Concerto for piano and orchestra in B-flat major (1939)
By Byron Adams
Written for the concert The Gathering Storm, performed on April 7, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Arthur Bliss once opined that “composition is self-expression: it is an attempt to record in musical notation the jumble of feelings and experiences, of impressions and stimulations, of passions and prejudices accumulated by the I . . . as personal a thing as one’s hair.” Bliss, whose father was a Yankee from Massachusetts, is one of the most expansive figures in twentieth-century British music: a composer who excelled in all genres; an engaging prose stylist; and an administrator who capped his career with both knighthood and the post of Master of the Queen’s Music. But Bliss was far more than an extrovert with a taste for orchestral timbre—a predilection confirmed by the title of his ebullient Colour Symphony. He strove to come to grips in his music with the troubling events of his era, as for example in his harrowing political ballet, Checkmate. Dating from 1937, Checkmate is the composer’s trenchant comment on the deadly diplomatic maneuverings of that fateful year. Bliss had been an officer in the First World War, wounded repeatedly, and had lost his brother Kennard in the trenches. Despite the optimism that radiates from his autobiography, Bliss was less conventional than his bluff public persona might suggest. He was haunted by his wartime experience, aspects of which are reflected in several of his large “abstract” scores, including the Piano Concerto of 1939.
Bliss had been a judge for the 1938 Ysaÿe International Competition for pianists. He later wrote that hearing “so much brilliant piano playing made me wish to write an extended work for the instrument itself.” Bliss did not wait long for his wish to be fulfilled, as shortly thereafter the British Council commissioned him to compose a piano concerto for performance at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Written for the stupendous English pianist Solomon, the Concerto was dedicated both to the soloist and to “the people of the United States.” A coruscating score of the utmost difficulty for the pianist, the Concerto betrays an uneasy undercurrent distinctly reminiscent of Checkmate. Bliss’s memories of combat underlay this music. The bravura is punctuated by flashes of tensile anxiety, expressed clearly in the eruptions of distorted fanfares that haunt both outer movements and driving the ferocious virtuosity of the piano part.