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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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The Music of Frank Bridge
by Fabian Huss
Hardback, 259 pages
Published 2015
ISBN 978-1-78327-059-0
The Boydell Press

I first read about Frank Bridge in the mid-1970s in the fascinating, but rather eccentric, book Contemporary British Composers, written by Joseph Holbrooke and published in 1925. It was then considerably out of date and took little account of the generally accepted stylistic periods of Bridge’s life.

By this time, Lyrita were just beginning to issue several recordings of his music on LP. In 1977 the Phantasm: Rhapsody for piano and orchestra (SRCS.91) which explored ‘the twilight world so dear to Bridge …’ (Payne, 1984) was released. Subsequent albums included Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (SRCS.73) in the Suite for Strings, ‘Cherry Ripe’, ‘Sally in our Alley’, ‘Rosemary’, ‘Roger de Coverley’ and Lament. The most revelatory performance (for me, certainly) on record was Sir Charles Groves’ rendition of the stunning Enter Spring. This was issued in 1976 on LP (ASD 3190) coupled with The Sea, Summer, Lament and ‘Cherry Ripe’. Like many listeners, my understanding of Frank Bridge was greatly increased by a diligent study of these sleeve-notes.

Meanwhile, scholarship was catching up. Clearly, there were many essays, dictionary entries and reviews published over the years since Bridge became an established composer. Nevertheless, the past 45 years has seen a relative explosion in studies and performances of his music.

In 1970, R.M. Keating majored on ‘The Songs of Frank Bridge’ in his dissertation presented to the University of Texas – this is not quoted in the bibliography of the present book. It was an important forerunner of current academic attention. An early popular study of the composer was Frank Bridge by Anthony Payne, Lewis Foreman and John Bishop which was published in 1976. This short pamphlet (50 pages) re-presented Payne’s illustrated account of the music printed in Tempo (September & December 1973). The catalogue of works by Foreman was helpful in gaining a bird’s eye view of the composer’s achievement.

Studies were advanced immeasurably by Paul Hindmarsh’s Frank Bridge: A Thematic Catalogue (1983). Here the composer’s works were listed chronologically, with details of manuscripts, instrumentation, first performances, bibliographic references and a commentary on many of the works. There is a chronology of the composer’s life, a select bibliography and discography, and indices. It was the first appearance of the ‘H’ (Hindmarsh) numbers to Bridge’s music. A revised version of this seminal work is due to be published as an eBook in the near future.

The following year, Anthony Payne published his book Frank Bridge: Radical and Conservative. It was the latest incarnation of his Tempo articles. In this volume Payne reassessed the earlier compositions and found them just as important to the composer’s reputation as the later ‘radical’ works. It was deemed by Stephen Banfield as a ‘mature critical survey … a rounded accomplishment from the best man for the job.’ (Musical Times, April 1986). The book was reissued in 1999.

In 1991 Karen R. Little presented Frank Bridge: A Bio-Bibliography. Some of this material was concurrent with Hindmarsh’s Catalogue, however there were interesting additions. The succinct biographical chapter is excellent, the discography is extensive (up to 1991) and there is a comprehensive bibliography with brief précis of articles and many reviews. It is a useful adjunct to Hindmarsh’s book.

Other important sources include Trevor Bray’s Frank Bridge: A Life in Brief, (2004-13) (conveniently published online alongside valuable articles on other British composers), Peter Pirie’s early Frank Bridge (1971) and a detailed study of the early ‘Modern Maritime Pastoral: Wave Deformations in the Music of Frank Bridge’ by Stephen Downes included in British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960 (2010).

Exploring Fabian Huss’s bibliography in this present volume discloses that there are a growing number of dissertations and theses being addressed to Frank Bridge. This includes studies of his piano works, his relationship with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Musical Modernism, and the Late Works as well Huss’s own examination of the chamber music (2010).

