The singular noun is deliberate, for it proposes that the title of Bliss’s last large-scale composition is a metaphor for the compositional processes of all his music for orchestra. It is continually evolving, changing, moving on – in a word, metamorphosing – its themes once presented only rarely reappear unaltered, and any unmodified recapitulation of even the briefest statement is the exception rather than the rule. A single word in many titles suggests an avoidance – or evasion – of any commitment to a presupposed, given structure (despite, as we shall see, the composer’s own programme notes, which often promise quite straightforward procedures): we find Meditations on a Theme by John Blow, Discourse for Orchestra, the Metamorphic Variations themselves, while other titles tell us even less about what to expect: Studies, Music, Introduction and Allegro, Hymn: indeed, the appellation of the early Mêlée fantasque seems to adumbrate something central to the entire œuvre, for at times that is what it is. His works are in a continual process of growth during which the simplest of ideas, sometimes nothing more than part of a diatonic scale, as in the Introduction and Allegro, mutate almost under their own momentum, and it is even possible that these mutations can lead us so far from their originals that their lineage is scarcely discernible to the ear. Given that John Blow’s theme for his setting of Psalm 23, for example, is reserved until the end of the Meditations, only repeated hearings reveal its diverse manifestations earlier in the work; and since the material for the Metamorphic Variations consists not of one idea but of three – a melody, a chord progression and a semitonal cluster – their presence, as they ‘undergo a greater transformation… than the simple word “variations” implies’, 1 ranges between the self-evident and the imperceptible. Yet while on the one hand his music moves on by a kind of Fortspinnung, Bliss creates best not, paradoxically, on a scale analogous to large baroque structures, but by the accumulation or juxtaposition of small units. ‘ don’t feel that au fond I’m a symphonic composer,’ he somewhat hesitantly confessed; ‘I’m much happier with smaller forms.’ 2 Nor was this any tentative defence of ‘smaller forms’, for he had vigorously advocated their virtues some years earlier: ‘If I taught composition, I would make my pupils write endless variations on the most unpromising 7beginnings. It teaches the possibilities of growth. That is why the Diabelli Variations of Beethoven are a course in composition themselves. With them on the piano, the pupil requires no further master.’ 3 Valuable as such application to ‘the most unpromising beginnings’ undoubtedly is, however, it did not ameliorate his potential discomfort in the larger forms where, most notably in the two symphonies 4 and the concertos for piano, violin and cello, he sought, exploited, or patiently awaited the arrival of, some external stimulus – the colours of heraldry, a spoken text, the particular skills of instrumental soloists. ‘I like the stimulus of words, or a theatrical setting, a colourful occasion or the collaboration of a great player,’ he wrote in his autobiography, recalling the circumstances of A Colour Symphony’s composition. 5 ‘There is only a little of the spider about me, spinning his own web from his inner being. I am more of a magpie type. I need what Henry James termed a “trouvaille” or a “donnée”.’ Yet to mix his two metaphors, the magpie in him often gets his spider started, and as I have hinted and as we shall see in some detail, he can spin the most intriguing and intricate of webs.