COMPOSER, COURAGEOUS REVOLUTIONARY AND PACIFIST
Sketch of Frank Bridge by his friend Marjorie Fass
The British composer Frank Bridge remains an enigma. His music is still comparatively little known and unfashionable. Despite the excellent work of the Frank Bridge Trust it often seems that his much more obscure contemporary John Foulds has captured more of the imagination of the enquiring public, although Foulds has fewer CDs in the catalogue. Bridge remains an excitingly mysterious figure and his music is multi- faceted and rewarding to explore.
He was a student at the Royal College of Music, renowned for its 'establishment' figures like Vaughan Williams and Bliss. Both composers had their wild and unconventional phases but both ultimately were adopted as men of the establishment, which was never the case with Bridge. In any event, the RCM, with its structured approach and the fearsome Stanford, contrasted with the free spirit prevalent at the Royal Academy of Music, which produced Bax, Holbrooke and Bantock.
The author, Peter Pirie, believed that the fearsome Charles Villiers Stanford was responsible for stifling Bridge's inventive creativity, which only developed a free rein from the mid-1920s.
Certainly, Stanford abhorred the then moderns, being unable to abide Debussy, Strauss and even Wagner. Doubtless Stanford had problems with Bridge's middle-period works as well. A fresh impressionistic invention imbues Summer and The Sea. "All rubbish me Bhoy!" as the Irish Stanford might have said.
Although RCM-trained, Bridge became as much of a revolutionary figure as John Foulds. Foulds, too, had popular easy-on-the-ear successes (like the Keltic Suite) although he was unable to rival the commercial success of Bridge's ballads and solo piano pieces. Bridge's early bright-eyed orchestral successes, including The Sea, and Summer, are however, the epitome of the British pastoral school but with a dynamic vibrancy not always associated with that school. His songs such as Love Went a'Riding were popular ballads heard in concert halls and drawing rooms. However, the middle period and later works push at the boundaries and show more sympathy with continental influences, although always with Bridge's individuality clearly stamped. Amongst these works we can number the piano sonata, the third and fourth string quartets, Oration (cello and orchestra), the second piano trio, Rebus, an orchestral overture, and Phantasm for piano and orchestra.
(Frank Bridge had no family connection with Dr Frederick Bridge (1844-1924), English organist and composer of many oratorios, including The Inchcape Rock, Mount Moriah, The Repentance of Nineveh, Boadicea and The Cradle of Christ.)
Frank Bridge was born in Brighton on 26 February 1879 from a working-class family. Unlike Bax and Vaughan Williams he had to earn a living, at least until the 1920s when he met a millionairess benefactor and even then he continued teaching.
His great-grandfather was a cordwainer. His grandfather was a shoe and boot maker. His father was William Henry Bridge (1845-1928) and Frank , the first born of William's third wife, was the 10th of his 12 children. Frank's father was a printer although his passion was for music. In middle age he abandoned lithography and turned to music as a profession, both teaching violin and as music director of the Empire Theatre, Brighton where he conducted the Brighton theatre orchestra and musical entertainment each evening from 8.00 p.m.
Young Frank was immersed in music from his earliest childhood years. His school was at York Place (now Vardean), Brighton. From the age of 12 he took violin lessons at the Brighton School of Music, played violin in the orchestra and from his earliest years began composing. He also tried his hand at other instruments, substituting for missing or indisposed musicians and making arrangements. His deputising also extended to conducting the orchestra whenever his father was unavailable. This apprenticeship served him well in future years, giving him practical insights into the construction and design of orchestral music, and the balance and terracing of orchestral sound.
In 1899 Bridge, aged 17, won a composition scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music where his primary study was the violin. There he met and married a fellow violin student, Ethel Sinclair. While at the College he gained the Sullivan Prize and Gold Medal of the Rajah of Tagore for 'the most generally deserving pupil.' His composition studies were with the ferocious Stanford, whose heart-breaking and oppressive methods were said to have destroyed the confidence and compositional aspirations of many pupils. Bridge, however, seems to have benefited ,or survived, despite Stanford's attentions. He emerged from the Bessemer furnace of Stanford's lessons with outstanding compositional skills which were then turned towards his fervently burning imagination. Of all Stanford's pupils it was Bridge who turned out to be the most radical. However, that radicalism was to emerge in full flower only with the works of the 1920s, after Stanford's death.
SETTING OUT - FIRST SUCCESSES
Leaving the College in 1903, Bridge pursued a career as a jobbing professional violinist, but soon converted to the viola. This was a brave choice given the standing of the viola at that time - only just beginning to enjoy the renaissance brought about by Lionel Tertis. Bridge's reputation was built and when Wirth of the Joachim Quartet fell ill during the quartet's London visit in 1906 Bridge was approached to deputise.
