Arthur Bliss's emerging voice : a study of two song cycles on texts by Li Po

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Johnson, Mary Ellen

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In 1923, the British composer Arthur Bliss (1889-1975) was 32 years old and resuming his musical activities that had been interrupted by World War I. Bliss visited the United States in April 1923, and in June of that year, he composed his first song cycle, Ballads of the Four Seasons for voice and piano, using the poetry of Li Po, an eighth century Chinese poet. That fall, Bliss composed his second cycle, The Women of Yueh for voice and chamber ensemble, also to poetry by Li Po. These cycles are important because they mark a transition point in Bliss's personal compositional style. Prior to this, Bliss tended to struggle with song settings, seeming reticent to deal with the emotional aspects of his chosen poetry. These two cycles, however, reveal a more mature and empathetic treatment of the poetry, artfully conveyed through subtle, yet expressive gestures in both the vocal part and accompaniment. Edward T. Cone suggests that the composer of a song provides a perspective on the text that can be identified with the composer’s persona. This persona consists of several interdependent components including the vocal persona–representative of the poetic persona–and the instrumental, or accompanimental persona. For Cone, these personae coalesce to form a complete musical entity that is a representation, or perhaps a surrogate, of the composer’s voice. This treatise investigates Arthur Bliss’s first song cycles, conducted in light of Cone’s theory. Those aspects of the songs that seem to reflect Bliss’s voice most strongly are singled out in Chapter 2, and then discussed in more detail in Chapter 3, taking into account Bliss’s life and times. The analysis of a musical work can contribute not only to a greater understanding of a composer and his or her work, but also provide information that can ultimately enhance a performer’s interpretation of the work. These two cycles have not achieved a place in the standard repertoire of today's singers. Thus, the larger aim of this treatise is to heighten awareness of Bliss’s music, while providing singers and teachers with information to aid in their interpretation of it.




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