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The Nash Ensemble presents a fascinating compendium of Frank Bridge’s chamber music, demonstrating the composer’s developing style.
Bridge is best known through his most famous pupil, Benjamin Britten, who recognized his teacher’s genius and frequently programmed his works. The Phantasy Piano Quartet, completed in June 1910, reveals Bridge’s early style at its most fluent. Writing in the 1948 Aldeburgh Festival programme book, Benjamin Britten revealed the essence of this work perfectly: ‘Sonorous yet lucid, with clear, clean lines, grateful to listen to and to play. It is the music of a practical musician, brought up in German orthodoxy, but who loved French romanticism and conception of sound—Brahms happily tempered with Fauré.’
In his later works, represented here by the Cello Sonata and Violin Sonata, Bridge made use of more angular melodies, and seemed influenced by contemporary trends in Europe, much to the dismay of critics at home. Britten staunchly defended Bridge and writes about ‘the invariable fascination of the sound; the conversational melodies can be difficult to recognize, but the drama and tensions easy to feel’.
Also included are folk-song arrangements in which Bridge absorbs the material into his musical fabric, taking creative ownership of the melodies.
Bridge treated the familiar tune as if he had composed it himself, using its main features to construct a typically fluid and varied musical journey, skilfully adapting traditional sonata form. The tune’s memorable opening phrase provides a dramatic opening gesture, out of which flows a seamless weft of lyrical counterpoint. With impeccable timing, the complete melody, beautifully harmonized, emerges for the only time after the main climax, and Bridge contrives to let the music ebb away, ready for Hamilton Harty to take over.
By the time An Irish Melody was performed, Frank Bridge was an energetic and ambitious musical presence in Edwardian London. Playing violin or viola in London’s theatre orchestras must have brought back memories of playing in the orchestra pit for his father’s theatre orchestras in Brighton a decade earlier. He also played in Henry Wood’s Queens Hall Orchestra and in the New Symphony Orchestra. Wood and Thomas Beecham both programmed early Bridge orchestral works—Isabella and Dance Rhapsody respectively—allowing the composer to conduct them himself. On the chamber music front, his work was being played by some of London’s up-and-coming string quartets, including his own, the English String Quartet, in which he played viola alongside three fellow Royal College of Music students.
Bridge’s Phantasy Piano Quartet in F sharp minor built on his success in the first two of Walter Wilson Cobbett’s Phantasie competitions, promoted under the auspices of The Worshipful Company of Musicians. These competitions were a major stepping stone to his wider recognition as a composer. The archaic spelling reflected Cobbett’s intention of establishing a new British chamber music genre, combining the ingredients of a standard chamber work into a single span, that would pay homage to the Fantasies and Fancies for viols that flourished in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. In 1905 Bridge was runner-up in the first competition, with a Phantasie for string quartet, and he won the second in 1907, with his Phantasie in C minor for piano trio. A few years later, in 1910, Bridge was one of a group of eleven British composers Cobbett commissioned to write a chamber music Phantasy: among them, Vaughan Williams contributed a Phantasy Quintet for strings, and Bridge the Phantasy Piano Quartet.
From his earliest student efforts, Bridge had employed cyclic forms in his chamber music, ensuring that his main themes and melodies enjoyed a close family likeness across each movement. In his Cobbett Phantasies he went a step further, refining an ‘arch form’ in which all the musical ideas derived from a single source. In this way he was able to replace the conventional development section of the classical sonata form, in which he had been trained under Stanford, with contrasting but related episodes—mirroring the slow movement and scherzo elements one would find in a larger multi-movement chamber work. This Cobbett-inspired approach to constructing single movements and complete works stayed with Bridge throughout his career, reaching its most expansive form in the cello concerto Oration.
While the three early Phantasies are uncomplicated in their design, the Phantasy Piano Quartet, completed in June 1910, is the most effective, revealing Bridge’s early style at its most fluent. Writing in the 1948 Aldeburgh Festival programme book, Benjamin Britten revealed the essence of this work perfectly: ‘Sonorous yet lucid, with clear, clean lines, grateful to listen to and to play. It is the music of a practical musician, brought up in German orthodoxy, but who loved French romanticism and conception of sound—Brahms happily tempered with Fauré.’ All the musical ideas spring from the passionate opening flourish. The first section (Andante con moto) flows with Gallic grace, rather like a Barcarolle. There follows a fleet-footed scherzo (Allegro vivace), with a contrasting song-like trio section that looks back to the opening ideas. A short recitative-like passage then leads seamlessly back to the reprise, which opens out into an impassioned climax before dying away to what Britten describes as ‘a short coda which suggests the deep red afterglow of a sunset’.
Much was written during Bridge’s lifetime about the transformation in the style of his music that became apparent in the 1920s. A passionate Piano Sonata (1924) seemed to signal a radical change of direction, influenced by contemporary trends in Europe that met with increasingly hostile reception in the musical press every time a new work appeared. However, with the passage of time and a wider perspective, this change of tone can be viewed as a continuous process of evolution that actually began a decade earlier than the Piano Sonata, around 1913, with the composition of Dance Poem for orchestra.
