Frank Bridge's Allegro moderato from the Unfinished Symphony for String Orchestra, H.192 (1941)
It is well-known that Frank Bridge (1879-1941) had been minded to compose a symphony since the 1920s. Various other commitments got in the way, including commissions from his patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and a loss of confidence in his stylistic development. It was not until 1940 that he began work on this project. Unfortunately Bridge completed only the first movement (a few bars had to be added by the editor) and three sketches which may represent his thoughts for subsequent movements. This implies that the present ‘Allegro moderato’ is likely to have been a first movement, rather than a single movement symphony.
After completion of the Violin Sonata, H.183 in 1932 there had been relatively few new works. The Overture: Rebus for orchestra, H.191 was completed in August 1940. The previous year had seen the Three Pieces for organ, H.190. The most significant work of this period was the expressionist and demanding Fourth String Quartet, H.188 (1937). The only other piece of importance was the Bergian Three Divertimenti, H.189 (1938). There had been a number of false starts including fragments of a concerto, H.184 (1934), a short seasonal piece, A Merry, Merry Xmas for oboe, clarinet, trombone piano, H.185 (1934), sketches for a Viola sonata, H.186 (1935-6) and a String Quartet movement, H.187 (c.1936).
Jürgen Schaarwächter (2015) writes that Bridge had affixed a visiting card on the score stating ‘Unfinished Symphony for Strings, Nov/Dec 1940 – Jan (10) 1941.’ A footnote suggests that the ‘(10)’ was probably added by another hand: it has ‘been written over an earlier erasure’. It was not the composer’s usual compositional practice to begin the full score of a work until the ‘rough draft’ was complete. Paul Hindmarsh (1983) has suggested that Bridge may have felt that he would not finish the entire symphony so began orchestration immediately. Frank Bridge died on 10 January 1941, a few days after this card had been affixed. He was staying at Friston in Sussex at this time.
It is well-known that Marjorie Fass, the composer’s friend and companion, asked Benjamin Britten to complete the symphony. He declined or ignored the request. She had written to him:
What a sad, sad grief our telegram must have been to you. I am so deeply sorry for what you have lost in our lovely old Franco, with all his sweetness, his greatness and his gentleness. Thank heaven he was spared suffering – for his heart just stopped in his sleep. He had been out in the snow and bitter wind for a day or so and must have caught a chill on his tummy … By the time … [the] doctor came it was too late … His arteries were hardened and his heart too weak to stand the vomiting … Lovely that during this war he could turn his mind with his beautiful world of sound, and write the Overture Rebus … and he was making a fair copy of a string symphony he liked very much – and told Eth[el]. that we should like. Alas the score isn’t finished – and how we long for our Benji to look over the sketches and see what he meant to do. Perhaps you will some day … Friston 23.1.41 (Hindmarsh, 1983)
In the late 1970s Dr Anthony Pople produced his performing edition of the ‘Allegro moderato’ from the surviving score and sketches. The last twenty-one bars of the movement were orchestrated from a ‘complete and fairly explicit sketch’. The details of the methodology behind the movement’s completion are included in Paul Hindmarsh’s Frank Bridge: A Thematic Catalogue (1983).
The full score and parts were published by Faber in 1979. A study score of the work is also available.
Hindmarsh (1983) has suggested that this fragment ‘offers a gritty and a powerful foretaste of what might have been’. It is clear that Frank Bridge was ensuring that his music was once again becoming more accessible to the concert-goer than some of his recent ‘modernist’ experiments.
Fabian Huss (2015) writes that the ‘Allegro moderato’ is ‘classical in tone’. It uses ‘modest forces’ and has a ‘more restrained idiom’ than is usual for Bridge’s orchestral music. Huss adumbrates some reasons for this: ‘concentrated expression, economy of means and forces and emphasis on contrast between strongly characterised sections’ of the work. He presents a detailed analysis of the music.
The ‘Allegro moderato’ has some 379 bars. The music develops almost imperceptibly, but works up to a considerable climax. The movement ends on the same chord with which it opened. Hindmarsh (liner notes, Chandos CHAN10188) explains that this ‘elaborate sonata form’ does not have the ‘internal range or contrast that his single movement ‘Phantasies’ possess.
Interestingly much of the harmonic material of this movement utilises ‘quartal chords’ – that is chords built up on the interval of a fourth (C-F) rather than thirds (C-E), although use is also made of triadic harmonies in this movement.
On Wednesday 20 June 1979 the first performance of Frank Bridge’s ‘Allegro moderato’ was given at the Aldeburgh Festival.
Other works at this concert at the Maltings, Snape included Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne for tenor voice, seven obbligato instruments and string orchestra, op.60, (1958) and Young Apollo: Fanfare for pianoforte solo, string quartet and string orchestra (1939). Bridge was also represented by his tragic ‘Lament’, H.117 (1915) for string orchestra (1914) and his Suite for string orchestra, H.93 (1910). The English Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Steuart Bedford and the soloists were Peter Pears (tenor) and Michael Roll (piano).
