By 1912 Bridge was looking to expand his horizons, to explore a richer harmonic palette in particular. Rewriting the Piano Quintet, finishing off the Sextet and revising a number of his youthful instrumental pieces cleared the way for these wider horizons to be opened up. The String Sextet in E flat major received its first performance on 19 June 1913 in what is now Wigmore Hall. The English String Quartet, with Bridge on first viola, was joined by two colleagues from his RCM days, Ernest Tomlinson (viola) and Felix Salmond (cello). The Sextet is the most richly textured of all his early romantic chamber works. The soaring opening melody establishes the scale and character of the first movement. A rising bass motif soon emerges and this is also to play an important part in the musical argument. The tender second subject begins rather like an intermezzo – simple phrases given sequential treatment with a radiant climax. The long development section begins, typically for Bridge, in reflective mood. These ruminations soon give way to some vigorous exchanges, which are based on the first subject’s ideas and given added purpose by the inclusion of a vigorous fugato. This ushers in a reprise of the second subject in a remote tonality rather than of the first subject. Bridge completes his Cobbett-inspired sonata ‘arch’ with an imaginative re-harmonization of the main theme as an extended coda.
The second movement, in C sharp minor, typically combines slow movement and scherzo. It is the emotional heart of the work. In the Andante, repeated rhythms, grief-laden falling phrases – based incidentally on an inversion of the rising bass motif from the first movement – plus beautifully shaped counter-melodies combine to effect a lament as poignant as any in Bridge’s early music. The restless energy of the central scherzo is tempered by its minor mode (A minor). Bridge’s modal invention, underpinned by sustained pedal points, has a rare folk-like quality about it – rare for Bridge anyway.
The finale is the most compact of the three movements, and also the most densely thematic. It begins with one of the most unusual chromatic passages in all early Bridge. However, this is soon swept away by the main Allegro animato. The opening theme takes its shape from the falling fourths of the scherzo theme. In the short development, principal themes from the first and second movements are combined with the finale’s own material. In the reprise, second subjects from the first movement and the finale are combined. The ‘family’ likeness between the material of each movement ensures that these ‘cyclic’ procedures make their effect without sounding in the least contrived.
from notes by Paul Hindmarsh © 2004