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String Quartet No 4, H188
1937; composed for Bridge's patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and first performed on 13 September 1939 at her Berkshire Festival, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, by the Gordon String Quartet

'Bridge: Piano Quintet, String Quartet & Idylls' (CDA67726)
Bridge: Piano Quintet, String Quartet & Idylls
Movement 1: Allegro energico
Movement 2: Quasi minuetto
Movement 3: Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro con brio

String Quartet No 4, H188
Much has been written in recent years about the dramatic change in style of Bridge’s music after the First World War. Benjamin Britten came to know at first-hand how devastating Bridge found the 1914–18 conflict, as he explained in the same 1947 article cited above:

The many talks I had with him, indeed everything about him, told me of the utter horror and revulsion he felt about the catastrophe. The seed of discontent [what Bridge described as his ‘emotional spasms’] grew and grew … The whole of Bridge’s musical horizon was now shattered—unlimited possibilities, harmonically and texturally, became possible.

Bridge described the music he composed in the last twenty years of his life as ‘the best of me’. Throughout these years, he was supported by the indefatigable American patron of new music Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. That the music made any headway at all was due in large measure to her advocacy and financial support. Mrs Coolidge was the pre-eminent patron of chamber music worldwide in the inter-war years, commissioning many of the leading composers of the day, including Schoenberg, Bartók and Britten, and promoting their work in concerts all over Europe and in the USA. From the summer of 1923, when Bridge and his wife were among the guest list of English composers and performers attending her annual Berkshire Festival, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, until his death early in 1941, Mrs Coolidge supported Bridge to the tune of $2,500 a year. This enabled him to give up teaching the violin and press ahead along the new stylistic paths he had longed to take since the end of the First World War. Bridge repaid this generosity by composing for her international festivals, beginning with the String Quartet No 3 (1926), including the magnificent Piano Trio No 2 (1929) and ending with the lithe and vibrant String Quartet No 4 (1937).

Work on the String Quartet No 4 (H188), Bridge’s last chamber work, began fitfully and slowly, as a letter to his patron (written on 21 July 1936) makes clear:

I wanted so much to send you something that the South Mountain Quartet might play for you, but the damned thing won’t go where I want it to. As fast as it progresses, I slash it to bits and begin again. A very tiresome and wearisome business it is to create one day and destroy the next. Even more annoying when alternate days become alternate weeks. But knots of all kinds are in the wind and it can’t be expected that they should not run in one’s own mind.

Those knots were not to unravel for sixteen months. The 1930s were Bridge’s leanest creative years. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s regular money orders had diminished in value in the wake of the US stock market collapse, so he was now relying more on his conducting. He had not written anything substantial since completing a Violin Sonata in 1932. The creative block that caused him all the trouble with the new quartet four years later paled into insignificance with a crisis in his health later in the year, as his wife Ethel wrote (in a letter to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, 25 October 1936):

A week ago yesterday he was his usual jolly, happy self. We’d parted with our maid who was going to be married and had tidied up the cottage preparatory to leaving for London for the rest of the winter, except for a weekend now and then. About a quarter to nine, he felt very sick and then was dreadfully sick … His condition worried me as I thought he’d strain his heart … Two days later he seemed to collapse and we’ve had a nightmare time all the week … We had one specialist down on Friday, who practically gave us no hope, but today’s man has and actually the difference tonight is most marked and he is conscious again at times … He’d caught a severe chill, which turned out to be bronchitis with complications and of course he’d strained himself so badly.

Bridge’s illness nearly killed him. He suffered with high blood pressure and a weak heart for the remaining five years of his life. After six months’ convalescence, including a two-week trip to Paris in April 1937, he was strong enough to take up his composing pen once again. Mrs Coolidge was the first to read the good news, in July:

Just please rejoice with me again. I am the proud father of a completed first movement … It is contrary to my usual habit of not counting my chickens until they are hatched, but as I can scarcely believe the fact myself I feel I must try to make you share my joy at becoming alive again … What a surprise it is to be able to concentrate at all.

Four months later the String Quartet No 4 was finished and within a month the premiere was confirmed—once again in Mrs Coolidge’s Berkshire Festival, to be given on 13 September 1939, by her resident Gordon String Quartet.

Intimations of mortality had clearly sharpened Bridge’s mind and the new quartet emerged as the most concise and rigorously composed of the five he completed. It is Haydnesque in scale and in three concise movements—sonata allegro, minuet and rondo. The musical language is the most progressive of all Bridge’s chamber works. The opening flourish from the viola presents the main thematic material and exposes eleven semitones. The first movement is the most substantial of the three, frenetic in its rhythmic and motivic energy. The music is not atonal, since it is rooted on D, but Bridge’s harmonic language is dominated by one of his favourite polychords—a minor chord in its root position with a major triad, whose root is one tone higher, superimposed upon it (e.g. a D minor chord, with a triad of E major sounding at the same time). Some respite is afforded by a beautifully proportioned lyrical second subject.

The Quasi minuetto is founded upon an obsessive ostinato bass. It has a haunted quality about it, with pizzicato chords accompanying the second idea, prefiguring what Bartók was to do in his String Quartet No 6 two years later. The finale is equally pithy—a slow introduction (Adagio ma non troppo) preceding a lighter, almost neo-classical rondo (Allegro con brio), in which Bridge allows himself to reveal stronger tonal foundations. Here quartal (fourth- and fifth-based) harmonies dominate the principal episode. In the coda, Bridge re-introduces material from the first movement to produce a joyous conclusion.

from notes by Paul Hindmarsh © 2009

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67726 track 8
Quasi minuetto
Recording date
31 July 2008
Recording venue
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Jeremy Hayes
Recording engineer
Ben Connellan
Hyperion usage
  1. Bridge: Piano Quintet, String Quartet & Idylls (CDA67726)
    Disc 1 Track 8
    Release date: May 2009
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