qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

Words on Music

Book Review: As I Remember (Centenary Edition), by Sir Arthur Bliss
Bliss (1891-1975), being a twentieth-century British composer, was consigned to a Colonel-Blimp-like corner of my brain until I heard his music for the 1935/6 film Things To Come at the Proms, followed a couple of years later by the Colour Symphony. I became curious and located his autobiography.

Sadly, the bland title is very descriptive of the book as a whole. It's not that any of it is badly written; rather its attempt to be comprehensive rather than selective means that it is often unfocused and doesn't really allow the reader to identify highlights, struggles and breakthroughs. Against that criticism stands the rather obvious conclusion, to be borne in mind against more contemporary autobiography, that it is authentic and not at all ghost-written.

Bliss frequently retreats to a large collection of letters to tell his story. These are strongest in the period of World War I, where he was intermittently in the trenches and lost a brother at the Somme. After the war, Bliss experimented with various musical forms, often featuring one or two voices with a small group of instruments, but also including orchestral works. At the outbreak of World War II he and his family were in America, but he returned to Britain in 1941 to work for the BBC. Increasingly an establishment figure, he became Master of the Queen's Musick in 1953. Though he hints at a diminished creativity in later years, the additional material by Trudy Bliss and Andrew Burn shows that in fact he had a stream of late artistic talent.

Bliss comes over as a largely contented figure, with a somewhat unspecified but obviously fairly privileged background. He seems to have been enthusiastic in general: travel, conducting, and experimenting with different musical forms, but also an effective administrator and able to produce appropriate "occasion music" for 20 years. It's a competent survey of his life, but his writing of words - or perhaps the effort afforded to it - is not a parallel of his writing of music.
Tags: books, music
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