The introduction to The Music of Frank Bridge notes the key critical problem in any discussion of his music – the ‘seemingly wide range of stylistic and aesthetic directions, (employed by the composer) from the Edwardian romanticism of the early works, through the impressionist transitional period, to the dissonant, idiosyncratic modernism of much of the later music.’ This is exacerbated by two contradictory reactions to his work. Firstly, the music most popular with the listener is derived from the earlier period –The Sea, the tone-poem Summer, the songs and some piano pieces etc. But, secondly, there has been a tendency by ‘recent commentators … to focus on the merits of the later works.’ Huss suggests that this may be to ‘establish suitable modernist credentials –and hence artistic status – for Bridge and his music.’ Matters are complicated by his short-lived ‘membership’ of the group of ‘English Musical Renaissance Composers’ with his ‘impressionistic’ pieces that led him to belong briefly to the ‘pastoral’ school of composition. There has come to be a hiatus between his earlier and later styles. The main purpose of the present book is to ‘trace his development through its various phases, and integrate the different strands of his compositional activity into a coherent understanding.’

In Huss’s dissertation on the chamber music, he quotes Bridge, in relation to the difficulty of coming to terms with modern idioms, saying that ‘a composer’s early work possibly has stepping stones upon which an understanding may grow.’ This is a key pillar of the present study (Huss, 2010).

From a personal point of view I have always regarded the ‘late’ orchestral work Rebus as being infused with romanticism: he had relaxed his more uncompromising style. Rebus was composed around the same time as the much more expressionist Three Divertimenti. So simplistic stylistic analysis is never going to be straightforward.

The main matter of the text is presented in largely chronological order. After the introduction which defines some of the basic parameters of Bridge studies, the first chapter examines the composer’s ‘Background, Royal College of Music and Early Works’. Important compositions at this time include the String Quartet in B flat, the Piano Quartet in C minor, the orchestral work 'Mid of Winter', and the more forward-looking Three Idylls. These works are examined in some detail. The songs and piano pieces written at this time, which established the composer’s popularity, are mentioned only briefly.

The period of ‘First Maturity’ (Chapter 2) scrutinises music composed between 1906 and 1912. This Huss deems to be characterised by ‘increased technical control and growing stylistic curiosity and individuality’. Major studies are provided of the First String Quartet, the Phantasy Piano Trio in C minor, the Piano Quintet, the Dance Rhapsody, the Suite for Strings and the well-loved The Sea which demonstrate the composer’s arrival at a mature orchestral style. This was the period of music that dominated (and still does dominate) the composer’s reputation.

Chapter 3 looks at the music that Huss considers to belong to the ‘Transitional Period’. Bridge appeared to be ‘limited’ by the ‘stylistic limitations of the previous decade’. He is now more likely to explore ‘technical control’ using motivic manipulation and expansion of his ‘stylistic range’. Huss includes analysis of the great Cello Sonata, the Second String Quartet and the Dance Poem. This latter work marks ‘a new adventurous individuality in its treatment of the orchestra and in terms of style more generally …’ This is also the period of the ‘luminously impressionistic’ tone-poem Summer as well as the ‘pastoral’ Two Poems (after Richard Jeffries).

The next section of the composer’s career is explored in Chapter 4, ‘Bridge’s Post-Tonal Idiom’. This reflects the period after about 1920 when the composer began to lose his popular following. Bridge rejected the ‘comforting pastoral’ and began to absorb a more dissonant, post-tonal language owing much to Scriabin and Berg. Reasons for this may be his reaction to the Great War, political awareness and personal family concerns. Elements of this chapter include a technical examination the composer’s use of the Whole-tone and Octatonic Scales and their derivatives. Major works from this period include the game-changing Piano Sonata and the Third String Quartet which are both given in-depth analyses.

Chapter 5 examines the ‘Progressive Works’ written between 1927 and 1932. This period has been important to scholars wishing to establish Bridge’s reputation as a modernist and radical composer. Yet what can be regarded as his (and possibly all British composers' as well) definitive statement on English pastoral, Enter Spring was written at this time. More typical of this period was ‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook’, Oration for cello and orchestra and the Second Piano Trio. These are often Spartan, melancholic and lacking in warmth.

