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FRANK BRIDGE (1879-1941)
COMPOSER, COURAGEOUS REVOLUTIONARY AND PACIFIST
Frank Bridge and his wife, Ethyl.
This powerful and gloomy 'Concerto Elegiaco' could hardly be further removed in expression from the other famous British cello concerto completed a decade earlier, the year after the end of the Great War. The Elgar was certainly elegiac in mood but the accent was old- fashioned - distinctly late-romantic and sweeping. There was little grim about it, though it is sorrowful enough. It comes from just the year previous to Bax's Cello Concerto (the least commanding of his concertante works), which is also nocturnal in mood though diffuse and a less impressive work than the Bridge.
Oration is defined as "a formal speech; a harangue." What sort of oration is the Bridge work? It is in the nature of a noble funeral oration with cross-currents of bitterness and disillusion. There is a strong vein of sadness but none of the huff and puff of heroic 'Dulce et Decorum Est' martyrs caught up by Battlefield Angels even before they fell. It comes as no surprise to discover that Bridge was a pacifist. The mood is bitter and the stuttering figure given to the cello and echoed in the orchestra sounds like a fanfare. Actual fanfares on the trumpets are heard later. Strange how the mood of this music was to find its echo almost fifteen years later in the desolate wastes of the end of Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony. One wonders whether Bridge had heard Nielsen's Flute Concerto (1926) before penning the fluttering flute figures about two-thirds of the way into the work.
It is not known why Bridge shied away from calling Oration a Cello Concerto (although its subsidiary title is Concerto Elegiaco) or Phantasm a Piano Concerto. Their concentration of mood across 30-minute spans of music would certainly have warranted the title. As it is, they have a special standing in the music of the 1930s. The pity is that the titles themselves probably militate against their inclusion in concert programmes.
ELEGIES AND PHANTASMS
The Phantasm for piano and orchestra dates from 1931 - the year after the completion of Oration. In fact it was premiered earlier than Oration. Oration was first aired in 1936 and Phantasm in 1934 as part of a BBC festival of British music. Bridge was delighted with Kathleen Long's performance, considering it one of the very best performances he had ever had of any of his music. In 1930, John Ireland had his piano concerto premiered but Phantasm was a very different work. Gargoyles and demons seem to leer from every casement in Phantasm. The Ireland is altogether more genteel and its accessible tonal language is easy to come to terms with if ultimately less memorable. In fairness, a number of stronger works by Ireland are closer counterparts to Phantasm e.g. These are The Forgotten Rite (1912) and Mai-Dun (1921). However, a much closer parallel is the 1933 Legend for piano and orchestra which may well have been inspired by Phantasm had Ireland had the chance to examine Bridge's manuscript score.
When Phantasm came out it was seen by the critics as an example of Bridge 'uglifying' his music in order to keep pace with modern trends. The critics remembered the Bridge of the pre-war years and found it difficult to keep pace with this new persona. Christopher Palmer makes the point that not only the war with its human loss but also some unspecified mid-life crisis accounted for this drastic gear-change.
Phantasm is defined as a " fancied vision, an apparition, a spectre ". Christopher Palmer described it as "so gripping a work it would be difficult, one imagines, to give an indifferent performance of it; violent, tempestuous and impassioned in character, it is typical of the introverted, quasi-expressionistic stance that his music came to adopt in later years. Earlier his music had been full of light. No more. Phantasm is a drama of night, nightmares, weird shapes and spectres and pursuits, and some nameless horror in the final recapitulatory Allegro engulfs everything and returns to the null and void of the opening. In fact we can regard Phantasm not merely as a look back in anger (and sorrow) at the First World War, but also as a grim prophecy of the Second."
This premonitory atmosphere was also heavy in Oration and affected many works of the 1930s. Ancestral voices prophesying war are to be perceived in Walton's First Symphony, Bax's Sixth, Vaughan Williams's Fourth and any of a number of works of that era. Whether they were really there as part of the composer's conscious but unannounced design or whether they are seen with all the benefit of hindsight by commentators anxious to link world, biographical and artistic events cannot be known.
There was something in the air at the time which, although it did not preclude people writing works called 'symphony', discouraged concertos. We need only look at Walton's sparkling Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra and Bax's magically violent Winter Legends, also termed a 'sinfonia concertante'. John Foulds's Dynamic Triptych (1929) for piano and orchestra dates from the same time. Szymanowski's Sinfonia Concertante (also known as his symphony No. 4) dates from these years, as does Florent Schmitt's richly jewelled Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra (1931). Josef Marx's Castelli Romani (another impressive discovery awaiting première recording) for piano and orchestra dates from 1931 and again Marx shied away from calling it a concerto.
