Kate mentioned at the end of her tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, last week, that we had a copy of the album – a gift from Lehigh University Concert Band. The record (an American edition on a Capitol label) is held in a most unexpected archive, none other than that of Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Arthur Bliss.
So, how did Sir Arthur end up with a most unexpected present? It all began with a friendship….
It’s easy to forget, but that most quintessential of English composers was actually half-American, his father hailing from Springfield, Massachusetts. One of Bliss’s earliest memories was being taken to a concert, by his father, conducted by Sousa. Although Bliss had no recollection of what was played on that day, Sousa’s flashing white gloves were engraved on his memory.
In 1923, the family went on an extended visit to the United States, as Bliss Senior was hoping to retire there. This was to be an important point in Sir Arthur’s life, as it was on this trip that he met his future wife, Trudy Hoffman (for a sometimes hilarious account of their courtship see Bliss’s memoirs As I remember (M501.c.95.361)). He also met Albert Elkus, who was to become a lifelong friend, a port in a storm nearly twenty years later, and the link behind a most unlikely gift.
Elkus was a composer and pianist, who, at the time he and Bliss first met, had just started work at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The two families quickly became firm friends.
By 1939, Elkus had moved to Berkeley. The Bliss family (Arthur, Trudy and their two young daughters) were back in America on a sort of busman’s-holiday – part-catching up with relatives and friends, part-working, as Bliss’s piano concerto was about to receive its world premiere at Carnegie Hall. Elkus and Bliss met again at the premiere, and Elkus asked Bliss if he would like to give a series of lectures at Berkeley. The family were planning to return to the UK later that year, but Bliss said he’d think about it once he was back in England. Events were to move quickly however, and when war was declared between Germany and Great Britain, the Bliss family were still in the States.
Arthur desperately wanted to return to Britain, but the BBC, where he had offered his services, said that they didn’t need his help at this point, and following the sinking of a non-combatant ship (probably the SS Athenia), Bliss was reluctant to send his family on a potentially very dangerous voyage home. With no prospect of safe passage to the UK in the near future, he fell back on his friend’s kind offer and the family took up residence in California. Despite their concerns for family in the UK (a bomb landed next to his brother, Howard’s, garden at the height of the Blitz), it was a happy time, with many friendships formed including Darius Milhaud, who lived and worked nearby.
When the BBC contacted Bliss in 1941 the composer set out immediately for London (much of the journey was made in a Fyffe’s banana boat) leaving the family in the safe hands of the Elkus’s in the States. They were not reunited till 1943.
Post-war, the Elkus and Bliss families remained friends. Albert died in 1962, by which time his son, Jonathan, also a musician, was working at Lehigh University, where he was directing their concert band. As a result of this connection, Bliss’s name was well known to the band, and in early ’68 Jonathan Elkus wrote to Bliss “Would you compose a fanfare which our Band could play at the Saturday, November 23 football game against Lafayette College?”
Lafayette were Lehigh’s old rivals, and had won every match against Lehigh for the previous five years. Bliss was touched by the suggestion and accepted the commission eagerly, though hastened to add “I will…essay a Fanfare for the game….but, of course, if, when you receive it, you feel it may lose you the game, you must on no account play it….”
That would have been the end of the story, but, as Jonathan Elkus continues: “When I learned [in 1968] that the Blisses were coming to the East Coast for a performance of The Beatitudes that November, I invited them to come to Lehigh to hear, at the Lehigh-Lafayette football game, the fanfare that Bliss had recently composed for us. (At the entrance of the band prior to the game, we [played] Bliss’s Fanfare for Princess Margaret’s Wedding–saving his Salute to Lehigh University for our featured spot between the halves.)”
Would Bliss’s fanfare help to change Lehigh’s fortunes? And what happened to the Blisses in America? More next week….
Many thanks to David Diggs, Jonathan Elkus, David Hughes, and Ilhan Citak (all connected now or in the past with Lehigh) for their enthusiasm, memories, and helpful comments. More from them next week.