In Britain around the 1920s an increasing number of composers who wished to set poetic texts to music broke away from the traditional song formula of voice and piano and explored other instrumental combinations. The stimulus to do so probably came from four sources: first, from the example set by French composers, particularly Ravel, whose influence on Sir Arthur Bliss was acknowledged by him and is obvious in Madam Noy (1918); second, from the growing awareness of popular music's vitality, particularly that of jazz; third, from a fascination with oriental music and its timbres, reflected in Bliss's The Women of Yueh (1923); and last, from a desire, and perhaps the need, to re-think the thitherto popular concert genre of the song or scena for voice and orchestra along less grandiose and more economical lines.
Bliss wrote a number or works in which voice and instruments mingled, including the wordless Rhapsody and Rout of 1919 and a concerto (now lost in this version) for wordless tenor, piano, strings and percussion. Madam Noy, 'a witchery song', the first of these works composed on Bliss's return from the war, at least has a text by E H W Meyerstein but it is a whimsical one, with the emphasis on effect. In The Women of Yueh the five vignettes are built on verses by the Chinese poet Li Po. This work was written for the League of Composers in America at the invitation of Varese and Salzedo, and performed in New York in November 1923.
© Stephen Banfield