The final main chapter examines ‘Bridge’s Last Years’. Key to this period is the ‘Janus-like’ Fourth String Quartet, which balances a forward looking harmonic language, influenced by the Second Viennese School, but still retaining a deep romanticism derived from his earlier music. The ‘note’ of English Pastoral has not totally disappeared. There is a short ‘Epilogue’ which examines the fate of Bridge’s music since his death in 1941.

Two important sections of this book are the ‘interludes’; one of which majors on the composer’s relationship with his patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The second examines his famous pupil. A problem that has haunted the appreciation of Bridge’s music is that he is often spoken of a being Benjamin Britten’s teacher rather than as a composer and musician in his own right. It must be remembered that Britten was a ‘major advocate’ for Bridge’s music when it was at its least fashionable. The subsequent revival owes much to Britten.

Wisely, Huss has included a ‘List of Works’. This is a much simplified version of the listings in Hindmarsh’s catalogue noted above. A number of incomplete or unpublished works have been omitted, although reference is made to various ‘lost’ pieces. Huss has given details of the date of composition and first performance (where known). He has maintained the ‘H’ catalogue numbers (but without the ‘H’) for ease of reference. For all other information the reader is directed to Hindmarsh. The List of Works is presented chronologically.

The bibliography is extensive. The first section notes various primary sources for Bridge’s correspondence, which include the Library of Congress for letters to Coolidge and the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh for letters to Benjamin Britten and his friend, Marjorie Fass. The second section features a wide range of text-books, studies, biographical essays, dissertations and thesis. Some of these have been mentioned in the ‘assessment of the literature’ section of this present review. It makes an ideal starting place for any student of the composer’s life, times and music. For additional newspaper and periodical reviews of each work the reader should examine Hindmarsh’s Thematic Catalogue and Little’s Bio-Bibliography.

The index is wide-ranging with references to each work included alphabetically under ‘Frank Bridge’s Works’. Main discussions of each piece are shown in bold type. I wonder if a separate index for the works would have been more convenient.

Regarding the presentation of the book, I felt that the font was just a little small, but that is probably a failing of my age, rather than a profound criticism. The book makes use of footnotes rather than endnotes which usefully avoids page flicking. The binding is strong, the paper good quality and with an orange cover and a slightly diffused picture of the composer in pensive mood.

This book is abundantly illustrated with musical examples, as any text offering a comprehensive exploration of a composer’s works would demand. Typically, these are presented in short score which makes for a clear understanding of the author’s argument. I was disappointed to find no photographs of Frank Bridge, his family, friends and musical associates. However, I accept that this is a study of the music rather than a biography.

Fabian Huss is currently the Visiting Fellow at the University of Bristol. He is a musicologist specialising in 19th and 20th centuries British and Irish music. Huss has recently produced scholarly work on E.J. Moeran, Herbert Howells and Malcolm Arnold.

Future projects include co-editing a volume of ‘Frank Bridge Studies’. He is also an active conductor of music and is current director of music of the Redland Liedertafel and Cheddar Male Voice Choir.

Like all academic books, this appears at £50.00 to be expensive. Yet this volume is a crucial addition to scholarship. Being the first ‘detailed and long-overdue study of Bridge’ it will be of huge interest to serious researchers into his music. Added value here is the thoughtful analysis of many works that have been previously ignored or just touched upon by critics. The book will be of great help to all reviewers and popularisers who choose to explore Frank Bridge’s music. The most important achievement of all is the setting of the music into the various contexts implied by, romanticism, musical modernism, British pastoral and the composer’s own personal development as a man and a musician.

I have no doubt that Fabian Huss’s volume will be widely used (and, I hope, acknowledged) in many forthcoming essays, theses, CD inserts, concert programme notes and record reviews.

John France

Other links
MusicWeb International's Bridge pages
Chandos's survey of the Bridge orchestral music as conducted by Richard Hickox: review review

 

 




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