Friday, 31 August 2012

An excited home coming to Coventry and her iconic Cathedral

We’re bringing The Beatitudes home, finally.

Paul Daniel, Conductor and former Chorister at Coventry Cathedral says:

I knew a bit about The Beatitudes from my years at Coventry Cathedral but it was always spoken about in 'hushed tones'. Now I know why and I'm delighted to be a part of paying homage to Sir Arthur Bliss in this wonderful event. Putting things right after all these years is long overdue and I'm really looking forward to conducting the real 'premiere' of this magnificent work.”

Michael Foster, Golden Jubilee Concerts Director says:

“This is the culmination of a 21 year dream to right the incredible wrong done to an extraordinary musician, an impressive ‘gentle’man and a remarkable piece of music.

Everyone currently in and around Coventry Cathedral; those involved with the management, design and production; the performers: Philharmonic Orchestra, Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, soloists and Conductor – we are all looking forward to bringing The Beatitudes home to be performed FINALLY in this iconic building – the setting, acoustics and organ for which Sir Arthur so lovingly wrote the piece.”

Omar Ebrahim, Narrator and formed Chorister at Coventry Cathedral writes:

I'm thrilled to be involved in this historic event - even in a small way. Coming 'home' to perform in Coventry Cathedral will be a real joy. Don't let the name Schoenberg put you off! This is an emotional piece that goes to the heart of what Coventry Cathedral stands for.”

At 7.30 pm on 22nd September this year, Coventry promises a rapturous welcome and enthusiastic performance of The Beatitudes in a concert including:

Paul Daniel, conductor
Orla Boylan, soprano
Andrew Kennedy, tenor
Omar Ebrahim, narrator

BBC Philharmonic
Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus

Schoenberg: ‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ op 46
Beethoven: Symphony no 5 in C minor op 67
& Bliss: ‘The Beatitudes


Written for the grand, new Harrison & Harrison organ
– played on a small Hammond.

On 22 November 1961, a two-column article appeared in The Times under the headline: ‘Britten's War Requiem for Coventry Festival’.  Of its four paragraphs, the first belongs to Bliss’ The Beatitudes, again explicitly noting that the Bliss work would be the first performance of the Festival ‘to mark the consecration of the new Cathedral of St Michael’.

The next passage is devoted to ‘the premiere of A War Requiem, an ambitious new choral work’ by Britten billed as ‘the other major concert event of the festival’. The article indicates that Britten's work would indeed ‘take place in the cathedral’, but nowhere does the article refer to a non-Cathedral setting for Bliss’ work.

…One might assume, therefore, that The Beatitudes would be performed in the Cathedral – as commissioned, as written, as planned, as intended.

Six months later, on 18 May 1962 – a week prior to the opening of the Festival – The Times ran a pre-performance commentary concentrated on The Beatitudes. The music critic wrote that the Festival sought to mark the occasion with the programming of ‘much new British music, composed to enhance the completion of a new architectural monument to mankind's loftiest ideal.

Outstanding in proportion among these works are three major works; one by Bliss, Tippett, and Britten’.  This article was part of a series intended to educate the listening public prior to the works' premieres.

It contains a most extensive discussion of The Beatitudes, detailing its fourteen movements and the distribution of interleaved poetry between verses 3 – 11 of the third chapter of St Matthew with seventeenth-century writers Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, and Jeremy Taylor, and the additional inclusion of the then-contemporary Dylan Thomas.

The article also reveals the subtitle of Bliss’ orchestral prelude – ‘A Troubled World’ – with the intention of setting the 1962 world view in context together with a quotation from John Donne, at the head of the score: ‘.... we, except God say Another Fiat, shall have no more day ...’. The article delves into the poetry and its placement between the Beatitudes, commenting upon the selections of non-Biblical texts, texts that Bliss described as ‘shafts of light reflecting off a broken mirror’. 

...written for this...

At 8:15 pm on Friday, 25 May 1962, the opening concert for the Festival's ‘Days of Consecration’ began with the National Anthem, followed by Bliss’ The Beatitudes, with soprano Jennifer Vyvyan and tenor Richard Lewis, the Festival Choir, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted not by Sir Malcolm Sargent, as the printed programme states, but by the composer himself. This change had finally been agreed two weeks earlier at the request of the artistic director.

...performed in this...
"...a major disappointment" wrote Bliss.

As such it may be seen as a placatory measure towards the somewhat devastated composer. Devastated because this much heralded premiere was not performed in the new Cathedral whose Consecration and very premise it celebrated, but in the old Coventry Theatre.

Elgar's Enigma Variations followed the interval, and the evening concluded with the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ and ‘Amen’ from Handel's Messiah. The concert was broadcast live on the BBC Home Service.

The following day The Times printed its review of the premiere beneath the headline: ‘Sacred music, but in a secular atmosphere’. The Times’ music critic wrote: ‘The premiere tonight confirmed the regret there expressed that The Beatitudes was not able to be performed in the cathedral for which it was composed.

One might even claim that the new work cannot yet be justly appraised, on the basis of this performance in the utterly secular ambience of the Coventry Theatre’. The critic praised the ‘celestial rapture of the settings for two solo voices’, but suggests that ‘the orchestral movements inevitably sounded cramped’.
Bliss’ own recollection of the event, from his autobiography, is similar to the tone of parts of The Times article suggesting that he quietly incorporated into his remembrance:
Sir Arthur Bliss wrote:

"As the day for the premiere in May drew near, I realised I was in for a major disappointment. I had been led to believe that the performance was to take place in the majestic surroundings of the new Cathedral, but alas! the Cathedral was needed for services and the concert was relegated to the Coventry Theatre, a maladjustment most unfortunate to me.

Instead of the ecclesiastical grandeur which I had imagined, there was the ugly theatre whose stage could not properly contain both large orchestra and chorus. The latter could not be placed where their voices would tell, and some of them acknowledged that from where they were wedged in they could not see my beat. Also I had written an important part for the Cathedral organ. What effect could one possibly obtain from an imported small Hammond organ? We had to do the best we could."

For more information read on...

(Short code to Coventry Cathedral website)


  1. Hello there, My name is Jonathan Crown, son of Jennifer Vyvyan.

    I am very much looking forward to attending this exciting event on 22nd September. Do look at for more information on Arthur Bliss.

    1. Thank you for your comment Jonathan. I will look at the website about your mother and if it's ok with you will add some further words on her remarkable career in this blog, linking her site from this.
      Many thanks

    2. Hello there Rodney,
      Good to hear from you, I hope to meet you on the evening....I arrive at the Station at 7.03pm, I hope that is enough time to get to the Cathedral. I have now checked her diary entry for the original concert date, hoping to find some lament that the venue was changed at the last minute, but she sadly wrote nothing out of the ordinary....please contact me in future at Do you have that letter from my mother you posted on the blog? I would love to see it in its entirety. Kind regards, Jonathan

  2. I'm preparing an article about this concert for the website of Making Music (Yorkshire and North East region) - Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus is one of our members. I wonder if you have any images we could use for the article - can we use the logo image and do you have any others? Also, I wonder if I can quote extracts from the quotations given in this blog post. The blog will be referenced. Thank you very much!

    1. Yes Victoria, of course do please take what you need from the blog and I am particularly pleased you want to use the brand created for the homecoming of The Beatitudes to Coventry Cathedral on 22nd September.
      Write to me at, then I cab send you any additional images you require.
      Kind regards