreadsheet of concert details (date, venue, performers, works performed, notes of interest) and then assembling the entries for the Concert Programmes Project website.
Numbering some 650 items from the 1920’s to the present, the breadth and richness of Sir Arthur’s work is beautifully reflected: chamber works, film scores, ballets, orchestral pieces, songs and choral works are all represented together with the music he was commissioned to write as Master of the Queen’s Musick. So, not only do we have programmes for works such as Checkmate, Pastorale “Lie Strewn the White Flocks”, Madam Noy, Morning Heroes and the Colour Symphony, there are also programmes for State occasions such as the wedding of Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, the Investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969 and many Royal Concerts and other formal occasions for which fanfares were de rigueuer.
There are performances across the UK at all manner of venues from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the South Bank, the Edinburgh and Cheltenham Festivals and the Temple Speech Room at Rugby School (where Sir Arthur was a pupil) and many progrogrammes for performances in the United States. Curiously though, there are none from the cultural visit to Russia arranged by the British Council in the spring of 1956 which was led by Sir Arthur. His violin concerto was performed there by Alfredo Campoli for whom it was written the previous year – but that will be the subject of another blog.
The collection is by no means comprehensive, and if anyone reading this has programmes they would like to let us have to add to our supplementary collection in the archive, do please contact us.