British Classical Music: The Land of Lost Content: Arthur Bliss (1891-1975): The Early Reception of the Colour Symphony: Part 3

The review that pleased the
composer, was H.C. Colles in The Times
(8 September 1922). In this the Colles states that the colour references did
not aid his understanding of the work.  He
wonders if the title, A Colour Symphony,
and the description of the four movements as purple, red, blue and green, ‘is a
happy way of bringing his hearers into touch with him is an open question’. He
found himself constantly referring to the programme to find out whether he ‘ought
to be seeing red or looking blue at certain moments, and some of it certainly
made the audience feel green’. 

Colles was impressed with the formal structures of the work, ‘its strong
melodic outlines and its processes of contrasted episodes’. He allowed that ‘clear
distinct melodies spring forward at times, and have definite characters of
their own.  The harmonies – or should we
call them the conflicts? – of parts have the feeling of inevitability: they are
certainly no affectation.’

The following day the Cheltenham Chronicle (9 September 1922)
gave a long, well-considered review of the work. The writer points out that the
programme notes offer a ‘rough suggestion to the moods of the music.’  However the colour associations did not
impress him. He writes that the ‘idea of colour…gives the composer enough
thematic scope for a life’s work: in fact he would seem to have rather
overburdened himself with ideas of the danger of becoming scrappy rather than
symphonic.’ Of the actual performance, he thinks that ‘the very least one could
say even after a first hearing, is that the work is full of evidences of
ability …’ however he did not feel that it would ‘take rank amongst the
greater orchestral compositions, but yet certainly as one that is likely to be
heard frequently and that will gain in appreciation with opportunities of further

A.J. Sheldon contributed a major
review of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival to Musical Opinion (October 1922) He writes that ‘A Colour Symphony’
was ‘of outstanding interest.’ It is clear that the work earned ‘enthusiasm and
hearty dislike, with the latter predominating.’ 
Sheldon is clearly a ‘conservative reviewer’ who has the ‘old
predilection for a consonance now and again.’ He suggests that unqualified
admiration for a work nearly innocent of such a weakness was hardly possible.’  He declined to analyse the work, as ‘Mr
Scholes’ brochure on the subject is available.’ 
Unfortunately for Sheldon, he did not get to read this brochure before
the concert, or he ‘might have been less puzzled by the colour attributions.’ However
this reviewer’s important point is that these ‘attributions’ ‘seemed to matter
little, the note of the work coming to me in terms of energy rather than
colour.’ He continues by confessing that he learned afterward from Percy
Scholes that these were ‘an afterthought’ and were more concerned with the
‘fancied need for a title of some kind.’

Herbert Thomson provided a review
of the Gloucester Festival in the Musical
(October 1922) He is one of the few writers to accept the ‘colour
scheme’ proposed by Scholes/Bliss. He writes that ‘the composer is one of those not
very rare individuals who associate music and colour, and who is therefore
able, from a motive which is not merely capricious, to label the several
movements by the colours purple, red, blue, or green, together with certain
abstract ideas which they connote: pageantry, magic, loyalty, or youth, as the
case may be.’ Yet in spite of this endorsement Thomson agrees that  Bliss ‘offers these as no more than
suggestions, arising from his own personal preconceptions, but it is enough
that they have served to give him the cues for some strange music, which is
sometimes attractive, sometimes repellent, but generally intrigues the hearer
by its adventurous spirit’. The Musical
review concludes by noting ‘the composer conducted, and, as he has
not had much experience in this role, it is doubtful whether the utmost
possible was made of the music, so all we can say is that, considering its
great and perhaps gratuitous difficulty, a performance which was at least
effective was achieved.’

The well-known critic Ernest
Newman effectively summed up the arguments that had bedevilled the first
performance. Writing in The Graphic
(September 1922) he concedes that he did not attend the previous week’s
concert. However he had seen the score in July and had an opportunity for a
quick read through.  He claimed that it
was ‘news to me, when the reports of the festival came out, that Mr. Bliss
had called the symphony a ‘Colour Symphony,’ and invited his hearers to see,
with him, a particular colour in each movement. I am sure he has been wise in a
worldly, if not in an aesthetic sense; by calling his work a ‘colour symphony,’
and giving musical critics something more definite to write about than music,
he secured an amount of publicity that a mere ‘symphony in Q flat’ might not
have done.’

Yet Newman was not convinced by
Bliss’ ‘chattering’ about the colour. He insists that ever since music was
first played scientists and musicians have been trying unsuccessfully to
postulate an ‘intimate union between music and visible colour.’ He regards this
attempt as futile and adduces three reasons. Firstly, no two musicians who
commence comparing notes on colour-music will manage to agree as to the colour
analogies of even half a dozen orchestral instruments.  Secondly, he believes that, although a machine
can create musical effects from a given chord, they have ‘no more to do with
music than so many perfumes would have had. He considers that ‘what makes music
is the musical idea, no equivalent to
which can possibly exist in combinations of colour.’ And finally, most critical
of all is the fact that no ‘movement of a musical work can possibly be
characterised by one colour, because of the the constant changes in it not only
of orchestration, but of harmony and idea.’
He concludes his discussion by allowing ‘Mr. Bliss to write good music’ if
‘fallacious analogies’ help him. However he suggests that he for one would be ‘more
grateful to him if, having made these analogies serve him, he would keep them a
secret from the rest of us.’

In spite of the fact that Percy Scholes
seemingly muddied the waters leading up to the premiers, it is only fair to
give him the last word. I wonder if Scholes had read some of the immediate
reviews and had decided to salvage his reputation on this issue. He writes
(Observer Sep 10 1922) that Bliss’ ‘objective is always essentially musical
and essentially aesthetic. There is no literary intention, no confusion of
different types of expression in the work itself. But there are certain
disappointing elements: never before has Bliss evinced so much subordination to
external influences’.  Is this an attempt
to shift the blame for the ‘colour scheme’ onto the composer? Scholes concludes
his review by suggesting that the points of technical interest in this work can
be summed up:- 1. A moderately conservative form, 2. An advanced liberal
harmony and finally 3. An individual type of orchestration which largely
abandons the older Wagnerian-Straussian-Elgarian mass treatment

Interestingly, after having
‘hyped’ the colour references, Scholes now suggests that ‘the colour
implications of the various sections are of considerable interest, but not of
prime importance.

It is a view that largely holds
to this day with analysis of Arthur Bliss’ ‘A Colour Symphony’.

Bliss, Arthur, As I Remember (London: Thames Publishing, 1970, 2/1989)
Boden, Anthony, Three Choirs: A History of the Festival (Stroud, Gloucestershire, Alan Sutton, 1992)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot: Scolar Press; Ashgate Pub. Co., 1996)
Craggs, Stewart R., (ed.) Arthur Bliss: Music and Literature (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: a Catalogue of the Complete Works (London: Novello, 1979; suppl. 1982)
Holbrooke, Josef, Contemporary British Composers (London: Cecil Palmer, 1925)
Scholes, Percy, A Few Notes upon the Work of Arthur Bliss and Especially upon his Colour Symphony (London: Godwin and Tabb, 1923)

Select Discography:
Bliss, Arthur: Colour Symphony, Music for Strings, Introduction and Allegro, London Symphony Orchestra /Sir Arthur Bliss HERITAGE HTGCD222 (2011) (original LP release: DECCA LXT 5170) (1955)

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


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