Sir Arthur Bliss, Hymn to Apollo

By John Wright, 2010, The Arthur Bliss Society (arthurbliss.org)

Written for the concert Apollo and Dionysus, performed on May 9, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It has never been easy to pin a convenient label to the music of Sir Arthur Bliss, encompassing as he does the genres of symphonic, chamber, film, choral, and ceremonial music. Regarded as avant garde in the 1920s, he still displayed vitality and a reactionary streak in his seventies. The poet Kathleen Raine recognised his role as a musical ambassador for the troubled twentieth century when she wrote, “In your music you have understood, and imposed form and beauty upon our strange times.”

Bliss was very aware of the dual allegiance he had inherited from an American father and English mother, and nowhere is this observed more keenly than his Hymn to Apollo. Outwardly, its American genesis came as a result of elation following performances in Boston and New York of his Colour Symphony by Pierre Monteux and the BSO, but there is a second and far more personal reason that this work came to fruition. During a two-year stay in the U.S. from 1923–25, Bliss met the young Trudy Hoffmann in Santa Barbara, California and they married in those idyllic surroundings on June 1, 1925. It is likely that Hymn to Apollo was first sketched out during this time of courtship, before they moved to London, although the music does not reveal romantic associations.

The world premiere was given in Amsterdam on November 28, 1926 by Monteux and the Concergebouw Orchestra; followed by a Royal Philharmonic Society concert in London on January 27, 1927. The American premiere took place on March 18, 1927 in Cincinnati, Ohio with Fritz Reiner conducting the CSO. Two local newspapers printed favorable reviews. Bliss was present at the next performance on August 9, 1927 at the Hollywood Bowl. Two photographs, possibly taken by Lady Bliss, are described by her as “Hollywood Bowl 1927. Rehearsal of Hymn to Apollo. Eugene Goossens conducting, Arthur Bliss listening.”

In 1964, Bliss revised Hymn to Apollo, modifying the form and reducing the orchestration. He justified his actions in his autobiography, As I Remember: “During my career I have continually found that my second thoughts are usually better than my first, and the third sometimes better still.” This version (being played today) received its premiere in the Cheltenham Music Festival (U.K.) in 1965 with the composer conductingDescribed in the score as an invocation addressed to Apollo as the god of the healing art, Apollo latromantis, physician and seer, the music evolves from the quiet opening woodwind and harp phrases and the violin melody that follows. It takes on the character of a ritualistic procession, gathering in volume and intensity to reach a climax, and then subsiding again. Although cast in a generally four-square and diatonic framework, there are characteristic Bliss touches such as angular melodic intervals and some harsh discords. In its most majestic moments, the music also suggests Apollo the God of the Sun, and reminds the listener that Arthur Bliss was to embrace the ceremonial in his role of Master of the Queen’s Music to Elizabeth II.