Arthur Bliss 125

Sir Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss by Mark Gertler oil on canvas, 1932 NPG 5305 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss
by Mark Gertler
oil on canvas, 1932
NPG 5305
© National Portrait Gallery, London

August 2nd 2016 is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sir Arthur Bliss. At the University Library, we are celebrating this with a music corridor exhibition (opening first week of August 2016) focusing on three major strands: Bliss as a composer, the Battle of the Somme and Bliss’s legacy today.

At MusiCB3, we have shared quite a few Bliss related posts that highlight various aspects of the life and work of Arthur Bliss and of the collections held at the Bliss Archive, bequeathed to Cambridge University Library by Lady Bliss.

Bliss work table as reconstructed for the 1985 University Library Bliss exhibition.

Bliss work table as reconstructed for the 1985 University Library Bliss exhibition.


We start our exhibition with a reconstruction of Arthur Bliss’s work table based on how it was in March 1975. Although of the 23 original items listed some were subsequently returned to the family, we can imagine Bliss working at his desk, using these exact pens, with copies of scores, manuscript paper and Master of the Queen’s Music letter paper ready to hand.

As a composer Arthur Bliss is generally known for his versatility. He published more than 140 works in a wide range of genres, including opera, ballet and film music as well as large scale orchestral and choral works, music for brass bands, chamber music and songs. He tends to be described as unconventional and modernist during the 1920s, but soon returning to a more traditional and romantic idiom. By the 1940s and 50s, Bliss had established himself at the heart of British musical life not only through his compositions but also as director of music at the BBC (1942 – 44), as a member of the British Council Music Committee during WWII and, from 1953, as Master of the Queen’s Music – a post in which he excelled. As an ambassador for British music he was tireless, taking part, for example, in the 1956 British Council tour to the USSR (the first since WWII) and as one of the conductors of the first ever World Tour by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1964.  His thoughts about music are eloquently expressed in two publications: Bliss on Music (selected writings of Arthur Bliss edited by Gregory Roscow) (UL M470.c.95.403) and his autobiography As I remember (UL M501.c.92.361).

Field Service postcard sent by Arthur Bliss.

Field Service postcard sent by Arthur Bliss.

His active service during World War I had such a significant impact on Bliss’s life that we would like to reflect on this more deeply. Our second exhibition case displays items from the Bliss Archive documenting the Battle of the Somme, where Bliss’s brother Kennard was killed and to whose memory Morning Heroes, a symphony on war, is dedicated. Bliss writes in As I remember: “As the years passed I came to realise more and more what a poignant loss to the family Kennard’s death had been. Poet, painter, musician, he was the most gifted of us all, and to me his rebellious nature would have been a stimulant, his caustic comments a sharp corrective through those years when I was struggling on my own for musical expression.”


Finally we reflect on Bliss’s legacy today by focusing on the Bliss Trust.  Founded in 1986 under the guidance of Lady Bliss, the trust focuses on promoting the music of Arthur Bliss. This partly happens through encouraging recordings and performances, but also through collecting manuscripts and documents relating to Arthur Bliss, thereby continuously adding to the preservation of his heritage in the Bliss Archive. In addition, the Bliss Trust supports composition students and young composers through various initiatives, including prizes, grants and scholarships. One of these is the Composer bursaries scheme, run jointly with the Performing Rights Society, which exists to support emerging composers in their professional development. Laurence Osborn for example, received support to rehearse and record a previously unperformed piece with EXAUDI. In our exhibition, we show a selection of works submitted by recent prize winners.



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1 Response to Arthur Bliss 125

  1. Pingback: Curious music objects | MusiCB3 Blog

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