This important release brings together all forty-five of the songs composed by Frank Bridge. The programme is presented generally along chronological lines, and although the songs were written over two decades there is a remarkable consistency of style. A good number of the texts will be familiar from the songs of, say, Quilter or Finzi, but many more show Bridge’s enthusiasm for unearthing rather less well-known literary subject matter.
Frank Bridge was born in Brighton on 26 February 1879 and died on 10 January 1941. He was one of the finest all-round musicians Britain has had, being a string player of the highest class (playing violin or viola in the best string quartets of the first quarter of the century), a good conductor of both orchestral music and opera, and an excellent teacher. Though his teaching was concerned with string playing he had one composition pupil, Benjamin Britten. He was a competent pianist, occasionally appearing on the concert platform in performances of his songs. All this besides being one of the major composers of his time.
Bridge went to the Royal College of Music in 1896, studying violin and piano. In 1899 he started composition lessons with Stanford. Sonnet ‘When most I wink’, the first of Bridge’s songs to survive, was clearly written as a student, the words probably chosen by Stanford and with a revision of the final phrase pencilled into the manuscript, no doubt during a lesson. This revision, being almost certainly by Stanford and not Bridge, is ignored in this recording. The song already shows signs of the composer’s love of sliding chromatic modulation.
The next two songs, If I could choose and The primrose, were published in 1902, which must have encouraged the young student; they are clearly aimed at the ballad-loving public of the time. It was not until 1913 that Bridge had songs published again in the normal way. However, from 1902 to 1905 a journal entitled The Vocalist was issued weekly, each issue containing a few songs, and five of his next songs appeared here.
As a composer, Bridge was primarily interested in instrumental music, particularly chamber music. He had a first-class command of the technique of composition and, being a string player, naturally understood the quartet ‘from the inside’. Until the end of the First World War his idiom was conservative, deriving from Brahms and Stanford but acquiring almost Delian chromatics at times. His music was popular, and he was always able to provide pieces the public could understand and love.
After the war his attitude changed. Bridge came under the influence of Alban Berg, and his music became much more dissonant and almost atonal. This took him beyond the reach of many of his contemporaries, and his popularity declined. Nevertheless, his last two Quartets and the second Piano Trio are major works of this century. It is fascinating to wonder what would have happened if Bridge’s efforts to make Benjamin Britten study with Berg had been successful. But the musical establishment of the time did not approve, and Britten stayed in England.
Of the forty-five songs in this collection no fewer than twenty-seven were written between 1901 and 1908. Some of the texts may have been chosen for him (he was aware of not being well-read). ‘One senses … he is producing finely tailored exercises in small-scale composition’ (Stephen Banfield, Sensibility and English Song). However, two things suggest Bridge had a genuine interest in song-writing. Lack of publication did not prevent him from writing songs; only seven had appeared in print by the end of this period, and five of these were in a magazine rather than issued by a regular publishing house. The other point is rather more significant: thirty-one of the forty-five songs are settings of texts set by no other composer. Nine are settings of Heine, in translations taken from Poems Selected from Heinrich Heine by Kate Freiligrath Kroeker published in 1887; clearly this volume lived on Bridge’s shelf and was referred to when he was looking for a source of texts. He was also attracted by the poems of Matthew Arnold, in three cases choosing to set particular stanzas from longer poems. (This is why the source of My pent-up tears oppress my brain was overlooked until correctly attributed in the present writer’s English Solo Song in 1993.)
In December 1904 three of Bridge’s songs were performed during the second Royal College Patrons’ Fund concert in the Aeolian Hall. The concert was not a success, and Bridge’s songs were criticized for their ‘dirge-like’ character. This is hardly surprising: the first, Night lies on the silent highways, expresses well Heine’s melancholy mood but Bridge, unlike the poet, is clearly not consoled by the rising moon; the second, Shelley’s A dead violet, is concerned with lost happiness, and the last, Shelley’s A dirge, with its violent and dramatic accompaniment, was hardly designed to raise the spirits of the audience. (The last word of line six of this song should probably be ‘strain’, as suggested by W M Rossetti in 1870, and accepted by most later editors.) A dead violet, curiously, has some notable harmonic and rhythmic similarities to Vaughan Williams’s setting of ‘In dreams’, in his Songs of Travel, published in 1907, with a similar subject.