The peak of his early period is the so-called Bologna Quartet - the first string quartet which dates from 1906 and was highly honoured in the Bologna competition. It represents an evolution from the style of the Phantasy String Quartet written for the Cobbett Competition and the two sets of salon pieces, the Novelletten (1904) and Idylls (1906). The writing has a certain density occasionally reminiscent of a mix of the romantic early Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Elgar. At other times (e.g. in the third and fourth movements) there is in spirit a freshness reminiscent of Dvorák and Smetana. Bridge's experience as a string quartet player at the most exalted level is evident.
His existence was a tough one, with long hours of playing all over London coupled with teaching duties. The wonder is that during these years he had time to write so much. He was also violist with the English String Quartet, with whom in 1913 he performed the Ravel Introduction and Allegro with the composer directing the ensemble. In 1914, as the world began to 'turn on its dark side,' Bridge also participated in a performance of one of the Fauré piano quartets, with the composer at the piano. These French references are significant ,and the Gallic influence can be heard in the French-polished brilliance of much of the chamber music, and in the airy textures of The Sea, and even of the later more avant-garde works like Enter Spring.
Like Bax he was a phenomenal score-reader and conducting fell brilliantly under his hand. He conducted Marie Brema's opera seasons in 1910-11 at the Savoy Theatre; he was a conductor for Raymond Roze's 1913 English Opera season at Covent Garden, and, as conductor, recorded his own works: the significantly titled Song of My Heart, and the whole of the suite The Sea.
He was viewed as an utterly reliable conductor and Henry Wood turned often to Bridge as a deputy. Herbert Howells wrote of Bridge as a conductor who: " more than any man in recent musical history, could survive with dignity, and even with profit, the ordeal of conductor-proxy, and leave his compatriots wondering why it was so often necessary for a celebrity's toothache to be the ridiculously inadequate reason for our having the opportunity to hear a naturally endowed native conductor."
On 23 February 1922 Bridge conducted a Royal Philharmonic Society concert consisting of Strauss' Don Juan, Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, The Shropshire Lad by Butterworth, Bach-Elgar Fugue in C minor, and Beethoven's Symphony No 5. On 24 February 1927, he conducted another RPS concert at the Queen's Hall. This included Mozart's overture The Magic Flute, Delius's Violin Concerto, Bax's In the Faery Hills, two movements from Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or and Brahms Symphony No 2. As hinted at by the Howells quote above, Bridge's lack of 'temperament' made him the natural 'twelfth hour' choice for concert promoters let down by celebrity conductors or even by the celebrity's deputy! He was offered engagements so often when someone had fallen ill or had an accident that he became known as the 'ambulance conductor'!
Bridge remained in demand as a conductor after the war. In 1923 he went to the USA to conduct his own works with the orchestras at Rochester, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland and New York. He and his wife became close friends with Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and she was the dedicatee of various works, including the 1932 violin sonata.
Bridge's uncompromising approach to performance and musical standards made him an occasionally uncomfortable associate or conductor. He was direct and blunt, characteristics which did not endear him to some people, while at the same time retaining a sense of humour which nevertheless did little to remedy his evident unpopularity. Strangely his very British name may not have helped. The British public were still very much in thrall to foreign names, and although Beecham and Wood were popular, their standing was always in the shadow of the visiting 'greats' whose names ended in 'ov' or 'ski' or 'ini' or 'ata'.
Bridge's early style "derived loosely from Delius, Debussy and Ravel" (Christopher Palmer). Recalling that Vaughan Williams acquired his 'French polish' from Ravel, with whom he studied during the 1900s (and whose influence can be most easily heard in the song cycle On Wenlock Edge and in the first string quartet), it will not be unusual to feel that Bridge also acquired some of the Gallic accent.
Like most young and struggling composers Bridge wrote for the pocket as well as the heart and mind. There are a considerable numbers of songs and solo piano pieces, many intended as high-quality salon entertainment music, but with little thought to higher things. There were also a number of teaching pieces which spread Bridge's name among the rising generations but left them with little or no idea of his serious achievements and ambitions.
His songs can now be experienced in a fine 2CD Hyperion set and they contain many popular ballads and gems. These include Love Went a'Riding, Come To Me in My Dreams (earlier recorded by Tauber), Daffodils and O That it Were So. The songs are highly skilled, often memorably affecting and colourful, but he does not plumb the depths of word-setting in the same way that Finzi does for Hardy, or Gurney for Housman. Two-thirds of the songs were written before 1907.
The solo piano music is a much more varied picture. The piano sonata is a powerful and stinging work. There are some delightful miniatures but also works such as the Hour Glass Suite are not to be lightly brushed aside. The wonderful performances of Peter Jacobs on Continuum are worth exploring as part of the sifting process.
