Bliss's cantata The Beatitudes was commissioned to mark the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962. As the building of the cathedral was an act of reconciliation for the destruction of the old cathedral during the bombing of the city in the Second World War, the choice of the Beatitudes as a theme for the work was highly appropriate. Significantly it is dedicated to a representative of the post-war generation, the composer's first grandchild, Susan, born in 1955.
The première was fraught with difficulties. Because of scheduling relating to the opening services and rehearsals for other events, principally the first performance of Britten's War Requiem, it proved impossible to give The Beatitudes in the cathedral as planned. Instead it was performed, most unsuitably, in the cramped and acoustically poor conditions of the Belgrade Theatre on the evening of 25 May, following the consecration of the cathedral that day. The soloists were Jennifer Vyvyan and Richard Lewis with the Coventry Cathedral Festival Choir and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Sadly to this day the work has not been performed in the building for which it was conceived.
Christopher Hassall suggested the idea of the Beatitudes as the subject of the work and collaborated over the choice of texts which would act as interludes and commentaries on them, since Bliss was concerned that in setting the Beatitudes there was the danger of monotony: as he wrote in his autobiography As I Remember, '…each Beatitude shines with the same clear silver gleam, and little contrast of light is possible without deliberately using a distorting mirror'. Bliss varied their settings by grouping the first two and penultimate four Beatitudes together; however he felt that further additional contrast was necessary, so he planned to express a mood of violence, 'force' he commented, 'opposing the beatific vision', four times within the work. Overall Bliss suggests that in the conflict of contemporary life, the meaning of the Beatitudes have been lost or are ignored, as emphasised by the quotation from John Donne's The Storm which heads the work:
'…we, except God say
Another Fiat, shall have no more day.'
Almost 30 years later from its composition the work's message is equally valid.
Using an anthology of texts as a means of providing a structure for a work was a device Bliss had used several times previously, for instance in Morning Heroes. Here, the texts comprise the Beatitudes themselves, a passage from the Old Testament, writings by three great 17th century metaphysical authors Henry Vaughan, George Herbert and Jeremy Taylor, and one modern master, Dylan Thomas. They form a logical and dramatic sequence that reaches a climax in the outburst of violent hatred personified by the 'Voices of the mob' and in Taylor's great prayer of peace which provides the work's resolution. Further unity is established musically by a fanfare motif that prefaces the settings of the Beatitudes; it is heard in a variety of imaginative vocal and instrumental scorings in which the harp is prominent.
The work has many highspots; for example, the anguished orchestral prelude that depicts 'A troubled world', and the disturbing outburst of hate of the 'Voices of the Mob' ending on their shout of 'kill'. Such intrusions of violence are contrasted by the setting of Herbert's Easter, with its exultant, melismatic 'alleluias' of the soloists, and effective musical imagery at 'Awake my lute' scored for soprano and harp, followed by the lyrical tenderness of 'I got me flowers to strew thy way' into which Bliss introduces the Easter antiphon 'Haec dies quam fecit Dominus'. Particularly memorable too is the defiant mood of Thomas's And death shall have no dominion, Bliss's rapt response to Taylor's O Blessed Jesu, and the majestic, glorious 'Amen' with which The Beatitudes ends.
© Andrew Burn