Sunday 7 January 2024

Arthur Bliss: Edinburgh: Overture for orchestra (1956) Part II

The Daily Mail (21 August 1956) considered that Bliss had given a ‘graceful compliment to the capital city and to Scotland’ with his overture. The fact that the composer conducted the work ‘ensured that the presentation was, so to speak, in his own phrasing.’ The critic (P.J.T.C.) felt that 10 minutes may be overlong for a ‘greeting’ to the Festival, but considered that it was ‘attractive, strong and compact’ and ‘proved of just the right extent for a musical courtesy.’

Two comprehensive reviews of the concert were printed in the Manchester Guardian and The Times. The Guardian’s (22 August 1956) Colin Mason suggests that the Edinburgh: Overture ‘is an unmistakable occasional piece of much the same style and musical calibre as the recent ‘Meditations on a Theme by Blow’…’ He felt that ‘…like that [work], it is marred especially in the introductory and closing bars, by various sharp discords that are musically quite irrelevant…’ and serve ‘no purpose except to introduce an entirely bogus harmonic excitement and to pad out the work for a few extra seconds by keeping us waiting for their easily foreseen and banal resolution.’ The opening of the overture had a ‘rather manufactured-seeming exposition based mainly on the rhythm of the name Edinburgh (pronounced E-din-borough) over which a psalm tune is played.’  Mason considered that the ‘most genuine’ element of the piece was the ‘quietly elegiac’ pavane. The final section which combined the ‘Edinburgh’ motto with Scottish dance rhythms was ‘moderately convincing in its animation, but not without some effect of strain.’  He concludes by insisting that ‘although the work served its purpose decently, it has not the vitality or inspiration likely to make it a repertory concert overture.’ This last prediction has become all too true.

The Times (22 August 1956) remarked that the overture was a ‘pièce d’occasion constructed of various musical emblems of Scotland.’ Three elements, the rhythm of the word Edinburgh, the psalm tune and a strathspey were ‘strung together as a pot-pourri.’  Interestingly, the critic compared the slow middle section designed to commemorate Mary Queen of Scots as being akin to Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte.  He thinks that Bliss could have been more sentimental in this section, but the ‘general intention was, of course, to be exuberant…’ rather than elegiac. In conclusion, the reviewer noted that Scots were asking themselves if ‘the Englishman had really got the rhythm of the word ‘Edinburgh’ right.’

A less positive view of the Bliss overture (and concerto) is given by Conrad Wilson (Wilson, 2005).  He also relates a little bit of unattributed anecdote. Sir Thomas had apparently arrived during ‘the dreary first half of the concert’ too early for his part of the proceedings. Seemingly, he ‘amused himself backstage by tossing the clothes of the Master of the Queen’s Music [sic] out of the green room and into corridor of the Usher Hall.’ If this was not enough, ‘he mounted to platform level while Bliss was conducting and distracted the players by gesticulating at them through the glass door leading to the stage.’  Wilson’s musical predilections become clear when he concludes by noting that the ‘Brahms which followed after the interval was naturally electrifying…[and] prompted the audience to burst wildly into applause before the last chord had stopped sounding.’

The Times (22 August 1956) was more prosaic and insisted it had something to do with ‘doubling the wind and picking up the speed.’

Ian Hutton gave a wide-ranging assessment of the 1956 Edinburgh International Festival in the October edition of Music and Musicians. After wittily suggesting that Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire ought to be allowed to ‘decompose in peace’ and noting that Walton’s Façade had ‘triumphantly survived its initial ferocious opposition’ he turned to the Beecham RPO concerts and the two ‘novelties.’ Alas, he finds nothing to say about the Edinburgh: Overture but writes that Arnell’s Landscapes and Figures made a favourable impression. Presumably he considered that Bliss did not.

Robert Meikle has given the most detailed study of the Overture to date in the chapter on ‘Metamorphic Variation: The Orchestral Music’ (Craggs, 2002, p.21). He notes that the work was a ‘thank you’ from the composer for the honorary degrees he had recently received from Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities.  He considers that it is ‘for the most part a bright, celebratory piece, divided by the more reflective Psalm-tune and pavane, pervaded by the so called ‘Edinburgh’ rhythm, both in its original note values (2/4 ♩♩.)and a diminished version.’

In 1980 HMV released the Edinburgh: Overture on LP. It was coupled with the Meditations on a Theme by John Blow and Discourse for orchestra. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Vernon Handley.  The Gramophone (August 1980) submitted that the Edinburgh: Overture was Bliss’s equivalent to William Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture.  The critic Edward Greenfield (E.G.) was impressed by Handley’s performance which ‘swaggers impressively in the breezy outer sections.’ His observation about the central ‘Pavane for Mary Queen of Scots’ was that it was ‘a little too much like film music.’  

Ten years later, in a review of the cassette tape release of the same recording of the overture (coupled with different works-see discography below) The Gramophone (August 1990) notes that the work has ‘plenty of bustle, [but] also shows the [composer’s] most attractive lyrical vein.’

Diana McVeagh in Records and Recording (August 1980, Volume 23, 11) regards the Edinburgh: Overture as ‘a lively agreeable piece, nicely allusive…’ She added that it was time somebody ‘gave us a Cornish Overture to join this and Cockaigne…’

Select Bibliography
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Bio-bibliography (Westport Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988)
Craggs, Stewart R., Arthur Bliss: A Source Book (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996)
Craggs, Stewart R., ed., Arthur Bliss: Music and Literature (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002)
Foreman, Lewis, Arthur Bliss: Catalogue of the Complete Works (London: Novello, 1980; suppl. 1982)
Roscow, Gregory, ed., Bliss on Music: Selected Writings of Arthur Bliss 1920-1975 (Oxford, OUP, 1991)
Wilson, Conrad, Notes on Brahms: 20 Crucial Works (Edinburgh, St. Andrew Press, 2005)
Files of the Daily Mail, Glasgow Herald, The Gramophone, Manchester Guardian, Music and Musicians, The Times, Records and Recording.

Bliss, Arthur: Meditations on a Theme by John Blow, Edinburgh: Overture, Discourse for orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley HMV ASD 3878 (1980) (Vinyl).

Bliss, Arthur: A Colour Symphony, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Groves; Miracle in the Gorbals, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Berglund; Edinburgh: Overture, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley EMI EG 7 69388 4 (1988) (Cassette)

The Edinburgh: Overture was also included as part of the retrospective Vernon Handley ‘ICON’ boxed set/download, EMI Classics 098 2022 (2011) (5 CDs)

With thanks to the The Arthur Bliss Society Journal where this essay was first published.



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