For a man who achieved so much in his own field, Bliss's wide-ranging, undogmatic appetite for the whole arts scene was extraordinary. While he had a profound knowledge and understanding of American and European writing, dance, graphics, poetry, sculpture, painting and design, both contemporary and classical, for theatre he had a special sympathy and rapport. Its qualities of timing, drama, economy and pace are everywhere to be found in his work, with his own flair for colour and the understanding that theatre is a means and medium of expression, not the message itself, that gesture, like logic, is a tool, not a truth. What gives his music durability is the appreciation of classical values - proportion, design, restraint, integrity and growth. Nowhere will you find a better demonstration than Things to Come of this synthesis of vision, intellect, technique and panache.
It must have been this sympathy for the theatre, overcoming his reservations about the film medium generally and its music in particular, that led him to accept this first commission for the genre. 1934 found him at the height of his powers and prestige, and but for frequent extended foreign trips - notably to the US (Bliss was half-American) - he would certainly have become the dominant figure in British music of the time. With Morning Heroes and the Clarinet Quintet he had (or so he supposed) closed the book on his own personal wartime nightmare and tragedy. He responded eagerly to H. G. Wells's approach and his message: warning and hope, the dangers of war and the war mentality, the vision of science creating a new world-order of peace, leisure and contentment, coupled with his assertion that music should be integral to the concept, not tacked on later. Whether the producer, Korda, ever actually agreed to this is debatable, but both writers undertook the project on that basis. Several sections of score were indeed recorded in advance of shooting, and some used intact, but inevitably tidyings-up and surgery were done (by Lionel Salter) at editing, under the watchful eye of Muir Mathieson - also involved as music director on his first major film.
If Wells was appalled by the outcomes, as travesty and betrayal, then posterity's judgement is that more was achieved than was lost of traduced. It also produced the first truly great British filmscore - some would say still the finest. Bliss was in the more fortunate position of giving his contribution a separate life, and did so without delay. Some six months before release he conducted a Suite for the BBC (September 1935), and made sure that some at least of the commercially issued discs should be of genuine, untinkered score, recording four out of six sides himself, in special sessions. Unlike the now familiar Concert Suite, they uniquely contain The World in Ruins: with the subsequent disappearance of practically all the original manuscripts and material, this is the only authentic version of that section there has ever been, or can be.
In all Bliss provided 8 film scores that reached the screen (and a ninth that did not), though nothing approached the Things to Come project for sheer ambition. By 1945 he knew very well the rules of the game. His attitude then is best expressed by his great contemporary Raymond Chandler, talking about the problem facing the writer who wants to make a living as '…to write something acceptable to the public and yet at the same time write what he thinks is good writing.'
© Giles Easterbrook