The report on the concert given by Kenneth Loveland in the Musical Times (August 1979), proclaimed that this was ‘a real Aldeburgh occasion … [which] brought together music previously unheard at the festival from teacher and pupil: a pleasantly contrapuntal ‘Allegro moderato’ intended by Frank Bridge for a symphony for strings that never materialized … and Britten's Young Apollo written for the Canadian Broadcasting Service in 1939 for the unusual forces of piano (Michael Roll making much of the virtuoso writing), string quartet and strings, a piece fairly bursting with exuberant invention.’
Richard D. C. Noble (Music & Musicians, December 1979) reviewing concert and recording insists that the ‘Allegro moderato’s’ ending is too ‘inconclusive’ to imply that the work was ‘complete in itself’. He notes the expansive sonata form underlying the work’s construction, but devoid of a ‘development section as such.’ Noble concludes his review by suggesting that it ‘clearly serves as a prelude for unknown things to come, troubled things we may be sure, for the music is dark hued and disturbed, yet expertly written.’ The remaining sketches of the subsequent movements would bear this contention out.
In 1979 Lyrita Recorded Edition issued the premiere recording of Frank Bridge’s Oration: Concerto elegiaco for cello and orchestra, H.180 (1930). The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite with the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Oration was coupled with the present ‘Allegro moderato’ and the ‘Two Poems’ with epigraphs by Richard Jefferies, H.118 (1915). JW (John Warrack) reviewing the record for The Gramophone (January 1980) considered the ‘Allegro moderato’ as ‘small by comparison’ to Oration. Conversely, in the May 1980 edition of the same journal, John Steane regards all the works on this album as being ‘wholly compelling and often very powerful, [however] there is something here that does not carry total conviction.’
In his assessment of the re-issue of the Lyrita recording, Andrew Achenbach in his ‘Round Up’ of ‘The Best of British Returns’ (The Gramophone Awards 2006) insists that Braithwaite’s reading ‘remain[s] unrivalled in [his] book’.
A quartet of a century later, Chandos released ‘Volume 4’ of their conspectus of Bridge’s orchestral music. Once again, the coupling included Oration, with the cello soloist Alban Gerhardt. Other works featured were Rebus: overture for orchestra Lament (1915) and A Prayer for chorus and orchestra, H.140 (1916-18). Richard Hickox conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Andrew Achenbach (The Gramophone, June 2004) considered this CD ‘the most appealing and varied instalment yet’ in the present series. He was impressed by most of the music here, nevertheless he feels that ‘Hickox and company seem less comfortable in Anthony Pople’s completion of the patiently argued opening ‘Allegro moderato’ … As recorded, the BBCNOW strings lack breadth of tone, and Hickox’s conception doesn’t have the grip of its Lyrita predecessor.’
Slightly more positively, Andrew Farach-Colton (The Gramophone, October 2007) whilst reviewing the CD re-issue of the Lyrita recording, considered that Hickox’s ‘taut, focused reading [which] provides a semblance of symphonic cohesion,’ balances Braithwaite who ‘elicits the stronger emotional charge’. He could ‘not imagine being without either copy’.
Rob Barnett (reviewing Hickox) for MusicWeb International (April 2004) perceives the ‘Allegro moderato’ as a ‘classically clean work and very romantic for that time when you compare it with the bustle and elfin dissonance of Rebus.’
Finally, Peter J. Rabinowitz in Fanfare (November 2004) noted that the ‘anguish of Oration is mirrored, at a lesser level of intensity, in the paradoxically lean and dissonant lyricism of the unfinished ‘Allegro moderato’ (all that exists of a symphony for strings that Bridge was working on when he died).’
The ‘Allegro moderato’ is the final utterance of a composer who had evolved through a number of diverse styles. It reveals a man who, near the end of his life, was by no means short on inspiration. This is a powerful, well-constructed piece that balances neo-classicism, romanticism and expressionism in a satisfying structure. It is to be regretted that the Symphony was never completed, but, on the other hand listeners should be extremely grateful to Dr Anthony Pople for providing the performing edition of this remarkable ‘last offering’.
Hindmarsh, Paul, Frank Bridge: A Thematic Catalogue (London, Faber & Faber, 1983). Huss, Fabian, The Music of Frank Bridge, (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2015)
Schaarwächter, Jürgen, Two Centuries of British Symphonism: From the beginnings to 1945, (George Olms, 2015)
The files of The Musical Times, Music & Musicians and The Gramophone.
London Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite, Julian Lloyd Webber (cello), Frank Bridge, Oration, Two Poems, Allegro moderato Lyrita SRCS.104 (1979) (Allegro moderato, coupled with Dance Rhapsody, Dance Poem, Two Poems & Rebus, was re-issued on SRCD.243, 2007)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox, Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Rebus, Oration, Allegro moderato, Lament, A Prayer Chandos CHAN 10188. 2004