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Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op 10

composer
1937

 
In May 1937 the conductor Boyd Neel was invited to give a concert of British works at the Salzburg Festival with his string orchestra. A condition of the engagement was that a new work should be included. Neel knew that finding a composer to write a work at such short notice would be a challenge and making a daring choice, he turned to the 24-year-old Britten, then still unknown to a wider public in Britain, let alone Europe. Neel had conducted Britten’s music for the film Love from a Stranger and had noticed his skill at composing at speed. Britten accepted the commission and within 10 days Neel had a draft score in his hands. Just four weeks later the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge was complete.

Neel was delighted that his faith in Britten had been rewarded, realising that here was a work in which the string orchestra was ‘exploited with a daring and invention never before known.’ Britten’s own skill as a viola player stood him in good stead since the string writing is conceived on a virtuoso level, with every nuance of colour being exploited. The work received its public premiere at the Salzburg Festival on 27 August 1937; the marked impression it made on the audience initiated Britten’s international renown.

Britten had conceived the work as a tribute to his teacher and mentor whose influence in his formative years had been profound. It is based on the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for string quartet of 1906. At the head of the score, Britten wrote: ‘To F.B. A tribute with affection and admiration.’ The leading Bridge authority, Paul Hindmarsh, has noted too that Britten’s tribute went much further, for on the presentation score he gave to Bridge, Britten links each movement to aspects of Bridge’s personality, which are referred to in the description of the individual movements below. The work is cast in a free variation form, so that at times the links with Bridge’s theme are tenuous. Overall the variations may be viewed as a series of vivid character sketches, frequently parodying particular musical forms.

In the Introduction and Theme (described as ‘Himself’ on Bridge’s presentation score), Britten begins the work in a demonstrative manner with a sweeping fanfare-like phrase. Bridge’s melancholy theme is outlined first on a solo violin, then fully harmonised for solo quartet. The music continues directly into the next section, Adagio (‘His depth’, which Britten changed in his own short score sketch to ‘His integrity,’) where alternating with dark, troubled chords derived from Bridge’s harmony on the lower strings, the violins play an impassioned line. A quick March (‘His energy’) somewhat sinister in tone follows, then a Romance (‘His charm’ [‘His wit in Britten’s score]) in which the composer seems to be guying the so-called English pastoral school of composers.

The Aria Italiana (‘His humour’) is an instance of Britten’s sheer compositional panache: a brilliant satire of Rossinian coloratura as the first violins soar above the stave lines accompanied by the strumming pizzicati of the second violins, violas and cellos who are instructed to play like a guitar. In the lively Bourrée classique (‘His tradition’) there is a prominent violin solo which has a sly dig at a harmonic fingerprint of the Baroque, the cycle of 5ths, whilst the Wiener walzer (‘His enthusiasm’ [in Britten’s sketch, ‘His gaiety’]) is surely Britten’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the circumstances of the commission, as well as signalling his admiration for two giants of Viennese composition, Mahler and Berg.

The Moto perpetuo (‘His vitality’ [‘His enthusiasm’ in the sketch]), is a burst of energy with tremolo strings rushing helter-skelter from the highest to the lowest registers. In the Funeral march (‘His sympathy’ to which in the sketch Britten added ‘Understanding’), the falling 5th of the theme is transformed into the beat of drums in the double-basses over which the first violins, later joined by the other upper strings, play a sorrowful lament. The eerie Chant (‘His reverence’) is heard in the divided violas offset by harmonics. This provides a moment of stasis prior to the Fugue and Finale. The former is a swashbuckling compositional tour-de-force within which Britten, in masterly fashion, weaves quotations from five of Bridge’s finest works played by the solo quartet high above the fugal textures. This leads to a final, rather Mahlerian, outpouring of Bridge’s theme in the rich key of D major as the culmination of this quite remarkable composition.

from notes by Andrew Burn © 2005

Britten a écrit cette pièce d’une étonnante habileté—un ensemble de dix variations de «caractère» sur un thème de son professeur de composition, Frank Bridge—en l’espace de quelques semaines, à l’intention de l’Orchestre à cordes Boyd Neel, qui le joua au Festival de Salzbourg en août 1937. L’œuvre a fait la réputation du jeune compositeur, et c’est resté l’une de ses plus populaires.

Britten emprunta le thème à la deuxième des Trois Idylles pour quatuor à cordes, op.6, de Bridge, une partition clairement influencée par Elgar. Ce thème fait une première apparition hésitante après une Introduction audacieuse et étonnamment moderne; il est soumis ensuite à une brillante succession de transformations, qui ont pour dessein de refléter chacune un trait particulier de la personnalité de Bridge, de son intégrité et de son respect de la tradition à son sens de l’humour.