The Devon maid, with its dancing accompaniment, is much more cheerful, as is Blow, blow, thou winter wind. This is similar in structure to Quilter’s setting, and in the same key; although not published until ten years after the better-known song it was in fact composed two years earlier. Two settings of Tennyson would also have been available for this 1904 concert. Cradle song comes from ‘Sea dreams’, a serious poem about the necessity for forgiveness, ‘but unfortunately it ends with a nauseating lyric to an infant’ (Peter Levi). Most lullabies would find it hard to withstand detailed criticism as poetry, but in Bridge’s setting it becomes a perfectly acceptable way of sending a child to sleep. Go not, happy day ‘is a masterpiece: the use in song of a perpetual-motion type of accompaniment was never bettered, even by Schubert’ (Arthur Jacobs).
All the Heine settings were composed during this first period, and all were taken from the one collection of translations. Bridge was fairly ruthless in choosing his verses, leaving stanzas out, and in the case of Dawn and evening re-writing the song to a different translation, more vocal, though less accurate than the original version by Francis Hueffer. The manuscript containing the Two Heine songs is actually headed ‘Three Songs for Tenor and Piano’; the third may have been Dawn and evening. Where’er my bitter teardrops fall, like the last of Bridge’s Heine settings, Dear, when I look into thine eyes, was used by Schumann in Dichterliebe. Both these settings remain unpublished, though they are by no means unattractive. E’en as a lovely flower is touchingly romantic, with haunting phrases and harmonies, and has remained one of the composer’s most popular songs. The poem is supposed to have been inspired by ‘a poor Jewish girl’ whom Heine found destitute on a Berlin street. There is no reason to doubt, as D H Lawrence and others have done, the sincerity of either poet or composer. Lean close thy cheek, also unpublished, is actually one of the most successful of the Heine settings, only outdone by The violets blue, which succeeds in expressing the poet’s bitterness rather than merely his misery. The remaining solo setting of Heine is All things that we clasp and cherish and is concerned with one of the composer’s perennial subjects: the inevitable decay of beauty. The first verse is, perhaps wisely, omitted by Bridge:
Shadow-love and shadow kisses,
As a result he is forced to set the second verse twice, one four-line stanza being somewhat short for a whole song; the music is so arranged that the repetition is not immediately obvious.
In 1905 Bridge set his second Herrick poem, Fair daffodils, revising it for publication in 1919. Though not possessing the haunting memorability of Delius’s version this is much more naturally pianistic, and has a character of its own. In the same year Bridge set Keats’s Adoration, from ‘Extracts from an Opera’; a strange song, two pages of quiet meditation followed by an enormous emotional climax.
Robert Bridges little triolet seems to be liked or hated, but not ignored: ‘ … the triviality mindlessly courted in So perverse, a song which is best forgotten’ (Banfield); ‘subtly tongue-in-cheek’ (Bishop); ‘achievements like the wryly humorous use of harmonic variation in So perverse’ (Payne). Tennyson’s famous poem Tears, idle tears receives a large-scale and deeply emotional setting. Though Banfield finds ‘it certainly does not convince us that the tears are really ‘from the depth of some divine despair’’, Tennyson himself said ‘it was not real woe, as some people might suppose; it was rather the yearning that young people occasionally experience for that which seems to have passed away from them for ever’.
Come to me in my dreams is the first of several poems by Matthew Arnold set by Bridge. The poem was probably written in the autumn of 1850; in that summer Arnold had seen his engagement to his future wife Frances Lucy Wightman forbidden by her father and they were only able to renew their correspondence at the end of the year. This implies more sincerity in the poem than some critics have allowed, and Bridge has made a convincing romantic song out of it. My pent-up tears is a setting of the last twelve lines of a poem of forty-four lines, the first twenty-four of which were not published until 1958. Arnold, boating on the Thames with Fanny Wightman, was struggling for the courage to propose to her; the first part of the poem made the situation clearer—too clear for publication at the time. The setting may suggest ultimate failure through its intensely tragic mood, but in fact Arnold did propose and married Fanny in June 1851.
