Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) The Sacred Choral Music: Shield of Faith; The World is Charged With The Grandeur of God; O Give Thanks Unto the Lord; Seek the Lord; Lord Who Will Abide in Thy Tabernacle; Stand Up And Bless The Lord Thy God.   The Collegiate Singers and Richard Moorhouse (organ) with members of the New London Orchestra. Directed by Andrew Millinger   PRIORY PRCD 645 [74:26]
Save around 22% with

(Recording sponsored by The Bliss Trust)

Although he became converted to the Catholic faith during World War I, Bliss was essentially agnostic and he was not nurtured in the English church-music tradition. Despite an enthusiasm for the human voice - employed extensively in many pieces, orthodox and experimental, solo and in ensembles from 1914 to 1974 - choral music simply did not feature in his projects until 1928 when he wrote the delightful Lie Strewn the White Flocks. Yet the interesting thing about Bliss, vividly demonstrated on this recording, is that, like Vaughan Williams, he continued developing his artistry in old age, striking out in promising new directions. The Shield of Faith and The World is charged with the Grandeur of God are such works and they bookend the shorter pieces on this generously-filled album.

The Shield of Faith was completed only a few weeks before Bliss died. I will quote from Giles Easterbrook's excellent lucid notes - "…it is so utterly a synthesis of Bliss's hopes, doubts and conflicts, that it is hard to see it other than a deliberate summation of his life: except that anyone who talked to him after he had completed it, knows that he had hopes, plans and ideas for future works, and anyone who opens the score or hears it decently performed is struck by its fresh vigour, stylistic innovation and the realisation that it is certainly a transitional score. This is not the work of a man 'preparing for bed': it is a work of some turmoil."

Shield of Faith was commissioned for the quincentenary of the 'Royal' chapel of St. George, Windsor and its texts are dawn sequentially, one from each of the centuries of the chapel's history. It explores beyond the confines of a simple devotional piece to allow Bliss to expound on his feelings about belief - his own and others'. Here we have a faith that is not unquestioning, and we are reminded of the complexities and ambiguities of Morning Heroes. The opening movement, 'The Lord is risen', is a setting of a verse of William Dunbar (1470-1520). Beginning with an impressive organ fanfare, the choir enter in heroic, almost martial mode, 'Done is a battell on the dragon blak, Our campioun Chryst confountest hes force'. Commencing in unison, the movement spreads the choir out into multi-part writing towards the end with the glorious 'Surrexit dominus' threatening to lift the roof of the Cathedral. An interlude takes the form of the Gloria in excelsis Deo sung by soprano, Juliet Telford and baritone, Andrew Angus. Bliss entwines the two vocal lines to rapturous effect. The second movement 'Love', is from George Herbert (1593-1633) and takes the form of a dialogue between solists and choir. Love carries a message of pardon and redemption for the individual, believing but questioning. Note how Bliss sets and colours the word Love right at the beginning. The choir holds it in a rocking motion cherishing it tenderly imbuing it with infinite compassion and warm understanding. The third movement, An Essay on Man is from Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and is in complete contrast. The savage entry of the organ and the satccato opening chords from the choir set the tone. '…Created half to rise, half to fall… yet GOD IS WISE.' Bliss's music scornfully, ironically follows Pope's indictment of the ultimate folly of scepticism in the age of reason and ends the movement with an affirmation of God's omnipotence. 'O yet we trust' comes from Tennyson's 'In Memorium/' It is more personal and expresses an anguish and the fear that hope, if any, is at best remote and at worst illusory. The movement alternates between choir and soloists who agonise - 'Behold, we know not anything…what am I? An infant crying in the night...' The multi-part choral writing in this movement is sublime. So it is too in 'Little Gidding', the final movement setting of extracts from the envoi of T.S. Eliot's (1888-1965) 'Four Quartets'. Bliss imbues the often arcane but intensely poetic verses with a sense of great exultance and potency. There is so much of note here the evocative darting rhythms underscoring 'Quick now, here, now always' and Bliss's treatment of the word time. In the context of 'Of timeless moments…' Bliss creates an echoing effect with the choir creating a feeling the infinite and yet the still. At the word 'time' in the context of - "…to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time...', Bliss repeats and embroiders the setting of time so that it is imbued with a sense of insight and wonder. 'A glorious work that deserves wider recognition and more frequent performances.

The visionary quality, and the colourful and dramatic imagery stirred Bliss in his setting of the verses of Gerald Manley Hopkins. The World is charged With the Grandeur of God, the other major work on the album, was commissioned for the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival. [The Maltings fire of that year dictated that the premiere was held in a local church instead.] Bliss was now 78 but anybody expecting something autumnal would have been disappointed for this is a work of virility and wonder. It is in the form of a triptych - its outer movements for SATB and brass (three trumpets with two tenor and two bass trombones) and the central panel for two flutes and upper voices. It presents three aspects of man's ideal of God - reverentially awe-struck, caringly reflective and mystically exultant. The first movement presents the Bliss of ceremonial, brass fanfares open it and the choir proclaims exultantly. The sonorities "flame out" and the music is bright and rugged suggestive, as Giles aptly says, "of Charles Ives recapturing the faith of his puritan settler forbears." The central movement is poised purity, the voices supported by a beautiful interplay of the flutes' lines. The final movement is once more on a heroic scale, bold and challenging. Easterbrook rates The World is charged with the Grandeur of God as "one of Bliss's very great works."

'O Give thanks unto the Lord' was written for the 400th anniversary of the Granting of the Royal Charter to the island of Sark. It begins on a delightful and breezy note with a gentle middle section. 'Stand up and bless the Lord your God' (1960) is almost a small cantata with solo passages (especially for the treble). It shows the influence of Gibbons and Purcell but employs greater chromaticism and abrupt shifts into unrelated keys, and its expressive range suggests the Bliss of the concert hall. Like most of his church music it remains stubbornly un-polyphonic. 'Seek the Lord' was written for the Centenary Service of the Mission to Seamen at Westminster Abbey on 20th February 1956. It has briefly appropriate watery references and it is interesting that Bliss includes one that Elgar used in his Lux Christie, at 'Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion.'

Finally, 'Lord, who shall abide in Thy Tabernacle' sees Bliss in full throttle for this work which was performed at the dedication of the shrine of the Knights Bachelor in July 1968.

Under Millinger's strong and sympathetic direction, the Collegiate Singers do Bliss proud and Richard Moorhouse provides a splendid organ accompaniment. The recorded sound is clear and spacious. The only jarring element for me was the rather insipid booklet front cover; perhaps Priory might look at their design policy?


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links
but you can also purchase

Return to Index