Arthur Bliss: A Colour Symphony


Although thoroughly represented on records from the 20th Century, Arthur Bliss’ works are seldom performed outside of the United Kingdom in the 21st Century. As a composer who took influence from composers such as Elgar, Stravinksy, Ravel, and Vaughan Williams, Bliss’ compositional style is quintessentially British, and after the First World War, his music began creating excitement about his talents.

Born in Barnes, London in 1891, Arthur Bliss was the eldest of three brothers. His mother, Agnes Bliss, died in 1895, so the brothers were raised by their father, who was a supporter and lover of the arts. This influenced the Bliss brothers hugely, and Arthur initially studied Classics at Cambridge University, where he graduated in 1913. Whilst at studying Classics, Bliss also received formal music lessons from Charles Wood. The same year he graduated from Cambridge, Bliss then enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London. There, he was tutored in composition by Sir Charles Standford, but the pair did not quite see eye to eye, so Bliss began doing his own research, and began taking inspiration from the likes of Vaughan Williams and Holst. His peers at music college included composers Herbert Howells, Eugene Goossens, and Arthur Benjamin.

After the First World War broke out, Bliss was called to join the army, where he fought in France as an officer in the Royal Fusiliers. In 1917, Bliss moved and became a part of the Grenadier Guards. He was wounded twice and gassed in the war, but the worst part for Bliss was losing his brother Kennard in the war. His death affected Bliss deeply, and some of his music represents this.

After the war, Bliss’ career as a composer took off because he composed works for unusual ensembles, with the music being heavily influenced by Stravinksy and Ravel. Through Elgar’s influence, Bliss composed his first large-scale symphonic work: A Colour Symphony. Composed between 1921-1922, A Colour Symphony was written to be performed at the Three Choirs Festival, held in 1922. The festival was attended by those who were personally by Elgar, and he had asked Bliss, Goossens, and Howells to each compose a work.


The Music

Although he knew he wanted to write a symphony, it took Bliss weeks to think of a suitable character or theme for the work. One day, he came across a book on heraldry, where he read about the symbolic meanings of colours. Bliss then took this idea and created a work that attempted to give each movement a colour, and then a corresponding character for it. The idea was not to depict the actual colours, but to create characters that represent the symbolism of the colours. The four movements and their characters are described as follows:


Movement I

Purple: The colour of Amethysts, Pageantry, Royalty, and Death

Movement II

Red: The colour of Rubies, Wine, Revelry, Furnaces, Courage, and Magic 

Movement III

Blue: The colour of SapphiresDeep WaterSkiesLoyalty, and Melancholy

Movement IV

Green: The colour of EmeraldsHopeYouthJoySpring, and Victory


A Colour Symphony was encouraged by Bliss’ tutor, Vaughan Williams, and conductor Adrian Boult (whom this work is dedicated to). The work’s characteristics are uniquely united through the music, with a nod to the Bliss’ army days being remembered through ‘death’, ‘victory’, ‘courage’ and ‘loyalty’. This palette of pre-determined colour characteristics gave Bliss a different kind of compositional challenge. Instead of expressing his own emotions, he expressed these heraldic colours, and then linked them all with a base narrative, which can be understood from the movement notes above.


Movement I: Purple (Andante maestoso)

Slow, majestic and funeral-like is how best to describe the first movement of A Colour Symphony. Beginning with a funeral procession of sorts, the music establishes two melodies, which end up interweaving with each other. There is a feeling of lament in this movement, which is perhaps referring to the ‘Pageantry’ and ‘Death’ aspects of the programme. The trumpet fanfare, which is rather ‘Last Post’ – esque, symbolises the coming and finality of death. This movement, although only six minutes or so in length, is intense, emotional, and beautiful in every way.

The delicate strings accentuate the brash brass lines, and the winds add sweet decoration to the underlying procession. This movement also has an air of coronation to it, which pairs with the idea of a funeral procession. The end of this movement is very interesting, as the ‘Death’ character is heard through the spasm movement in the lower strings. This could perhaps represent the ending of a heartbeat, or the feelings that arise when you lose someone close to you.


Movement II: Red (Allegro Vivace)

This electrifying scherzo movement is set in two parts, with the first representing ‘Revelry’ being the main characteristic here. The atmosphere that was created from the previous movement is completely changed here, with the jagged and violent opening setting a pace that is difficult to keep up with at first. If any of Bliss’ music was inspired by Stravinsky, this movement has to be at the top of the list.

The ‘trio’ section starts quite suddenly, and again, the change of mood is very noticeable. The flowing melodies are resonant of the ‘Courage’ characteristic. The brass build up again for another climax, and the message within this movement is that life goes on with force. The brass are aggressive at times, and the dichotomy between the brass and the melodic string and wind sections makes this movement incredibly exciting, innovative and radical (especially at the time of composition).


Movement III: Blue (Gently Flowing)

After the fiery second movement, the third movement is much slower in tempo, and begins with a solo flute, who introduces the main melodic line. This is passed around the orchestra, and developed over the span of the movement. The flourishing arabesques from the flute represent the ‘Deep Water’, the long descending solos from the horn and oboe represented the ‘Loyalty’, and finally the cor anglais solo represents the ‘Melancholy’. The repetitive string accompaniment in the middle of this movement is resonant of water overlapping on a beach.

The winds depict blue skies and birdsong, with the ‘gently flowing’ pace of this movement being ever-moving and changing. The whole movement seems rather reflective, and the end draws all these natural themes to a melancholy close.


Movement IV: Green (Moderato)

Perhaps the most complex movement structurally of this symphony, this Finale movement is a slow burner in melodic development. The character of this movement centres on the ideas of rebirth and optimism. Presented as a double-fugue, this movement is highly reminiscent of Schoenberg and is music. The forward thinking of Bliss at this point in time shocked, but also engaged audiences, as it was something very new to them.

The orchestra slowly build up to a flourishing finale section, which represents the ‘Joy’ and ‘Victory’ characteristics of this colour. The climactic end sees the whole orchestra reach the tonic chord and swell to pronounce the victory within the music.


Final Thoughts

Although A Colour Symphony was performed quite regularly in the 20th Century, it is seldom performed now. If it is performed, it is usually within Britain, which is a shame because the work is innovative, creative and intriguing in many ways. A definite must hear!


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Carl Nielsen: Symphony No.2 ‘The Four Temperaments’ 


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