The final song of Bridge’s first period is a lover’s trifle, Love is a rose; in spite of the text’s pointing out that love does not last, the music is cheerful enough. It is perhaps worth noting the song was written at the end of 1907; in October of that year Ethel Sinclair, a fellow pupil at the Royal College, returned from Australia, and in September 1908 she and the composer were married.
The Three songs with viola were composed in 1906/7 and first performed, with the composer at the piano, in 1908. They were not published until 1982, which, considering the popularity at the time of settings for voice and string quartet (Vaughan Williams, Gurney) and voice and violin (Holst) seems somewhat surprising. They are very satisfying pieces of chamber music, though perhaps not deeply involved in the poetry, and would make a useful contribution to a programme including the two Brahms songs for the same combination. Note, in the Shelley poem, ‘the violets’ for the poet’s ‘sweet violets’, possibly a misreading of Bridge’s manuscript. Far, far from each other has a more important misreading: at the end of the first line the song has ‘flown’ where Arnold wrote ‘grown’, a much more down-to-earth and realistic word. The poem is not concerned with Fanny Wightman, but with ‘Marguerite’ (Mary Claude of Ambleside), whom the poet had met in Switzerland in 1848, and describes his changed feelings when they met again the following year. (These lines come near the end of a poem of ninety lines.)
Bridge wrote no more songs until 1912. Isobel is standard Edwardian ballad material, set with some excitement, in spite of a rather weak finale cadence. The remaining songs of this middle period are of much higher calibre. O that it were so! has a magical opening section, and the composer’s substitution of ‘sometimes’ for the poet’s ‘often’ may well be considered an improvement. The rest of the song is in a more normal romantic style, but the song deserves to regain its one-time popularity.
Strew no more red roses was Bridge’s last setting of Arnold’s verse, the words taken from a long philosophical poem written when the poet was in his early twenties. The poem was finally republished in 1876, at the specific request of Swinburne who admired it. The ‘her’ of line five is not a person but an artistic ideal. The music is considered by some writers to mark a new development in Bridge’s song writing, with wider vocal leaps and a more chromatic piano part; this is in some degree correct, though the octave leap had appeared as early as the composer’s third song, and his first is by no means lacking in chromatic modulation. However, both these fingerprints are now under much greater control.
In 1914 Bridge appears to have come across the poems of Mary Coleridge, setting two of her poems in this year and another in 1917. Where she lies asleep deserves to be much better known, with a wonderful atmosphere of peace and tranquillity sustained throughout. Love went a-riding really does show a new approach, the composer taking the poem by the scruff of the neck and producing an exciting show-piece requiring great ability on the part of both singer and pianist. It is not surprising that this is the composer’s best-known song, since once heard it can hardly be forgotten. It is not typical of Bridge’s work, and many of his songs, for instance the previous Mary Coleridge setting, might well be thought of higher artistic quality. Thy hand in mine has some similarities to the much earlier song E’en as a lovely flower in layout and general mood, but the harmony is more interesting, and the poem, though not of great import, less open to cynical misunderstanding.
So early in the morning, O: — is a lively and enjoyable song, much more cheerful than most of Bridge’s work. Mantle of blue is a setting of the well-known poem by Padraic Colum. It is strongly atmospheric, and more interesting if less immediately attractive than the setting by Herbert Hughes published in 1915. In a radio interview the poet was asked about the subject of the poem—whether or not the child is supposed to be dying—he answered that when he wrote it it was intended to be a simple lullaby, but that now he was not so sure!
