Arthur Bliss : Meditations on a Theme by John Blow
Introduction: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ ‘I will fear no evil’
Meditation I: ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters.’
Meditation II: ‘Thy rod and staff they comfort me.’
Meditation III: The Lambs
Meditation IV: ‘He restoreth my soul.’
Meditation V: ‘In green pastures.’
Interlude: ‘Through the valley of the shadow of death.’
Finale: ‘In the House of the Lord.’
Shortly after receiving the welcome invitation from the City of Birmingham Orchestra to write a new work specially for them, and while thinking over what form this might take, I was sent a second present from Birmingham. This came from Professor Anthony Lewis and was a copy of John Blow’s Coronation Anthems and Anthems with Strings published in the collection Musica Britannica, edited by Mr Harold Watkins Shaw and Professor Lewis himself. I happened to open the volume at the verse anthem ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and found a noble tune.
I felt a signal omen had been granted me, and it was accordingly on this theme that I began to build my new work. I have used the title ‘Meditations’ in spite of the energetic, almost violent, character of some of the music, because I have been aware of dwelling in thought on the varied imagery used in this psalm, and of allowing myself to compose freely on different fragments of Blow’s melody. Indeed, its full statement does not make itself apparent until the Finale section of the work.
The Introduction starts as a pastoral. First an oboe, and then two flutes and a piccolo play a long free melody. Two contrasting moods are depicted in this Introduction, one of comfort and assurance, the presence of the Shepherd, and the other of peril and lurking evil.
MEDITATION I: ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters.’
This is a flowing treatment of the theme, with special reference to bars 6, 7, 8, and 9, though the contours of all the four symmetrical sections are found. The scoring is mainly confined to woodwind, horns and strings.
MEDITATION II: ‘Thy rod and staff they comfort me.’
This is based on a strongly rhythmic version of the theme, scored for full orchestra. Confidence and pride are expressed.
MEDITATION III: The Lambs.
As a contrast, this miniature scherzo is pianissimo throughout, with muted strings, woodwind, harp and glockenspiel. The first eleven bars emphasise the truism that sheep move ‘in close imitation’. The musical basis for this meditation is found in bars 14, 15, 29 and 30 of Blow’s melody.
MEDITATION IV: ‘He restoreth my soul.’
A quick triplet appearance of the theme alternates with a rising progression of brass chords. The character of the whole is joyful and confident.
MEDITATION V: ‘In green pastures.’
This is concerned with a quiet re-statement of the introduction’s opening melody. From the sound of the introductory and closing bars of this meditation it may be adduced that gently flowing streams keep these fields lush and green. The peace of this section is crudely broken into with the interruption of the theme of lurking evil in the introduction, and over a quiet percussive rhythm (full percussion is only employed in this part of the work), the Interlude ‘Through the valley of the shadow of death’ begins. At the end of this Interlude there is a sudden hush and bass clarinet, still playing a version of the ‘evil theme’, begins a quiet climb from the ‘valley’. The first four bars of Blow’s theme are played by the trombones and the Finale begins.
In this there are two statements of the theme. In the first, each eight-bar section is played by itself with a few bars’ ritornello between. The theme is heard in the order of voices: bass, tenor, soprano, alto and then bass again. In the second statement, the whole thirty bars are played straight through in the dominant. Over the brass tutti, the violins keep up a florid descant.
The coda consists of a return to the pastoral feeling of the Introduction. Just before the end there is one more premonition of peril, but the final chord brings complete assurance.
© 1955 Sir Arthur Bliss