Elgar, Bliss The Beatitudes Andrew Davis BBCSO Barbican

At the Barbican, London, Andrew Davis conducted the BBCSO in Elgar Enigma Variations and Arthur Bliss The Beatitudes.  A red letter day for British music fans, because Davis  is a superb conductor of British repertoire.  His insights into Bliss’s Beatitudes was thus eagerly anticipated. If anyone can make a case for the piece, it is he.  After an expansive performance of the Enigma Variations, I was expecting great things.  The Beatitudes is an ambitious work,  scored for large orchestra, soloists, choir and cathedral-scale organ, so an expansive approach would, in theory, breathe life into the piece. The background to the piece and its reception have been repeated so  many times that you could fill an entire review regurgitating the details without having to mention too much about the music.  In short, The Beatitudes was commissioned for the consecration of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962 and given top billing over and above Britten’s War Requiem, the “other” commission.  For reasons still unexplained, it was discreetly shunted aside. The premiere took place in a nearby theatre and was not well received. 

Whatever may have happened in Coventry in 1962, it isn’t simply isn’t true that The Beatitudes was forgotten.  Shortly afterwards, it was performed in a proper Cathedral setting at Gloucester during the the Three Choirs Festival, which alone should have ensured its reputation. Paul Daniels conducted and the singing, being the Three Choirs Festival, must have been good.  Bliss conducted it himself at the Proms in 1964, another ultra high profile event, with no expense spared.  Bliss himself conducted the BBC SO, with the immortal Heather Harper, a host of choirs and of course the formidable Royal Albert Hall organ. This was commercially  released five years ago.  There have been other performances, including one at Coventry Cathedral a few years ago.   The piece isn’t a mystery waiting to be discovered.  Unfortunately,British music is schismatic. Many still can’t forgive Britten for being an outsider.  All the more reasons then to engage with The Beatitudes  on its own merits, rather than just blaming its lack of success on fashion and taste.  Sixty years later, we should be mature enough to evaluate the piece on its own terms without pettiness and special pleading.  Bliss is an important composer, who created masterpieces like Morning Heroes. Read more about that HERE when Andrew Davis conducted it with the BBCSO at the Barbican.    

Coventry Cathedral was bombed during the wear, so it’s rebuilding was a symbolic act of hope. Memories of the war were still fresh, so Britten was taking risks by not condemning Germans. But perhaps people then knew about war first hand, they realized that working towards peace is a much greater challenge.  The Beatitudes of Jesus, as recounted in the New Testament, address the basic concepts of Christianity. Tonight, the Pope reiterated these fundamentals at Fatima :  “Mercy, not judgement”.  Fundamentalists who misconstrue “Blessed are the poor”, maybe aren’t Christian.  Bliss’s Beatitudes presentstexts arranged by Christopher Hassell interspersed with settings of seven poems, from the  Prophet Isaiah to !7th century poets like George Herbert to Dylan Thomas. This allows him to expand the scope, making more of the idea of conflict implicit in the Ninth Beatitude, “Blessed are you when men shall revile you”, which could be interpreted as relevant to the idea of war though it in fact refers to persecution of the apostles and those faithful to a radical new faith.  Bliss connects the Sermon on the Mount to the Mount of Olives to Easter and to the Crucifixion.   Bliss’s Beatitudes are thus a mediation on struggle, illustrated by the strident, almost dissonant music in the Prelude and the Voices of the Mob.  Contrasts are violently dramatic. Loud tutti climaxes but tiny figures (often strings or woodwind) flit past. The soloists (Emily Birsan and Ben Johnson) rise from the massed forces behind them.  The ambience of a great epic saga, with a cast of thousands- what great film music this could have been ! 

Superb performances all round, good enough that it wasn’t such a loss that the Barbican organ isn’t as huge as, say, Coventry Cathedral, But in a way, I was glad that Davies focussed on the music itself, rather than going in for histrionic effects,  He’s conducted another Beatitudes – Elgar’s The Apostles.  That, too, was conceived on a grand scale with over a hundred chorister, many soloists and a big orchestra.  But perhaps the key to The Apostles (and to The Kingdom) lies in its connection to The Dream of Gerontius.which follows one man’s journey from physical life to the life everlasting. In The Apostles the followers of Jesus are about to go into the world, alone, spreading the new gospel in hostile situations.  Hence the inherent contradiction  between their mission, and overblown Edwardian public declarations of Christianity.  Elgar is a master of large form, but his faith, in a loose, non-denominational sense, is fundamentally personal and humanistic.  Not for nothing did he write te Enigma Variations, with its cryptic humour and deliberately non-dogmatic warmth of spirit.  Please read what I wrote about Davis’s Elgar Apostles with the BBC SO at the Barbican with Jacques Imbrailo in 2014.  Part of the reason The Apostles and The Kingdom aren’t programmed non-stop is because their charms lie not in bombast, but in humility.  Elgar doesn’t side with mobs,  even when the mobs support the good guys. 

Bliss’s competition wasn’t Britten, but Elgar, and Elgar wind hands down.  The Beatitudes have good moments but it’s no masterpiece. Jesus’s Beatitudes taught stress simplicity and the meekness which comes from genuine humility.  The apostles got their reward in heaven, but earned it.  No sense of entitlement, nor self pity, victimhood, or bitterness. Resentments  are values of self, not selflessness.  Tonight, the Pope who probably has more status than any of us, spoke of respect and compassion.  Though surrounded by thousands, with a big organization behind him,  he cut a frail, humble figure. Now there’s a man who knows what The Beatitudes of Jesus mean.

Original Source: Elgar, Bliss The Beatitudes Andrew Davis BBCSO Barbican

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