BLISS The Beatitudes
Commissioned for Coventry’s new cathedral in 1961, Bliss’s cantata The Beatitudes was destined to be overshadowed by Britten’s War Requiem, and the fact that the work’s first performance was relocated to the city’s Belgrade Theatre (instead of the cathedral) did not serve its reputation well. Bliss was, not surprisingly, disappointed and hoped that it would, one day, be heard in the environment for which it was written. This did not occur, however, until the Golden Jubilee of the cathedral in 2012.
A hybrid work, like its forbear Morning Heroes, it consists of the nine Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew, interspersed with an anthology of 17th-century poetry by Taylor, Vaughan and Herbert (some of which will be familiar from Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs), an adapted section from Isaiah and a poem by Dylan Thomas. Not only do these words provide a religious subtext but they also furnish a coherence to the Beatitudes themselves which otherwise, as the composer wisely adduced, might well have caused unnecessary monotony. Indeed, conversely, it is in the choruses of selected texts that the ‘meat’ of the work is to be found (for which the Beatitudes function, for the most part, as tranquil ‘intermezzos’). To hear Herbert’s ‘Easter’ and ‘I got me flowers’ (a beautiful elegy for soprano and chorus) in a quite different and poignant context is deeply moving. Bliss’s unusual style of choral writing, its preponderant homophony dependent so much on harmonic variety and textural variation, contrasts effectively as an instrument enveloped by the composer’s finely graded orchestration. Bliss’s affinity for strong marches emerges in ‘The lofty looks of man shall be humbled’ (Isaiah) and his ability to create moments of rapt beauty is striking in Herbert’s ‘The Call’, a part-song for chorus and orchestra. The orchestral Prelude and central Interlude remind us of the Bliss of Checkmate and Miracle in the Gorbals, an idiom where he excelled, and the Scherzo of this symphonic canvas is manifested in the angry setting of Thomas’s ‘And death shall have no dominion’. The final Beatitudes (5 8) form an exquisite foil to the violent orchestral Interlude but it is in the last part of the work, ‘The Voices of the Mob’ and the closing ‘Epilogue’ using Jeremy Taylor’s ‘O blessed Jesu’, more Passion-like in genre, that the composer is most powerfully eloquent.
Andrew Davis clearly has a peculiar empathy for this music and the clean edges of Bliss’s orchestral palette, complemented by some lovely playing from the BBC SO and the two soloists, Emily Birsan and Ben Johnson. This is also apparent in a most welcome recording of the virtuoso Introduction and Allegro, written for Stokowski (1926; rev 1937), a compelling mélange of serenity and contrapuntal tour de force which builds on the brilliance of the Colour Symphony of 1922.