Simon Heffer: Why A Colour Symphony is pure Bliss

Arthur Bliss composed quintessentially English music
Arthur Bliss composed quintessentially English music Credit: Alamy/Keystone Pictures

During the 18th and 19th centuries, when Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky were writing most of the greatest symphonies the world has heard, the British were far behind. William Boyce wrote some, based on incidental music he had written for plays. Hubert Parry made a better attempt, with five, mostly written in the style of Brahms, in the three decades before the Great War: they all repay listening; the 5th is a masterpiece. That did not come until 1912, in a short period in which British composers finally made their mark: Elgar with his first two symphonies in 1908 and 1911, and Vaughan Williams in 1910 with A Sea Symphony and in 1914 with A London Symphony, all of which are fixtures in the concert repertoire.

If only one could say the same about one of the first great post-war British compositions, A Colour Symphony by Arthur Bliss, first performed at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in September 1922. Bliss was 31, and scarred by the Great War, in which he had been wounded twice, and gassed, and suffered the death of his brother Kennard, to whose memory he would dedicate his moving choral symphony Morning Heroes. A formidable array combined to encourage him to write A Colour Symphony: Elgar’s influence brought the commission, Vaughan Williams (who had taught Bliss at the Royal College of Music before the war) advised him, and the dedicatee was Adrian Boult, who also gave moral support.

Yet Bliss struggled to find inspiration: and it was not until, late in 1921, he picked up a book on heraldry, that the idea came to him to write a work based on four colours found in that discipline. The first movement is Purple – “amethysts, pageantry, royalty and death”, as the composer’s note recorded. The second is Red – “rubies, wine, revelry, furnaces, courage and magic”. The third is Blue – “sapphires, deep water, skies, loyalty and melancholy” – and the fourth Green, “the colour of emeralds, hope, youth, joy, spring and victory”.

For all its radical influences, only an Englishman could have written it

It is apparent from hints Bliss drops in his notes that the war, which haunted him for years afterwards, permeates the work. The word “death” at the end of the list to describe Purple – the colour of mourning – introduces the subject. “Courage” in the description of Red, “loyalty and melancholy” for Blue and “victory” for Green take the listener in the same direction. And, although in the end A Colour Symphony is a life-affirming work, the links become all the more obvious when one hears the music.

Sad trumpets, reminiscent of the Last Post, punctuate Purple, a stately processional and an intensely beautiful piece of music that matches the atmosphere of a coronation with that of a funeral. The second movement, Red, starts almost violently, at a pace that seems to change the very nature of the work. More than any other movement, this states that life goes on with tremendous force, an idea rammed home by aggressive brass (notably an underpinning of tubas) and percussion. Some critics have compared it with Stravinsky, who was undoubtedly an influence on Bliss. It is original, innovative music that for all its radical influences could have been written only by an Englishman.

Blue is reflective without being maudlin; the composer instructs that it should be “gently flowing”, and it is, an episode of calm after the riotousness of Red. The music does not merely suggest water lapping, but the woodwind that opens the movement invokes blue skies full of birdsong. Green, the finale, includes a double fugue reminiscent of Schoenberg to give the triumphant finish. In the audience at the 1922 Gloucester premiere, Elgar was shocked by the symphony, which he described as “disconcertingly modern”: so it is, but that is what gives it its brilliance. To be fair to Bliss, not only was the orchestra at that first performance under-rehearsed, it was also short of several instruments as the stage was too small to house them. Nonetheless, the reviews were laudatory.

The work used to be frequently performed, but in the last decade or two has largely disappeared: I hope that will be rectified. There are several fine recordings, two of them exceptional: Vernon Handley’s on Chandos with the Ulster Orchestra, and the composer’s own 1955 recording with the LSO, re‑released on Dutton. Do listen to A Colour Symphony: it is not just great British music, but great music full stop.