Miracle in the Gorbals

Robert Helpmann’s one-act ballet, Miracle in the Gorbals, to a score by Arthur Bliss, is a milestone in British ballet, bringing to the stage a heady mix of realism, melodrama and religion that captured the imagination of a generation of ballet audiences.

First performed in a wartime Sadler’s Wells in 1944, the work remained in the repertory at the Royal Opera House until the late 1950s. Since its final run there in 1958, however, the ballet lay neglected – that is, until its revival by Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2014. The choreography had been largely forgotten, and was newly conceived for the revival by the late Dame Gillian Lynne (who, remarkably, had been involved in the premiere production). The décor, by Edward Burra, could be reconstructed from photographs. Bliss’s score was also available, but posed a different sort of problem, since its various sources presented a tangle of evidence, which it was the business of the editor, Ben Earle, to sort out.

Further Information

Arthur Bliss (1891–1975) is not well-known name today, but he was a leading British composer of the mid-twentieth century, Master of the Queen’s Music between 1953 and 1975, and the recipient of numerous official honours. He is probably best remembered as the composer of the score for the 1934 film of H.G. Wells’ novel Things to Come, but in fact film music was not a major preoccupation for Bliss, who composed prolifically in all the major forms of art music: there are operas, large-scale orchestral works (including several concertos), much choral music (with and without orchestra), chamber music, songs, piano pieces, and also a number of ballet scores, a genre in which Bliss achieved notable success.

His first ballet, Checkmate (1937), to choreography by Ninette de Valois, remains the most successful. Though performances have been less frequent since the composer’s death, the work has never really left the repertoire of the Royal Ballet (the successor to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet) and is in also in the repertory of Birmingham Royal Ballet. Composed in 1944, Miracle in the Gorbals was Bliss’s second ballet score, and for a while vied with Checkmate in terms of popularity. In contrast to the earlier ballet, which had an abstract décor (by Edward McKnight Kauffer) and a symbolic scenario in the form of a lethal game of chess, Miracle in the Gorbals is realistic, at least to start with. The scene is set in what was then a notoriously violent Glasgow slum district: at the start of the ballet a young girl commits suicide out of despair. She is, somewhat unexpectedly, raised from the dead by a mysterious, Christ-like stranger, who goes on to lead the residents in a collective dance of rejoicing. But the story does not end well. The local priest, overcome by jealousy, first tries to have the stranger found in a compromising position with the neighbourhood prostitute, and when that attempt fails (since she emerges Mary Magdalen-like, transfigured by the encounter), incites a razor gang – they were a Gorbals speciality – to slash the stranger to death.

To accompany this melodramatic, and – in the end – brutally nihilistic action, Bliss composed a score of great expressive vigour and range, which also found an audience in the concert hall, in the form of an orchestral suite. The suite was engraved and published, as was the piano reduction (the latter essential for rehearsal). Yet the full score of the complete ballet remained in manuscript: a document (or set of documents) that became increasingly complex, as various conductors, including the composer, made revisions over the years. Bliss was, in fact, an inveterate revisor of his scores, never wholly satisfied with what he had achieved.

Investigation in the composer’s archive, held at the University Library in Cambridge, yielded not just one but two versions of the full score, which differed in varying degrees from the version of the manuscript held in the publisher’s hire library. Those parts of the full score that had been engraved (as part of the suite) presented further revisions, as did the piano reduction; there were manuscript sets of orchestral parts to take into consideration; valuable evidence was also contained in the recordings of excerpts from the ballet made both by the composer and by the work’s first conductor, Constant Lambert. In total, the editor found himself confronted with well over a dozen separate sources to consider: their history and relationships are carefully outlined in the commentary to the finished edition, which has now been issued by Novello, the work’s original publisher.

Principal Investigator

Outputs and Engagement