Sir Arthur Bliss, Things to Come, Suite

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert This England, performed on Jan 31, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Bliss born Aug 2, 1891 in London; died Mar 27, 1975 in London
Things to Come composed in 1934–5 for the film adaptation of H.G. Wells novel
Approximate performance time: 17 minutes
Instruments: 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, 1 harp, and strings

In 1933, H.G. Wells finished a “history of the future,” The Shape of Things to Come, in which he predicted global warfare in the mid-twentieth century that would be succeeded by a utopia in which positivistic and scientific values would reign supreme. Despite dissenting voices such as that of Aldous Huxley, who had mocked Wells’s predictions in his novel Brave New World (1932), Wells created a screenplay for a film version of his book entitled Things to Come. Wells was deeply disappointed with the result, however, as the film was a highly adulterated realization of his vision: Wells’ chief contribution to the completed film was the way in which his name was exploited for publicity. The movie, which was directed by Alexander Korda and starred Raymond Massey and Ralph Richardson, was released in 1936 to reviews that ranged from tepid to hostile, yet continues to maintain a reputation among a band of cognoscenti as an early example of science fiction transferred to the medium of cinema. In other words, Things to Come has become a cult classic.

Upon its release, critics praised one aspect of the production unreservedly: the score by the British modernist composer Arthur Bliss. In the heady early days of the creation of Things to Come, Wells himself contacted Bliss to supply music for his cinematic vision. Wells later wrote, “The music is a part of the constructive scheme of the film, and the composer, Mr. Arthur Bliss, was practically a collaborator in its production. . . . This Bliss music is not intended to be tacked on; it is part of the design.” Bliss, who had written an essay on film music as early as 1922, responded with alacrity to Wells’ ideas, producing a score that is considered to be one of the finest achievements by a British film composer, music on a level with scores by Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, and William Walton. In a prophetic anticipation of John Williams, Bliss concludes the suite drawn from his music for Things to Come with a broad Elgarian tune that hails Wells’ cloudless, technologically perfect future.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.