TWILIGHT AND DARKNESS
In 1932 and 1938, Bridge returned to the USA, touring and conducting his own works with various American orchestras. Impressed by the second Viennese school ,and especially by the oblique lyricism of Alban Berg, his compositions had increasingly became suffused with their spirit while never becoming atonal or abandoning the English lyricism. Instead, he built a new fusion of these elements which is to be heard in many of his later works. His fourth string quartet, written in 1937, is among his most advanced works. The Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge are based on material from this quartet.
The painful paradox of his later years was that while he now had financial security, his music was becoming less and less acceptable to the public and concert promoters. Enter Spring and There is a Willow, let alone the eldritch Oration and Phantasm were not ingratiating to the ears of the 1930s public. His great popularity, built on The Sea, Summer, stacks of piano music, chamber music and songs, was on the wane. His great joy was in weekend and holidays at Friston, and Peter Pears recalls that even in his later years of declining health and exposure his sense of fun became evident, particularly with visiting children.
The String Quartet No. 4 dates from circa 1937. The style is rather similar to the third quartet ,however, more lyrical material is to the fore.
His last completed orchestral work was the overture, Rebus, which was finished in August 1940. It has an urgent, light-handed, gossamer fleetness, and there are even a few reminiscent glances back to the earlier scores such as the Dance Rhapsody. His near-final heart attack in 1936 had temporarily halted composing. However, Rebus marked a return to the creative life. The language is very like that of Enter Spring and perhaps surprisingly has less in common with Oration and Phantasm than anyone would guess. Bridge's textures and approach are always pellucidly clear in this fine work and it is to be hoped that people are not put off listening to it because they imagine it to be in his least appealing style. In fact it is a quite beguiling and winsome work, well captured in Nicholas Braithwaite's ( currently unavailable) Lyrita recording.
Finally, there is the athletic Allegro Moderato: which is all that remains of a projected symphony for strings. There was to be no more. This big movement was premiered on the Lyrita recording by Nicholas Braithwaite with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bridge died in obscurity in 1941, at the age of 62. Britain was deep in the darkest days of the war. One can reasonably speculate that the onslaught of another world conflict undermined his will to live. Not for him the idealism of John Ireland's These Things Shall Be. The reality was that the 'loftier race' had turned plough-shares into weapons. His despair can be imagined. His passing went with little comment, although Henry Wood, a lifelong supporter of Bridge and himself a man in poor health, conducted a memorial concert for the BBC.
BACKWARD AND FORWARD
Happily Bridge's early concert music never really went completely away. It kept some of his reputation alive, alongside the many solo piano pieces and songs, when his challenging works of the 1920s and 1930s were largely forgotten.
His tone poem Summer was a mildly astringent companion to Butterworth's Shropshire Lad and Vaughan Williams's Pastoral Symphony (the latter written in France during the Great War), and had much of Butterworth's fresh-minted countryside beauty and sorrow at the passing of beautiful things. This, and other early works, remained at the edges of the repertory increasingly the realm of the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC regional orchestras in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Vilem Tausky conducted the Concert Orchestra in a performance of Summer on 27 October 1964. In fact, 1964 and the three succeeding years were good times for Bridge's music.
The BBC broadcast, over the period 1950-70, quite a selection of the more euphonious chamber music and a small sampling of the orchestral music, excluding Phantasm and Oration.
With the re-ignition of interest in the British musical renaissance from the mid-1960s onwards, yet more performances took place. The BBC Concert Orchestra gave many of the Bridge bon-bons in Matinée Musicale. Enterprising BBC producers started to programme major revivals with a new generation of artists. The Christmas Rose was mounted in a studio performance in the 1970s. Old neglected scores like the Dance Poem suddenly found hearings in the Breakfast Time 'early shift' from 7.00 am to 9.00 am on BBC Radio 3. Studio broadcasts of Phantasm with Peter Wallfisch took place and these recordings were broadcast several times over. Oration was brought out of the closet and revealed as a work of sombre but compellingly irrepressible beauty. Enter Spring was recorded by Charles Groves alongside The Sea. This 1976 EMI recording, reissued in various formats and still available, formed many people's introduction to this fine composer and was extremely important as an attitude-former.
Then Lyrita, the heroic saviour of many a neglected British composer's music, began to take an interest with funding made available by the Bridge Trust. At first there was the Peter Wallfisch version of Phantasm with the LPO conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite in 1977. Wallfisch had clearly taken the BBC studio broadcast with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Britten/Aldeburgh regular Steuart Bedford as a 'dry run'.
