A Colour Symphony

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A Colour Symphony, Op. 24, F. 106, was written by Arthur Bliss in 1921–22.[1] It was his first major work for orchestra[2] and remains one of his best known. Bliss wrote it under the supervision of his teacher, Ralph Vaughan Williams.[3]


The symphony is scored for 3 flutes (one doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 tympanists, cymbals, 2 harps and strings.


A Colour Symphony was written to be performed at the Three Choirs Festival, held in 1922 in Gloucester,[4] at the invitation of Sir Edward Elgar, who also invited Herbert Howells and Eugene Goossens to write a piece each.[5] Howells wrote Sine Nomine for wordless chorus,[6] which was not given its second performance until his centenary year 70 years later, in 1992.[7] Goossens wrote a piece called Silence for chorus and orchestra.[6] Elgar's own contribution was his orchestration of Johann Sebastian Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in C minor.

Bliss decided to write a symphony, but was at first undecided what the theme or character of the work would be. He could not get started for some weeks. One day, by chance, he came across a book on heraldry in which he read of the symbolic meanings attached to certain colours; this gave him the notion of writing a work about colours. He attempted to give each movement a character corresponding to these meanings, but without attempting to depict the colours themselves.[8] Bliss dedicated the symphony to the conductor Adrian Boult.[2]

The first performance, with the London Symphony Orchestra, in Gloucester Cathedral on 7 September 1922, was conducted by the composer. It was not well received at first, due to poor preparation. The work uses a large orchestra, but the platform was so taken up with the chorus required for other works also being performed, that several instruments had to be omitted.[3] Elgar attended, but found it "disconcertingly modern".[2] It nevertheless entered the repertoire and has been recorded various times, although it is now an infrequent visitor to concert platforms.


The four movements are:

Purple Andante maestoso slow and majestic in pace and ceremonial in character
The colour of Amethysts, Pageantry, Royalty and Death
Red Allegro vivace a glittering, spiky and percussive scherzo, reminiscent of Stravinsky.[9]
The colour of Rubies, Wine, Revelry, Furnaces, Courage and Magic
Blue Gently flowing slow, with chords used to depict the lapping of water against a moored boat or a pier
The colour of Sapphires, Deep Water, Skies, Loyalty and Melancholy
Green Moderato a double fugue (which has been described as "Schoenbergian"[10]) on violas, strings, clarinets and woodwinds, leading to a triumphant climax
The colour of Emeralds, Hope, Youth, Joy, Spring and Victory

A theme from towards the end of the Red movement was used as the signature tune of the televised "Royal Institution Christmas Lectures".[11]


In 1932, Bliss revised the codas of the first two movements.[1] He conducted the revised work himself in a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1955.[12] Bliss made a stereo recording with the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.

The last movement, "Green", was separately published as Pyonepsion.

Other uses[edit]

In 1977, a ballet called Royal Offering was created, with music based on A Colour Symphony.

A short extract from the 'Red' movement was used as the opening music to BBC TV coverage of The Proms until 2011.[13]

The British artist Kevin Laycock created a visual piece called Four Movements in Colour, in which he attempted to portray, in colour, the sounds created by Arthur Bliss.[14] In 2004, Laycock created a series of paintings called Tectonics as a direct response to Bliss's A Colour Symphony using parallel compositional structures.[15]



External links[edit]