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About this time I met Harold Brooke, a director of Novello's and the conductor of a small choir in the City of London. He suggested my writing a choral work for one of his concerts, the music to be published by Novello's. In this chance way I became associated with that great publishing firm, initiating a close alliance which has now been maintained for forty years. As is usual with me, I had to wait until some lucky incident set my creative talent in motion.
In the spring of 1928 two American friends of ours from Santa Barbara invited us to join them in a visit to Sicily. Trudy and I met them in Naples, and from there we motored down through the wild scenery from Calabria, crossed to Messina, and saw the beauties of Palermo, Agrigento and Syracuse. It was at this latter place, when one morning I had set out to explore the site of the classical fountain of Arethusa, a copy of the Idylls of Theocritus in my pocket, that I found the theme for my choral work. The southern light, the goatherds, the sound of a pipe, all evoked the image of some classical, pastoral scene. I began to collect a short anthology of poems which should depict a Sicilian day from dawn to evening. In later years I wrote a short programme note for this thirty-minute work which I give here as an accurate description of what I intended to convey. I used modest resources - a small choir, a solo mezzo-soprano, a flute, timpani and strings.
This Pastoral opens with Ben Jonson's summons to shepherds to celebrate their spring 'holyday' in honour of Pan. A rhythm of drums then ushers in the Hymn to the god, set to the words of John Fletcher, at the end of which the singers call four times on Pan to appear. The sound of his flute is heard on the hills. A stately Saraband is danced in his honour, and the chorus recall the story of Pan and Echo, in which Pan vainly invokes her love, and Echo mockingly sends back a distortion of his appeals.
The sun rises in the heavens, and water-nymphs invite the shepherds to seek rest and solace with them. This poem by Robert Nichols entitled 'The Naiads' Music' might be an evocation of some picture by Poussin.
In this short choral work I have tried as far as possible to vary the vocal texture in each section. Starting with a four-part chorus, I have next used the voices antiphonally, then women's voices alone, and now a single mezzo-soprano sings 'The Pigeon Song', the words again by Robert Nichols. In this poem a young girl whispers her story of love to her tame pigeon and then sends it as messenger to her lover in the fields.
Verses from Theocritus form the text of the next section. Men's voices accompanied by the shrill whistling of the piccolo sing a lusty prayer to Demeter to bless the fruit and grain.
Dusk falls, and the singers recalling the classical love stories, Venus and Adonis, Leda and Jupiter, Diana and Endymion, ask each other why they too should not follow the gods' example.
This was the first occasion on which I employed the device of the anthology for constructing a musical work. I found it very attractive to choose verse from quite different epochs, each poem having the same general subject as its theme. However widely separated the centuries music has the mysterious power of linking them together.
I was to adopt a similar principle in my choral symphony Morning Heroes, in the cantata The Beatitudes, and in the cantata Mary of Magdala.
I dedicated the Pastoral to Elgar. There was a good reason for this, quite apart from my long years of admiration for his music. Since the performance of my Colour Symphony in 1922 an estrangement had grown up between us which is evident in the first letter of his:
November 8th 1928
My dear Bliss,
Your letter gave me great pleasure and satisfaction and I am obliged to you for writing it.
I do not refer to the concert now but to what you say about our friendship: this I valued and shall value again if you allow me to do so.
Frankly, I was greatly disappointed with the way you progressed from years ago. There was so much 'press' of a type I dislike and newspaper nonsense. I can easily believe you were responsible for little or none of this but it rankled a great deal because I had great hopes for you: I had affection. It will seem vulgar to you if I add that commercially you have (I believe or was led to believe) no concern with the success of your works - an unfortunate side of art which we penniless people have always with us, and try to ignore. I hoped you were going to give us something very great in quite modern music, the progress of which is very dear to me; and then you seemed to become a mere 'paragraphist'. I am probably wrong and trust I was.
Now I have written at greater length than you will like but my reason (not excuse!) must be that you are one of the very few artists in whom I took an interest, to use the word again, affectionate interest.
Believe me, my dear Bliss,
Yours most sincerely
The concert to which he refers at the outset must have been one in the Queen's Hall at which he had been conducting, and I must have then reopened a correspondence. I am glad I did so, and that his two remaining letters written in so friendly a spirit are still in my possession.
February 1st 1929
My dear Bliss,
I accept, with grateful feelings, the honour of the dedication of your new choral work: may it flourish exceedingly.
With kind regards
Yours most sincerely
May 9th 1929
Under conditions far from good I listened to the performance of the Pastoral you so kindly dedicated to me: the transmission or reception (I know nothing of the workings of the BBC with aerial sprites) was not good. But I could judge that your work is on a large and fine scale, and I like it exceedingly. The Pan sections suited me best but that is only a first hearing notion. Some of it naturally puzzled me, but I am none the less sympathetic: thank you!
Yours very sincerely
© Arthur Bliss