In 1978, there was a Boult-conducted LP of Suite for String orchestra, Coverley, Sally, Lament, Rosemary and Cherry Ripe (LPO SRCS 73). Next, in 1979, came two extremely important issues: SRCS114 (Rebus, Dance Poem and Dance Rhapsody - LPO/Braithwaite) and SRCS104 (Oration, Two Poems, Allegro Moderato - Julian Lloyd Webber/LPO/Braithwaite).
These were exciting and questing times and we owe much to the artists involved, the Bridge Trust, John Bishop, Anthony Payne, Paul Hindmarsh, Lewis Foreman and Richard Itter; the latter being the guiding hand, genius and 'pocket' behind Lyrita. These forces and others re-introduced this music to the world-stage in phenomenally clear recordings of the finest quality. These Lyrita events were no amateurish performances but ones fully matching up to Bridge's own high professional standards. Why these recordings have never been reissued on CD remains a galling enigma.
We should not forget the other record companies. There is no intention to list all the LP issues of the 1970s but special mention must go to Pearl, whose issues spanned from the earliest days: the piano sonata and songs (in a double LP set), the organ works, the chamber music or much of it, The Christmas Rose, A Prayer, some of the even rarer orchestral music, and much else. Only a little of this has been reissued on CD (and some of these have now been deleted) and many of the LPs seem to have been ignored in the general hubbub over quadrophonics, hi-fi and finally the transition from LP to CD.
The Allegri Quartet recorded on LP for Argo (ZRG714) the string quartets 3 and 4 and these remained staples of the catalogue for some time, sadly disappearing and remaining unissued on CD; presumably LP sales were low. Their stature is high and in the opinion of Peter Pirie they are to be reckoned with the best of British quartets alongside the Bax No 3 and the Tippett quartets 1-3.
While the Lyrita LPs were being issued, Norman Del Mar (Bournemouth Sinfonietta) recorded Summer and the Suite For Strings for RCA/Chandos. Handley, a Baxian par excellence, recorded The Sea for Chandos during the 1980s. Chandos recorded the second string quartet. Meridian have recorded all four string quartets. Conifer did a collection of the solo piano music with the brilliant Kathryn Stott, who also (and perceptively) recorded Phantasm for the same label.
Oration enjoyed some popularity with young cellists: Stephen Isserlis recorded it for EMI and Alexander Baillie recorded it for Pearl alongside a fine recording of Enter Spring (Pearl - Cologne Radio SO conducted by John Carewe).
Hyperion have recorded all the songs in a 2CD set and Continuum have recorded the complete piano music (Peter Jacobs) and all four string quartets with the Brindisi quartet. The Continuum series is well worth seeking out and may well be preferable so far as the string quartets are concerned over the recordings recently made for Meridian.
Britten remained faithful to Bridge's music. As late as the mid-1960s he conducted at Aldeburgh and in a BBC studio an exulting version of Enter Spring at a time when Bridge's reputation seemed spent. Britten's performance with the New Philharmonia was broadcast on the Third Programme on 18 June 1967. Britten commercially recorded Bridge's Roger de Coverley (beautifully handling the counterpoint of the old English dance with Auld Lang Syne at the very end) with the English Chamber Orchestra. Sadly, he did not record Enter Spring or The Sea, both of which would surely have been revelatory performances.
Bridge's legacy, like that of all composers, will be seen to have different values depending on the fashions and passions of the time. From the viewpoint of the catholic last decade of the twentieth century, we will find pleasure and stimulation in both the adventurous tougher works dating 1918-41 and the more conventionally tuneful works of his early maturity 1900-1918.
Bridge felt a fierce antipathy towards war and fighting. His attitudes would have faced opposition and ridicule during the Great War and would have confirmed his 'retirement' from 1939 until his death two years later in the bleakest depths of the war. Whether he felt despair about the recurrence of war we do not know, however, this time also saw the onset of poor health. This must have cast the blackest of clouds over his last days and would have caused him those 'obstinate questionings' which made the very fibre of his greatest later works.
To explore Bridge for the first time, try the delectable Summer. Then move on to Lament or the Suite for Strings. Next, try the second string quartet and move on to his masterpiece, Enter Spring, and from his final phase Rebus. You are then ready to hear the piano sonata. After this try Oration and then Phantasm. If you enjoy Berg and the others of the second Viennese School then go straight for the piano trio No. 2 and the string quartets three and four.
© Robert Barnett, August 1998
See also Alternative Frank Bridge Site
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