Amongst the earliest works is his Berçeuse, a song for soprano and orchestra. It was premièred by Heather Harper with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford in the 1980s. For a work dating from 1901 it is surprising gentle in a gossamer Straussian style. The words are slightly twee, with references to sleeping kittens, mice and chirping crickets.
Dance Rhapsody seems to fall within the sequence set by Delius, who wrote two such rhapsodies in 1908 and 1916 respectively. Bridge's Rhapsody dates from the same year as Delius's first rhapsody. Bridge had a life-long association with the 'rhapsody' format which permits a freedom not available in stricter forms such as the sonata and symphony . The rhapsody has some distinctive fingerprints but there is also some Tchaikovsky in this big work. Bridge conducted the first public performance at the Liverpool Festival of the British Music League on 25 August 1908. The musical language used is less distinctive and in some points far less subtle, especially in the overblown bass-drum blows and gong-stroke which ends the first section; Bridge would soon have far more restraint. The second episode is very much out of the Tchaikovsky colouring book, but before long an elegant tune, played by the woodwind, seems to be a blend of one of De Falla's tunes from El Amor Brujo and one of Bliss's cooler moments from Things to Come. There are many delicately orchestrated moments in this attractive score and a French, almost Italianate, sweetness is to be found in the central section. Bridge must also have been listening to the works of Elgar at the time and, in years to come, it would be not be surprising if Samuel Barber had not heard the Bridge work before writing his own grand-manner dance suite, Souvenirs.
Bridge's suite for orchestra, The Sea dates from 1912. Its four movements offer all sorts of marine resonances with other works. The first movement must certainly have influenced Bax in his 1917 tone poem, Tintagel. As for Bridge's inspirations they are many. No-one could escape La Mer, the three symphonic sketches of Debussy, written partly at an Eastbourne hotel in 1904 (Bridge was to die in Eastbourne in 1941). There is also a touch of the sea music from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. He managed to exorcise such turgid and anonymous influences as Rubinstein's Ocean Symphony which had some currency at the time. The titles and atmosphere of the movements pre-figured the titled sections of John B McEwen's Solway Symphony of 1923 and Bantock's 1914 Hebridean Symphony. The work also left its mark, 30 years later, on Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The Bridge suite is a very strong work which deserves its popularity and more. A pity there are not more concert performances.
The Morning Song, Elegie, and Scherzo are all pieces for cello and piano. They have been orchestrated and arranged as an attractive suite by Robert Cornford, and exist on CD as a recording by the cellist Lowri Blake, who also performed them with great distinction with the BBC Concert Orchestra. This is superb salon music with an Elgarian accent and a hint of Pfitzner and Dvorák - accomplished and conservative; strong on charm.
Dance Poem was written between January and July 1913. It is in six segments: The Dancer; Allurement; Abandon; Tenderness; Problem and Disillusion. As in Edvard Munch's painting 'The Dance of Life', the reference to dance may well be code for a sexual episode and it is easy to see how the individual titles could be read in that way. It would also serve very well as music for a ballet. It is a noticeably more complex work than the Dance Rhapsody and The Sea. In Dance Poem Bridge can be heard exploring the territory he was later to map out in the mid to late -1920s, using an attractive pointillistic delicacy as well as some Baxian fantasy. Paul Hindmarsh's sleeve note for the Braithwaite recording mentions La Valse and Jeux as references. The grandiloquent waltz sounds for all the world as if it might have escaped from a film score, but Bridge's music, predating film music, was a pattern for composers like Korngold and Waxman. Dance Poem is a startling departure for a work written by Bridge in 1913 - well worth getting to know.
A Prayer is Bridge's only choral work. It is a setting of words by St Thomas à Kempis. This fifteen-minute setting dates from 1916 and is largely peaceful, contemplative and economic - almost bleak. There is one overwhelmingly emotional outburst from the chorus in the middle of the work..."Grant me thy grace most merciful Jesus." The work's predominantly calm tone is in contrast with the backdrop of conflict on the continent. Bridge's wartime works ,such as Summer, the Two Poems and this work, appear to be escapist. The horrors were too immediate to reflect on and the public were not wanting to view them in the concert hall. While Summer and the Poems are "idyllic and evocative tone-painting rich and sensuous chromaticism." (Paul Hindmarsh), A Prayer is cleanly structured, devotional, grand and burning with a religious conviction which Bridge himself lacked. This is not unusual: Vaughan Williams's renowned agnosticism was no obstacle to his writing music fervently expressing Christian beliefs. Although much earlier, it is reminscent of Bax's St Patrick's Breastplate and To The Name Above Every Name.
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