Archives for posts with tag: Arthur Bliss

lambertI only discovered the picture above a few days ago, in the Getty Images archive. Taken on Wednesday the 29th of July 1931, it shows composer Constant Lambert (aged 25) and his first wife, Florence Chuter (aged 18) just a few days before their wedding on August 5th at Kensington Registry Office. Flo, as she was known, was an actress working under the name Florence Kay. She had an oriental appearance and this must have been what attracted Lambert to her. His Eight Poems of Li Po, written five years earlier, had been dedicated to the (entirely unattainable) Chinese actress Anna-May-Wong.

It took me a while to work out the location of the photo, even though I should have recognized it immediately, as I worked for almost a decade just a few hundred yards away. It was taken in Greek Street, close to where the Pillars of Hercules pub straddles Manette Street, and looking towards Soho Square. The sign on the right hand side is a bit blurred, but it’s easy to make out that it belongs to a Chinese restaurant – and a bit of research reveals that in the 1930s the Shanghai Chinese restaurant was located just here, at 8 Greek Street. It was a popular haunt for literary types (just as the Pillars of Hercules is today).

Maxim’s Chinese Restaurant in Gerrard Street (still today filled with Chinese restaurants) is usually cited as the most likely real-life equivalent to Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the establishment that gives its name to Anthony Powell’s novel, part of the Dance to the Music of Time sequence. In that novel, the fictional composer Moreland is generally understood to be based on Lambert, who was friendly with Powell. But given that Casanova actually lived in Greek Street (in 1764, at No 47), and the evidence of this photo that Lambert favoured the Shanghai, perhaps there’s a case to be made for it as well?

The Eight Songs of Li Po are beautifully scored for a small chamber ensemble, influenced perhaps by the similarly scored songs by Arthur Bliss, The Women of Yueh (1923-24), also settings of Li Po. Most are less than two minutes long, and for me, two of the briefest are the best of all. “A Summer Day” begins with a limpid, mostly white note instrumental introduction in triple time that actually sounds at its best in the piano version. It reflects the poem’s depiction of easy-going drinking and relaxing in the cool mountains. “On the City Street”, once again using mostly white note harmonies, takes up just one page of manuscript, but not a note is wasted. Initially, the meter varies in response to the text, but then the vocal line starts to rise and flow for the words “There are ten thousand houses, among the drooping willow trees”. The accompaniment then gradually peters out with a series of quiet, falling figures, a very poignant effect.

ConversationsThis set of five short descriptive pieces for chamber ensemble (string trio and various combinations of flute, bass flute, oboe and cor anglais), marks evidence of influence by “Les Six”, the group of French composers that Bliss had met in Paris just after the war. It was considered daring at the time, and apparently provoked scathing reviews in the Daily Mail at its first performance (at London’s Aolian Hall, 20 April 1921 – the hall partially survives today at 135-7 New Bond Street, some of it in use by Sotherbys). This is “programme music”, witty and modern 1920s style – only the pastoral second movement “In the Woods” evokes the more typical subject for descriptive music of nature, and even here the interspersed birdsong appears slightly more at odds, sometimes jarring against the gently nostalgic melodic material. The other movements describe scenes of London life. “The Committee Meeting” opens the work with the various instruments all playing together but seemingly not listening to each other, with the violin, representing the chairman trying to maintain some order, instructed “to play a monotonous mf except where marked ff.”  That “ff” marks a full blown argument towards the end of the movement, successfully silenced, only for the chaos to start over again.  “In the Ballroom” lightly evokes jazz in its outer sections, but it’s interrupted by a more reflective, darker passage in the middle. “Soliloquy” is the darkest movement of all, scored for solo cor anglais. Then it’s back to the bustle “In the Tube at Oxford Circus”, the sound of which is very evocative of the 1920s – percussive and tonally astringent, but enriched by the unusual instrumentation and striking melodic fragments, especially in the calmer middle section. Conversations cries out for filmic interpretation.