The Bliss violin concerto: from composition to performance

“It was time that Sir Arthur Bliss wrote such a work, for bravura and cantilena are much in his line; and it is 16 years since he gave us a concerto”

So wrote the music critic of The Times who reviewed the first performance of the Bliss violin concerto, written in response to an invitation from the BBC, at the Royal Festival Hall on May 11 1955.  The solist was Alfredo Campoli, for whom the work was written, the orchestra the BBC Symphony conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.

It is not the purpose of this blog to write about the work itself, for Sir Arthur does that eloquently in his article for Musical Times, June 1955, pp. 304-5 (reprinted in Bliss on Music. OUP, 1991 [M470.c.95.403]) giving a succinct, first-hand account of the genesis and structure of the work.  There is also a delightful portrait of working with Campoli during the composition of the piece in his memoirs As I remember (Faber, 1970 [M501.c.95.92]):

“I learnt alot about violin technique from him…if a passage seemed to him ineffective, he would exaggerate its difficulty, distorting his face in anguish…suggest an alteration, and then play it through again, murmuring ‘beautiful, beautiful’. The result of his cajoling was that…[the concerto] is certainly apt for the instrument.”

Bliss violin concerto programmes

Bliss violin concerto: materials from the archives

Instead, I want, briefly, to cover some of the materials we have in two of our major archives in the UL Music Department, as there are rich resources for anyone wanting to build a picture of the life of the work.

In the Bliss Archive we have the autograph score with its dedication to Campoli at the start of the first movement, Bliss’s own corrected printed first-edition full score (Novello, 1956 [MRS.30.155]) and Campoli’s marked-up performing violin part [].  The autograph score is a working document with conductor markings, cuts to be made and other annotations including a delightful pencil note at the head of the second movement (Vivo) “like Ariel from the Tempest” in Bliss’s handwriting to convey the character of the music.

On the title-page verso of corrected printed full score, Bliss has set out the cuts he wished to be made and lists errata in the score. These have been added to with additional annotations and errata in another hand (possibly Campoli’s).  Campoli’s performing part contains his extensive marking-up of fingering, bowing, alterations and revisions giving a real sense of the thorough preparation which took place leading up to performance.  Bliss was never absolutely satisfied with the overall balance of the work and as late as 1974 there is an exchange of letters between him and George Dannatt whom he had asked for advice on further cuts.

The Library also has a number of other printed scores including one inscribed to Campoli by Bliss from Campoli’s library [MRS.12.23] and a performing score belonging to Eugene Goossens [MRS.22.13].

To complete the picture of source material in the UL, there are programmes of performances from both Campoli and Bliss archives, reviews of recordings, newspaper cuttings and letters.  We have programmes for a dozen performances listed on the Concert Programmes Project website (there are more – do let us know of the whereabouts of others), although, curiously, not a copy of the programme for the performance of the concerto given by Campoli and Bliss as part of the cultural visit to Russia in April/May 1956 led by the composer.

Pencil annotation on ms at the start of the second movement

Sadly, this lovely work has not embedded itself in mainstream repertoire in the way that, say, the Walton concerto has (only one performance – by Campoli – at the Proms for example, against 18 of the Walton – three of those by Campoli).  Time perhaps to redress the balance in 2011, the 120th anniversary of the composer’s birth.


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