Le premier mouvement, un Adagio empli de passion et d’émotion, est suivi par une Marche énergique et une gracieuse Romance, nettement imprégnée de charme français. La jubilatoire «Aria italiana» est lancée par un accompagnement en pizzicatos évoquant le grattement de guitares, et rappelle les arias de Rossini avec ses gammes et ses trilles d’une virtuosité ébouriffante. Quant à la «Bourrée classique», cette page néo-classique rend hommage à l’écriture pour cordes baroque, insistant sur les intervalles de quinte à vide.

La variation suivante, dans le style d’une valse viennoise exubérante, laisse place à un brillant «Moto perpetuo» [Mouvement perpétuel]. Viennent ensuite deux variations lentes: une Funeral March [Marche funèbre] et un Chant [Psalmodie] aux accents d’hymne religieuse. La Fugue finale rassemble tous ces éléments pour saluer le talent de compositeur de Bridge. Dans les dernières mesures, le thème de Bridge s’élève dans sa présentation la plus tranchée, la plus pure, preuve de l’affection sincère et mutuelle qui liait le maître et l’élève.

extrait des notes rédigées par Wendy Thompson © 2016
Français: Claire Delamarche

Britten schrieb dieses erstaunlich fein gearbeitete Werk—eine Reihe von zehn „Charakterstudien“ als Variationen über ein Thema seines Kompositionslehrers Frank Bridge—in einem Zeitraum von nur wenigen Wochen für das Boyd Neel String Orchestra zur Aufführung bei den Salzburger Festspielen im August 1937. Mit diesem Werk schuf sich der Komponist einen Namen, und auch heute noch zählt es zu seinen beliebtesten Stücken.

Britten entnahm das Thema aus dem zweiten von Bridges Three Idylls [Drei Idyllen] für Streichquartett op. 6—einem eindeutig von Elgar geprägten Werk. Dieses Thema, das sich nach einer forschen und auffällig modernen Einleitung zuerst vorsichtig vortastet, durchläuft eine beeindruckende Reihe von Transformationen. Jede zielt darauf ab, ein besonderes Kennzeichen von Bridges Persönlichkeit widerzuspiegeln angefangen bei seiner Integrität und seinem Respekt für Tradition bis zu seinem Sinn für Humor.

Dem einleitenden Satz, einem leidenschaftlichen und gefühlvollen Adagio, schließt sich ein energischer Marsch und eine graziöse, eindeutig von gallischem Charme geprägte Romanze an. Die berauschende „Aria italiana“ ruft mit ihren stratosphärischen Koloraturen und Trillern Arien von Rossini in Erinnerung und wird mit begleitenden Pizzikati eingeleitet, die an strummende Gitarren denken lassen. Die neoklassische „Bourrée classique“ mit ihrer Betonung offener Quinten verneigt sich ihrerseits vor barocken Streicherkompositionen.

Die nächste Variation, die im Stile eines ausgelassenen Wiener Walzers gehalten ist, wird von einem schillernden „Perpetuum mobile“ gefolgt. Dem schließen sich zwei langsame Variationen an: ein Trauermarsch und ein choralartiger Gesang. Die abschließende Fuge wiederum bündelt alle Fäden zu einer Huldigung an Bridges Kompositionsfähigkeiten. Am Ende taucht das Bridgethema in seiner ursprünglichen, absolut unverzierten Gestalt wieder auf und unterstreicht damit die ehrliche gegenseitige Zuneigung zwischen Lehrer und Schüler.

aus dem Begleittext von Wendy Thompson © 2016
Deutsch: Elke Hockings

Recordings

Elgar: Introduction and Allegro; Vaughan Williams: Tallis Fantasia; Britten: Bridge Variations
Studio Master: LSO0792Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Movement 01: Introduction and Theme: Lento maestoso
Movement 02: Adagio
Movement 03: March: Presto alla marcia
Movement 04: Romance: Allegretto grazioso
Movement 05: Aria Italiana: Allegro brillante
Movement 06: Bourrée classique: Allegro e pesante
Movement 07: Wiener walzer: Lento – Vivace
Movement 08: Moto perpetuo: Allegro molto
Movement 09: Funeral march: Andante ritmico
Movement 10: Chant: Lento
Movement 11: Fugue and Finale: Allegro molto vivace – Lento e solenne

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