British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content: Arthur Bliss (1891-1975): The Early Reception of the Colour Symphony: Part 1

Introduction: The purpose of this paper is to examine the immediate critical
reception of the first performance of A Colour Symphony at Gloucester one hundred years ago on 7 September 1922. The
work was heard at the Thursday morning concert, and included Scriabin’s Le Poème de l’Extase,
Parry’s Ode to Music and his motet
‘There is an old belief,’ Eugene Goossens’ new work for chorus and orchestra
‘Silence’ and Gustav Holst’s ‘Two Psalms’. This long concert concluded with
Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Requiem’.  

The literature on Arthur Bliss’ A Colour Symphony is considerable. The
easiest essay to access is Robert Meikle’s argument in the chapter ‘Metamorphic
Variations: The Orchestral Music’ in Arthur
Bliss: Music and Literature
(2002). This discussion includes a
debate on the sense of colour and an analysis of the work in its 1932
revision.  Harder to consult is M. Adkins
thesis, A Re-appraisal of A Colour Symphony
by Arthur Bliss’ (1993) which remains unpublished. In a previous generation,
Percy Scholes produced his A Few Notes
upon the Work of Arthur Bliss and Especially upon his Colour Symphony
Arthur Bliss’ recollections in his As I
(1970) are also important. There were many reviews of the Symphony
in the musical journals and the press, however any student must be aware that
critics writing before 1932 were discussing the original version of the

The critical ambiguity concerning
A Colour Symphony began some two
months before the work’s first performance. Percy Scholes writing a detailed
critique of the projected work in The
(30 July 1922) disingenuously suggested that the composer ‘yielded
to the pressure of a friend (my italics)
who had pointed out to him the advantage gained by…other composers in the use
of distinctive titles’ for their symphonic essays. He cites Tchaikovsky’s
‘Pathetic’, Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ and ‘Pastoral’ as examples. Percy
Scholes later expanded on this (quoted in Holbrooke, 1925) and stated that ‘the
composer met me for a chat and in order that I might with him study the score
of the new work… I urged upon him the abandonment of the vague title
(Symphony) so far announced and the substitution of something more definite’.  Scholes then outlined the various theories
propounded for the association of music and colour. These included the colour
schemes devised by Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin.  He conceded that not everyone has these
colour-key associations as is clear from the numerous disparities between the
Rimsky Korsakov’s and Scriabin’s lists.

Scholes reports that Bliss had
told him he ‘hears colour’ and ‘saw red’ whilst ‘frenziedly’ composing. He then
elaborates on a number of examples of association between music and colour
which he declares are universal. For example if we wished to suggest red, we
would use the trumpet, if ‘blue of the midday ether or of a starlight night we
should all perhaps agree on slow tremolo chords played by violins divisi’. Yet
Percy Scholes seem to destroy his own argument by suggesting that he does not
know if there is ‘some connection’ by direct association between music and
colour or whether it is ‘via mood as a buffer state.’

Scholes then gives an analysis of
each movement of the Symphony which includes the well-known symbolic correspondence
between colour and gems and mood that is included in most programme notes for A Colour Symphony:-

Movement I Purple: The Colour of Amethysts, Pageantry,
Royalty and Death.

Movement II. Red: The Colour of Rubies, Wine, Revelry, Furnaces,
Courage and Magic.

Movement III. Blue: The Colour of Sapphires, Deep Water, Skies, Royalty and Melancholy.

Movement IV. Green: The Colour of Emeralds, Hope, Joy,
Youth, Spring and Victory.

So, from Percy Scholes point of
view ‘A Colour Symphony’ was not only ‘distinctive but embodies a hint of an
interesting personal confession which the composer had previously no intention
of making public.’ This was to haunt the few early performances of the work
until the revision of 1932.

Arthur Bliss has written about the
genesis and the reception of his A Colour
. In a broadcast talk on BBC Radio (2 March 1969) he noted that he
‘had produced rather a travesty of this [work] at the Gloucester Festival…’
He claimed that ‘the score was very difficult, the rehearsal time scanty, I was
inexperienced as a conductor, the platform in the cathedral was not large
enough to contain my huge orchestra.’ Bliss admitted that he ‘knew before hand
that there would be something of a disaster.’ Writing for the sleeve note of
the Decca (LXT5170) recording of the revised ‘A Colour Symphony’ which was
released in 1955, the composer noted that Elgar had invited him to write a new
work for the 1922 Three Choirs Festival. He states that the format of the symphony
resulted from his fortuitous reading of a book on heraldry which explained the
symbolical meaning associated with the various colours, purple, red, blue,
green, etc.  He then gives a detailed
explanation of each movement.

In his autobiography As I Remember (1970), Bliss had a
slightly different recollection of this process. He suggested that ‘there was
no attempt at a semi-scientific basis whatever, if there is such a thing.’ He
realised that different colours ‘arouse quite different emotions in different
people’ and concluded that he was speaking only for himself in this work.
However, he did admit to being ‘won over by the argument put forward by Percy
Scholes that I had found initial inspiration in the idea of colour, it was
timid not to proclaim it.’

Josef Holbrooke in his quixotic
book, Contemporary British Composers
(1925) has taken an outspoken view on Bliss and A Colour Symphony. He prefaces his remarks by noting that Bliss is
‘a semi-wild young man, who has perpetrated some singular and comic music,
which has shocked a lot of people – and also amused many’.  However he acknowledges that he is ‘very
young, [and] we must not be impatient with him’. He notes that the ‘last
effusion’ from Bliss’ pen is A Colour
and regards it has ‘perhaps the most serious effort of the
composer’ however he is ‘quite baffled to give any judgement. He suggests that
‘it follows his [Bliss’] own ideals in sound, which seem to us to be cacophony,
and hardness of brilliance with “effect” written all over the four movements.’
He states that ‘melody, such as we know it, there seems to be no trace.’ In a
side swipe, Holbrooke wonders is music is ‘going towards the region where
description of colour, metallic effect and nursery things abound.’

With thanks to the Arthur Bliss Society where this essay was first published in 2013

To be continued…

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