Morning Heroes straddles the fence between the emotional heft of a grand requiem and the tidal power of a flowing panegyric, and yet, even though the music alone reflects the composer’s very real personal tragedy in the aftermath of war, Bliss must not have thought it enough, and plunders from, and what is considerably rare for an Edwardian English composer, a literary treasure chest that is both archaic and modern.
You don’t need to know the backdrop to Morning Heroes, F 32, a Symphony for Orator, Chorus and Orchestra, and I didn’t, to immediately connect with the tone of Bliss, although I do recommend hovering over each word of Andrew Burn’s solid introduction, because he puts the poetry diligently selected by Bliss into context. And Bliss has chosen wisely.
Bliss was haunted by his experiences in the trenches in the Great War, and Burn suggests that the whole artistic expression of what he and his brothers in arms went through required words as well as music. The poetry of Whitman, Li Tai Po, Homer, Owen and Robert Nichols, the less anthologised of the bunch, organise the oratorio like a short story: a beginning (the initial enthusiasm for joining up after war is declared, Whitman’s ‘how you threw off the costumes of peace with indifferent hand’,) a middle (Owen’s contrast of the long famous glories of war and its immemorial shames) and an end (reflection, redemption, regret in Nichols’ Dawn on the Somme).
The poems, as declaimed by the actor Samuel West, and the accompaniment by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus (conducted by Sir Andrew Davis) – either sparse (timpani for Owen) or evenly spread – are suffused by the futility of war and the eternal numbness of loss: Bliss’s brother Kennard was killed near Thiepval in September 1916, a fortnight coincidentally after the death of my great uncle, Edward Greer, who also fell in France serving the colours of the 19th London Regiment.
The tapestry of music and words is knitted by emotions germane to war, for Bliss was haunted by his experiences and the death of his brother; he must have had a curious and bold mind to conjoin the words of Whitman and Owen, writers impossible to abridge in the imagination. But Bliss sought heavily accented words for declamation, whether with the pregnant rhyming of Owen or the non-rhyming but reportage sodden sentences of Whitman. Owen is a mist, and Whitman a river.
Bliss must have been an early champion of Owen –Yeats wasn’t – but the achievement of Morning Heroes is the composer’s gradation of war by a series of movements, a circle from valour to horror, a tug of war between the brave instruction of war to the writhen waste of millions dead. Morning Heroes is Bliss’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.