Friday, February 18, 2011

Pigments of the Imagination: Bliss' Colour Symphony

It's a fine line between inspired conceit and pure gimmick, one which many of the symphonists we've already introduced seem to straddle in their extra-musically inspired works. But it's a worthy risk -- why deny ourselves the fun of a multi-movement work based on the four temperaments, or characters from Superman, or types of insects (all candidates for future entries here!). Between the accessibility offered by such programmatic hooks, and the ingenuity required for a composer to translate concepts/objects into musical prose, these high-concept symphonies can be quite well-calculated to produce something rather essential: listener pleasure.

The Colour Symphony of British composer Sir Arthur Bliss (1891 - 1975) is assuredly one such highly enjoyable work. Each of the four movements is named after a particular hue, going from purple to red, blue, and finally green.  This is the most explicit assignment of colors to compositional units I know of, beating out the synaeth-stravaganza that is Scriabin's 5th (a.k.a. Prometheus, Poem of Fire) by not requiring any special AV equipment to get its visual point across. Now, what's being evoked in Bliss's work is not as simple as one particular light wavelength followed by another, however, but we'll get to that in a moment.

The long-lived composer penned his Color Symphony in 1922, quite early in his career, at the urging of mentor Edward Elgar. Its premier (Bliss conducting) garnered a lukewarm reception (inadequate rehearsal, that old scapegoat, was to blame, opined Bliss), and the elder Elgar apparently felt it a little too modern for his Edwardian tastes. But some reviews were extremely positive, and Bliss didn't give up on this avowedly vernal work in his creative development, subjecting it to minor revisions in 1932. Since then it has enjoyed a good deal of popularity in Britain and the U.S., amounting to probably Bliss's best known work[1], and enjoying several good recordings -- the one used here is a vigorous interpretation by Vernon Handley with the Ulster Orchestra (1987).

There is something to the Colour Symphony that is, if not quite misleading, then a little more complicated that its title and simple movement names imply. Bliss, flailing for inspiration after Elgar's entreaty, happened upon a book on heraldic imagery and withit the work's inspiration. It is the historical uses and associations of heraldic tinctures, not simply the "feel" of one hue or another, that determines the sound of each movement.[2] (It also accounts for the negligence of orange and yellow, which were quite uncommon in this context). The use of color in coats of arms and badges is a dauntingly complex topic, and Bliss helps us out by providing descriptions of these chromatic connotations for each movement in a set of liner notes he wrote for an 1956 Decca recording. While the types of associations are very broad, ranging from emotions to seasons, one thing common is that each color has a particular precious stone: amethyst for purple, ruby for red, sapphire for blue, and (shock) emerald for green.[3]

The first movement of Bliss's technicolor dream coat-of-arms is Purple, which signifies "Pageantry, Royalty, and Death." Yes, that last one sticks out a bit, but there is a clever way in which Bliss realizes all three. The movement is cut as an ABCCBA form, with each facet bearing a theme of processive and gently regal character - certainly the most Elgarian of the four. Bliss's take on this prolonged fade-in fade-out is to liken it to "the audience as onlooker watching the approach and later seeing the disappearance" of a procession. Purple gets underway with a stately harmonic ostinato in B-minor(ish), over which increasingly thick orchestration bears the first of these themes.

From this, Bliss's harmonic language seems of a kind with the British-modalist cum French Impressionist idiom you also find in Vaughan Williams or Bax. But there is an inclination for densely woven counterpoint and orchestral stratification -- sometimes over-complex -- that has more Stravinsky to it than English pastoral music. That carefully dropped word "death" is audible not just in the movement's overall fading procession, but its final chord, an inverted, unresolved B-minor with superimposed G-major scored low and held long.[4]

Red comes next, with its suggestion of "rubies, wine, revelry, furnaces, courage, and magic." You wouldn't be wrong if those descriptors suggested to you a faster, more brash pace. Bliss has picked his color ordering based on the usual progression of symphony movements, from a broad 1st (purple majesty), an excitable scherzo for 2 (red passion!), and the expected slow movement and exciting summatory finale to follow. Red's blistering scherzo theme flanks two trios, the first a courteous dance in D-major and 6/8, the second more like a hybrid of a fanfare and an impatient reel. The return to the scherzo theme is marked by considerably more dissonance, and concludes with a burst of fireworks based on the second trio theme

Bliss' Blue has the performance instruction "gently flowing," and it might not surprise that a watery consistency pervades the movement. Besides "deep water," the chromatic characterization includes "skies, loyalty, and melancholy." There are some liquid solos for winds and violin here, unpredictable arabesques skimming above string chords that, in their rhythm evoke "lapping water against a moored boat or stone pier." Also present is a preference for minor 7th and 9th chords, very "bluesy" sonorities that are neatly integrated with Bliss's more pastoral sense of melody. Towards the end of the movement, those tints come together for the symphony's moment of most glistening azure:

The young Bliss concludes it all with a show-stopping portrait of Green, and while his description picks out "spring," "hope," and "joy," it is "youth" above all that seems native to this movement. It is an extremely ambitious movement -- a double fugue for orchestra with cyclic shades and programmatic justification. It would be a compositional "folly of youth" if not pulled off right, but Bliss's Green is ultimately quite exhilarating, if a little exhausting. Fugue subject number 1 is a thing of juts and unpolished angles (emeralds in the rough?), and its surprising that Bliss make it cohere without its veering into atonality.

Subject 2 is puckish in comparison, a constantly cascading theme in a hazardous irregular meters (7/8 to 3/4 to 5/8), given to the solo winds that Bliss has been treating generously throughout the symphony. Both themes meet towards the end, though the sprightly 2 stands little chance of holding its own against number 1 in heavy stretto for lower brass.  

Much clamor follows, but Bliss insists on a clear, optimistic ending and it all ends with a blast of a B-major added 6th chord. Dissonant, like the "death" sonority that ended Purple, yes, but in a celebratory way. Despite a certain greenness to Bliss's idea for the work -- which at its worst results in the forgivable sin of over-exuberance -- the Colour Symphony is nonetheless tight, bright, and memorable. Color me satisfied.
Frank Lehman

[1] Aside, perhaps for some of the film scores he wrote for British interwar cinema. 
[2] In this regard, it is like Holsts' The Planets Suite, where the seemingly straightforward movement names allude to mystical astrological associations rather than astronomical features.
[3] Alas, Bliss did not take the opportunity to translate their respective hardnesses on the Mohs scale into metronome markings or difficulty levels.
[4] A simultaneous "verticalized"presentation of the movement's first ostinto chords, in fact. 


  1. This is the kind of piece that could easily be in every major symphony orchestra repertory.

  2. I see it as especially good for children's concerts -- imagine it paired with "The Planets" or something similar. It would also appeal to people looking for a psychedelic symphonic experience ("Ooh, the colors!"). So young kids and people who use shrooms should look to Bliss.

  3. Yeah, this could be a real educational experience. Too bad the canon is CLOSED.

  4. The writer understand better the mind of people what they want to learn through their writing therefore this article is outstanding. Thanks!!!