The last invocation, with its ostinato chordal accompaniment, shows some similarities to Gustav Holst’s approach to the same subject and has the same sense of dignity; only the final climax shows rather more romanticism than Holst would have allowed himself. In When you are old and gray Bridge has omitted Yeats’s third stanza, repeating the first instead. (This is not an isolated incident; in Where she lies asleep Bridge repeats the first stanza to end, and in Into her keeping the poet himself does the same.) The poem ends:
And bending down beside the glowing bars
It may be that Bridge felt this was too active an image for the mood of the rest of the poem, and certainly the result is a heart-warming song with some magical moments.
Into her keeping is in a more tragic mode, as a man mourns the loss of his wife; the last verse has to be a repetition of the first, for the man has no more reason for living, and there is nowhere for him to go. The passion of the central section goes some way to express the greatness of his loss.
What shall I your true love tell? is an even finer song. Over a bare accompaniment a dying girl is asked what messages she has for her absent beloved, and her desperate struggles to reply are clearly expressed in the music. Once again Bridge has changed a word in the poem, writing in verse two ‘believe’ for Francis Thompson’s ‘conceive’; in this case the change is not an improvement. In stanza five ‘speaking-while is scant’ means ‘there is little time left to speak’, and a ‘postulant’ is a candidate, usually used in connection with entrance to the nun’s vocation, both these ideas indicating the nearness of death. In ’Tis but a week Bridge attempts once again the dramatic style of Love went a-riding, but not so successfully since the real subject of the song is the uselessness of war and that nature, having more sense, carries on regardless.
Once again there was a gap of a few years in Bridge’s song output. When he returned he was to all intents and purposes a different composer. Between 1921 and 1924 he composed his Piano Sonata, written in memory of Ernest Farrar, composer and friend, killed in action in 1917. It released his true creative powers, with a radical overhaul of his harmonic approach and a much freer approach to rhythm. From now on he was to become a truly original composer and, though it led to a loss of popularity at the time, he is now being recognized as one of the most important composers of the inter-war period. During this time he wrote five more songs, only one of which is unaffected by his new understanding. This is Goldenhair, a fluent and enjoyable setting of James Joyce’s uncomplicated lyric.
Rabindrinath Tagore was born in Calcutta and wrote in Bengali, translating much of his work into English himself. In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His collection of religious poems, Gitanjali, was provided with an introduction by W B Yeats, and six of the prose-poems were set to music by the American composer John Alden Carpenter in 1914. In 1917 Tagore published his own translation of his Bengali ‘Lyrics of love and life’ under the title of The Gardener and dedicated them to Yeats. As A E Housman in A Shropshire Lad and R L Stevenson in Songs of Travel, Tagore did not set out to tell a connected story. However, it is possible to select poems which imply one (as Somervell did with A Shropshire Lad and Vaughan Williams did with Songs of Travel). Bridge chose poems 20, 29 and 30, which are closely related love songs. Though composed over a period of three years, and published separately, it is clear Bridge thought of them as a related group. Giving the third song to male voice clarifies the underlying story of a hopeless love affair, in which the two participants are incapable of expressing their true feelings. In Day after day the girl wishes to give the man who ‘only comes and goes away’ some encouragement, but even so is unwilling that he should know where this encouragement comes from. The vague, wandering music expresses her indecision, the twisting melismas on the key phrase ‘he only comes and goes away’ showing her fascination with the mysterious man. In Speak to me, my love! the two are at last together, but they can still not make their feelings clear; ‘Tell me in words what you sang’, she says, but ‘When your words are ended, we will sit still and silent’, as are the performers at this point. After a brief and intensely chromatic pianissimo interlude emotions return, but only the hopeless knowledge of inevitable parting of the ways. Finally the man responds in Dweller in my deathless dreams with a passionate expression of love, but we feel that this has only been made possible by the girl’s departure. She is the dweller in his dreams, but can never be so in reality, and they both know it.
In Journey’s end Bridge sums up all that his song-writing career has been suggesting; the inevitability of death that we must each face alone, and the woman or man at the bedside watching helplessly. Holst approached this great poem in a spirit of stoicism: what is to come must be faced unflinchingly. Bridge’s setting is more in the mood of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, with desperate chromatic harmony, and frantic denial at the climax, followed by heart-breaking acceptance. There were to be no more songs.
Michael Pilkington © 1997