Morning Heroes – Symphony for orator, chorus and orchestra
Hymn to Apollo [original version]
Samuel West (orator)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Recorded 16 & 17 May 2015 at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, South London
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: March 2016
CD No: CHANDOS
CHSA 5159 [SACD]
Duration: 65 minutes
Anyone approaching this recording of Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes without prejudice or pre-conceptions will surely be astonished, as I am, by the sheer quality of the music’s originality and invention, the result being a very moving work. Morning Heroes dates from 1930, and was directly inspired (not too strong a word) by Bliss’s experiences as a serving officer on the frontline in World War One, specifically at the Battle of the Somme, in which his brother Kennard lost his life – as did thousands of other soldiers – and Arthur himself was injured. It is a very personal work but its universality both as a tribute and as a message makes it speak to us directly. The text was compiled by Bliss from various sources, and the choices he made not only fit together well but also betoken a widely and deeply read individual, with texts from Homer and Walt Whitman to Wilfred Owen and Robert Nicholls: and all are included in Chandos’s presentation.
Mention of those last two World War One poets who also experienced the horrors at first hand, to say nothing of the subject-matter, cannot but help recall Britten’s War Requiem, with its combination of Owen’s poetry and the Latin text of the Requiem Mass, but there any resemblances end. Morning Heroes has no religious connotations. It is pre-eminently a reflective work, a personal cathartic ridding of the memories of the Somme – in so far as they could ever be expunged – and a genuinely profound homage by Bliss to the ultimate sacrifice of his brother and of his brothers-in-arms.
The work itself makes its own rules – as does any original masterpiece (for that is what Morning Heroes is), not only in abjuring a religious framework, but also in the absence of any soloists and in its avowedly ‘symphonic’ nature. There is though a narrator: this decision may be felt problematic, for very few compositions successfully combine speech and music, and when it is attempted it requires more than sheer force of will on the part of the composer. Such few successes may be counted on the fingers of one hand – Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait (though his succeeding Preamble for a Solemn Occasion, written for the United Nations, is not in the same class), Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Kaddish’ Symphony, Edmund Rubbra’s Sinfonia Sacra (I do not include children’s pieces such as Peter and the Wolf or Babar the Elephant) are all equally fine – yet the combination of speech and music poses considerable challenges which many composers eventually shy away from (the final scene of Britten’s Gloriana, where Elizabeth removes her wig and begins speaking, is a special case).
An essential ingredient of the accomplishment of those few works lies in the orchestral preparation before the speaker begins: additionally, should the words be given unaccompanied or with the orchestra providing ‘background? These are not questions which can always be answered fruitfully, for the moment the listener’s attention is moved from the atmosphere engendered by the orchestra to the practicalities of the orator standing before us, the music has, perforce, to take a back seat.
Bliss did not reach his decision lightly, and the measure of his artistic achievement in combining the two proves the rightness and indeed the inspiration that sets Morning Heroes in motion. In mentioning its ‘symphonic’ claims, a few eyebrows may be raised: ‘symphonic’ demands total organic coherence, no matter how far stretched the connecting threads may be, and for many people the early introduction of a voice – especially given as long a text as ‘Hector’s Farewell to Andromache’ – sets up creative challenges that appear insurmountable.
It comes down to the quality of the music, and I found myself drawn into Bliss’s astonishingly successful depiction of what may well have been in his mind, the dawn before the Battle of the Somme: nor is this picture-painting; it runs deeper than that. It is a question of mood, one that perhaps – perhaps – can only be fully appreciated by those who either have personal connections with the Somme, or have visited the battlefield on a summer’s day. I have both: my father was badly wounded at the Somme, and I have visited the place, finding – as all who have visited there, or been to other places where many thousands have been killed (Belsen or Culloden, for examples) – that Nature, in the guise of birds and animals, avoids such locations. There is a deep, profound and lasting silence at these places, even on the most life-enhancing of days: the spirit of loss remains, in the air, almost tangible, and the opening bars of Morning Heroes is as evocative as can only have been written by someone who had experienced it.
Other World War One pieces, by composers who fought – Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem, for example, which also combines literary writings (Whitman, especially) with religious Latin texts (another precursor of War Requiem), John Foulds’s A World Requiem and even parts of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (there are several phrases in that masterpiece which echo passages in Morning Heroes, which predated Ravel’s score) – such works, among others, I am sure, may well have fulfilled a necessary cathartic need for the composers, but in doing so may have contributed (not in the case of the Ravel) to their relative neglect.
This is because when Morning Heroes appeared in 1930, and Dona nobis pacem in 1936, for the majority in the audiences, the ‘Great War’ was a vivid memory: no family, it was claimed, was untouched by it, and the subsequent post-war rejection throughout the 1920s, in artistic terms, of the creative mores of much pre-1919 music would have caused many to reject those large-scale works for recalling experiences they were trying to forget.
Some such explanation may well be necessary, for Morning Heroes – at least, in this Chandos release, from the distance of a century after the events it commemorates – is revealed as the masterpiece it always was. From those opening bars, any sympathetic listener will be drawn into its world, the sonic equivalent of those grainy photographs in the Imperial War Museum.
Morning Heroes is in five movements, in which the orator (not narrator, be it noted) is heard in the first and last. The central three movements are fully choral – of consistently universal intent, not – if soloists were required – changing perspective to the individual. Andrew Burn’s particularly fine booklet note makes the same point: Bliss is opening a vista for us; he is not showing the horrors close up.
Having said all this, and urging the reader to give Morning Heroes a chance, I do not feel that it is consistently on the highest level of Bliss’s creativity – that was to come next in the Clarinet Quintet – but again and again I found myself moved by the music, so true to its composer and to the certainty of his vision. Andrew Davis conducts a magnificent account, wonderfully paced, and he supports well Samuel West, whose spoken contributions could not be improved upon. The BBC Symphony Orchestra responds superbly, and if at times one feels the Chorus could be a shade more incisive, there is no doubt that Davis is quite inspirational throughout.
Perhaps Bliss could have extended the ending of Morning Heroes further in terms of temporal balance, but the impact of the relatively sudden close is well meant and fully grasped, as we finally reach the Symphony’s inherent tonal basis – A minor – having travelled so far, and heard and imagined so much, since that opening oratorical movement. This performance does Morning Heroes full justice, as does the recording quality, which is splendidly balanced.
Morning Heroes plays for just over 55 minutes, and to complete the disc we have the first recording of the original version of an earlier, purely orchestral, piece. Hymn to Apollo (1926) was revised many years later, and perhaps one can see why, for its first expression is half-stated in terms of directness of utterance, and I found that several hearings are required before its qualities are revealed. Perhaps it should be heard before Morning Heroes, when the composer’s inner character is still not fully on display – or perhaps, equally, it needed Morning Heroes for Bliss to reach the full maturity of which A Colour Symphony of 1922 had clearly shown him to be capable.