The consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962, replacing the fifteenth-century building destroyed during World War Two, was marked by the commissioning and premieres of works from three of Britain’s leading composers – Michael Tippett’s opera King Priam, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and Arthur Bliss’s The Beatitudes. Other concerts took place in Coventry at that time, including a visit by the Berlin Philharmonic (conducted by Sir John Barbirolli) – making a series of musical events of international newsworthiness which it would be difficult to replicate today in terms of artistic significance.
Of the two choral works, it is War Requiem which – from the start – overshadowed Bliss’s contribution: both were designed to be performed in the cathedral, but the greater difficulties in mounting the Britten meant that more rehearsals were found to be necessary, eating into the time and preparations set aside for Bliss’s work.
Bliss – at that time Master of the Queen’s Music and therefore holder of the highest public office in terms of musical art – had to endure what some perceived as public humiliation in learning, through newspapers, that his work was to be premiered in a nearby cinema. The consequence is that The Beatitudes, if it is mentioned at all, has been regarded – often by those who have not investigated for themselves – as a far less significant composition in comparison with the impact War Requiem made, reinforced almost immediately by the Decca recording conducted by the composer.
It is only in recent years that interest in reviving Bliss’s score has arisen – in no small part due to the persistence of the Bliss Society. A broadcast recording of the premiere has survived and been issued on Dutton, but the cinema’s acoustics and other shortcomings at the time have led to that valuable performance being regarded as of no more than historic interest; and there is another composer-conducted one on Lyrita from the Royal Albert Hall, August 1964.
What has been needed for some time is a new recording, and this Chandos release is of such quality – in terms of performance insight, recorded sound and musical balance – that one can only applaud such a demonstrable restitution of a major work as this.
Despite being inspired (no exaggeration) by identical motives, it is no use trying to claim that Bliss’s work is of equal expressive impact to Britten’s – it is not, but whereas in contemplation of the horrors and impact of war Britten produced arguably the more dramatic setting – at times ‘in your face’ – of the Latin text of the Requiem Mass, alongside the coincidental qualities of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, Bliss (who experienced at first hand the horrors of the Somme, where he was wounded in 1916) took the teachings of Christ himself, in the Sermon on the Mount, as his text, coincidentally – as Britten had done, with neither composer being aware of the other’s approach – also paired with later poetry.
Christ’s Beatitudes may continue to challenge the individual’s receptivity and understanding – as they have done over two millennia – to a greater, more personal degree than the text of the Requiem. Bliss’s music, in setting the Biblical text, comes from one who knows, other than from one who is profoundly sympathetic to events with which they have not had personal experience. It may be that holding a dying comrade in one’s arms in the mud of a foreign field under constant artillery fire is more impacting on one’s psyche than being moved by reading about war at second-hand. I am not implying that one composer’s inspiration should be considered more valid than the other, for we should not forget that Britten, within a few weeks of VE Day in 1945, had travelled to Belsen with Yehudi Menuhin to give concerts to the pathetic survivors of the Holocaust – Britten also ‘knew’, as Bliss did, the pity of war, but from a different perspective.
What cannot be denied is the depth of expression the music of both composers exhibit; their differing generational experiences naturally colouring their reactions in contemplating similar happenings. Bliss had given his reaction to the Somme in Morning Heroes, thirty-odd years earlier, and in The Beatitudes he offered a new masterpiece (for that is what I believe it is), arising – albeit at a distance – from the horrors of war, daring to set Christ’s teaching verbatim, as it were, Bliss’s text being nothing less than the inspired word of God.
So what we have in The Beatitudes, if compared to War Requiem, is a similar equivalent of Fauré’s Requiem as opposed to Verdi’s: the scale is smaller, but the emotional human impact is no less profound; the moments of reflective contemplation taking greater significance over the realism.
Not that The Beatitudes shies away from realism: the very opening, a dramatic orchestral prelude, depicts ‘A Troubled World’, against which – and from which – emerges the initial choral setting, of Henry Vaughan’s The Mount of Olives. The scene is being set; and with the first Beatitude, Bliss gives us a new, breathtakingly beautiful vision – one of immediate consolation as, one by one, Christ’s teachings are encountered.
From that point on, the attentive listener is captured: orchestral interludes offer passages of contemplation, and – thanks to Chandos printing the text clearly in the excellent accompanying booklet (if omitting organist Richard Pearce, who took part in the Barbican Hall performance prior to the sessions, link below), one can follow the emotional structure of this in many ways unique work, as well as the composer’s convincing musical planning. This latter point is due in no small to Andrew Davis’s grasp of the whole, which is admirable.
The Beatitudes (lasting here fifty-one minutes, longer than Chandos suggests) is a score that sympathetic listeners have to discover for themselves; its impact is not necessarily immediate, but it is lasting, aided by the exceptionally beautiful singing of Emily Birsan, whose phrasing and tonal gradations are equalled by the fine contribution and understanding of Ben Johnson in music that is a combination of the depiction of human collapse and redemption, and has the effect of staying with the listener after the performance has finished.
This release is completed by Introduction and Allegro, written for and premiered by Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia in 1926 and revised in 1937, and Bliss’s richly upholstered three-versed setting of the UK National Anthem – only for special occasions – which differs from Britten’s version is many ways, as one might expect, but which is equally mindful of what lies behind the text to the nation’s sovereign. This is the arrangement’s first recording, Chandos claims, save that Bliss did so with the Royal Choral Society and London Philharmonic for a Classics for Pleasure LP, CFP 198, released in 1972.