Bridge’s pupil and staunchest champion Benjamin Britten understood this better than anyone. This is his appraisal of Bridge’s new ‘voice’ from the 1955 Aldeburgh Festival Programme Book:
Frank Bridge is known almost entirely by his early works such as the Piano Quartet Phantasy. To those who know only this period of his work, the later pieces must seem like those of another composer. The earlier works are tonal, and harmonically direct; the melodies clear and strong; the rhythm if not square, then rather regular. The later works have no clear keys, the melodies have a curious conversation-like character, the rhythms are usually irregular, and definite rhythmic patters are rare. But to those familiar with all his works the connection between the two periods is clear—the seed of the later work is in the earlier—stemming from a desire to say more personal and subtler things. They can be difficult at first to follow, apart of course from the invariable fascination of the sound; the conversational melodies can be difficult to recognise, but the drama and tensions easy to feel.
The connection between the graceful lyricism of the Phantasy and the minor-key melody that opens the Cello Sonata, which Bridge began in 1913, is unmistakeable. The first movement, which was probably completed before the outbreak of war, is an expansive and romantically tinged sonata form. Composing the remainder proved more troublesome. A recollection of the cellist Antonia Butler, who gave the French premiere in 1928, reveals the cause:
I first played the Sonata with a contemporary pianist of his called Ada May Thomas. She told me that during the First World War, when Bridge was writing the slow movement, he was in utter despair over the futility of war and the state of the world generally and would walk round Kensington in the early hours of the morning unable to get any rest or sleep, and that the idea of the slow movement really came into being during that time.
As originally planned the elegiac slow movement and biting scherzo were to be separate and much longer, with an independent finale. Eventually Bridge compressed the elements into a single, intense ‘phantasy-arch’, the principal theme of which derives from the climax of the first movement’s exposition. What Benjamin Britten has referred to as Bridge’s ‘impatience with tonality’ is evident in the yearning chromaticism of the slow section and in the more aggressive bitonal and whole-tone colours in the scherzo section. To balance the two extended movements, Bridge added a lengthy coda, re-working the opening of the first movement in a much leaner and more incisive manner. The Sonata took Bridge four long years to finish and two of his musician friends, the cellist Felix Salmond and pianist Harold Samuel, gave the first performance at London’s Wigmore Hall in 1917.
When interviewed by the magazine Musical America during his 1923 tour of the United States, Bridge made his views on the subject of musical nationalism based on traditional sources perfectly clear: ‘If there is to be any expression of national spirit, it must be the expression of the composer’s own thoughts and feelings, and must come from the promptings of his own inspiration; he cannot seek it and any effort on his part to aim at it as a national expression must end in failure.’ Not surprisingly, he rarely made use of folk and traditional sources, preferring to look to the European Continent for his influences and inspiration. On the occasions when he did, as in An Irish Melody, Sally in our alley, Cherry Ripe and Sir Roger de Coverley, he absorbed the ‘given’ material into his musical fabric, taking creative ownership of the melodies, just as Benjamin Britten did a generation later in his folksong settings. Sally in our alley is refined and embellished, with highly perfumed harmonies. Its companion from 1916, Cherry Ripe is a miniature tone poem, whose bustling opening gives no hint of the tune, which eventually eases in unannounced, emerging out of the contrapuntal texture as a second subject. Towards the climax, Bridge cleverly combines his own energetic subject with the tune. Sir Roger de Coverley is perhaps the best known of all the traditional English dance tunes. In his energetic treatment from 1922, Bridge has reflected its chief function as a dashing finale to a Christmas Ball. He makes ingenious and highly entertaining use of the tune, both as a source of motivic cells and as a complete theme for variations. The result is an elaborate and colourful set of continuous variations—essentially a short choreographic poem. Of particular interest are the appearance of Auld lang syne as a counter-melody to the penultimate variation, and the increasing complexity of the surrounding textures in the second half, with a ‘whirlwind’ climax, ending most appropriately with the ushering in of the New Year.
As he entered his forties, Bridge worked hard to reinvent himself as a composer and conductor, rather than a professional string player who happened to compose rather well. He struggled to achieve his ambitions immediately after the First World War, but in 1923 financial help from the American patron of music Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, whom Bridge and his wife had got to know through mutual contacts the year before, was to prove the major turning point in his career. Coolidge’s annual cheques (of between £2000 and £2500) enabled Bridge to give up teaching and playing altogether. Thereafter all the chamber music he wrote was dedicated to her, including his Violin Sonata, completed with much effort in 1932. Bridge’s great friends Antonio Brosa (violin) and Harold Samuel (piano) gave the first performance on 18 January 1934 at Wigmore Hall in a Royal Philharmonic Chamber Concert. (An early Violin Sonata in E flat major, started in 1904, exists as a complete first movement and the torso of a second, completed by the present writer.)
Although Bridge was delighted with the efforts of his friends, the critical reception was predictably hostile. The following day, this appeared in The Morning Post: ‘I fear that Mr Frank Bridge’s Sonata, like so much of his music nowadays, proved rather disappointing. It sounded tortured. The attractive personality that the composer used to show in his earlier chamber music seems to have disappeared completely; there is so little spontaneity, so little charm.’ However, at least one critic, in The Musical Times, seemed to appreciate that this new work was a further example of Bridge’s later voice and not some misguided rejection of the romantic lyricism of familiar works like the earlier Phantasy: ‘Frank Bridge’s Sonata proved a vigorous example of its composer’s mature style—very individual, very masterful in its treatment of the material and very effectively written for the instruments. Structurally it is close-packed, containing the essential four movements of cyclic form compressed into one, which, far from sounding rigid, gives an impression of energetic order and freedom.’
The Sonata is full of late Bridge fingerprints: bitter-sweet lyricism, intense contrapuntal underpinning and capricious mood-swings. The short, arresting opening draws the listener in and the subtle thematic cross-referencing unites the whole conception in a typically skilful and understated manner.
Paul Hindmarsh © 2013