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Frank Bridge – Phantasie in F minor

Centenary and Confusion


On 22 June 1906 the Saunders String Quartet gave the first performance of Frank Bridge’s Phantasie in F minor for String Quartet in the Bechstein Hall - now the Wigmore Hall. When this event is seen in the light of the Mozart 250 celebrations it is probably rather insignificant. But in reality there is one important fact to bear in mind about this date and, interestingly, there is a web of confusion about the Bridge piece.

The recital given exactly one hundred years ago was the first in a series of concerts resulting from the huge encouragement given to chamber music by Walter Cobbett yet within the commentaries written by the experts there seems to be a lack of consensus as to what was played, when, and what prize was won by whom.

Walter Willson Cobbett (1847-1937) wrote in his Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, "In 1905 I instituted a series of chamber music competitions, mainly designed to bring to light the talents of young British composers and to encourage the occasional adoption of a short form of ensemble music."

This was to lead to a huge number of scores being submitted over the years and followed by a number of commissions. The prizes were largely from Cobbett’s own pocket – but were enthusiastically supported by the Worshipful Company of Musicians. A number of later famous and many now long-forgotten composers made their first impressions in one of these competitions. The better-known include Herbert Howells, Benjamin Britten and Eugene Goossens.

The subject of the first competition in 1905 was the composition of a "Phantasy" for string quartet. The piece was required to be fairly short and typically performed without a break, although the composer was free to design the work with different sections each having various tempos and rhythms. The ‘new’ form that Cobbett proposed was deliberately spelt in an archaic manner and this nodded to the old English ‘Fancy’ or ‘Fancie’ which was a popular instrumental form prior to the Stuart period.

This first competition generated a fair number of entries – there were some 67 manuscript scores submitted. Eight of these were short listed and presented to the senior adjudicator, Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie for final selection. These were further reduced to six – all of which received a first performance by the Saunders String Quartet on 22 June 1906 in the Bechstein Hall. The six winners were William Hurlstone, Haydn Wood, Frank Bridge, Josef Holbrooke, Waldo Warner and James Friskin.

This is where the confusion begins. Paul Hindmarsh in his indispensable ‘Catalogue’ states that the first prize of £80 was awarded to Hurlstone and the second, of £20 to Frank Bridge. He implies that the third prize, £10, went to Holbrooke. Interestingly Cobbett states that the first prize was £50. But more seriously Edwin Evans, writing in the Cyclopedic Survey [p.188] states that Haydn Wood won the second prize – with Bridge coming third. Incidentally the awards were presented by Cobbett, the Worshipful Master and Mr Hermann Sternberg in descending order. The resolution of this disparity will depend on future investigations into Cobbett and his unique contribution to British musical life. However most of the references cited below consider Bridge to have won the second prize.

It is established, I think beyond doubt, that William Hurlstone (1876-1906) took first prize in the first Cobbett competition in 1905. Cobbett himself writes about this work, "… it may be considered a lucky happening that the series of phantasies should be inaugurated with a work so truly representative of genuine chamber music."

The Quartet is designed with four short movements, but the entire work is derived from a few themes that are transformed throughout the piece. Cobbett notes that William Hurlstone was a classicist and states that Brahms is never far away from this piece. Interestingly Cobbett is not impressed with the finale which he suggests is "a little scrappy" although he considers that perhaps Hurlstone did not have "space enough for the leisurely development of material to which he naturally leant". Finally he is in no doubt that "the string quartet writing is perfect throughout".

Of course it is always difficult to discuss works that have not been heard for a number of generations but it appears that the Haydn Wood’s Phantasy String Quartet in F major was well received. Cobbett noted that the work was "so full of charm that one cannot help regretting that the composer turned aside from chamber music and gave his attention to music of a more ephemeral kind."

In 2006 we are able to view Haydn Wood's life and works in context. It is true that he went on to write a number of pot boilers – Roses of Picardy and a piece many people remember as the theme to the BBC programme 'Down your Way' - the March: Horseguards, Whitehall.

Yet we have a number of impressive, challenging and more substantial works from Wood’s pen – such as the Piano Concerto in D minor, the Philharmonic Variations for Cello and Orchestra and the orchestral rhapsody Mannin Veen (Dear Isle of Man). There is a tantalising ‘Variations on an Original Theme’ which appeared in 1903: we must assume that Elgar’s set was the ‘model’. It must not be forgotten that Haydn Wood studied with Stanford at the Royal College of Music. It is, then, perhaps less than fair to suggest that Haydn Wood abandoned ‘concert’ music entirely for so called ‘light’ music.

Stylistically, we are to understand that the Phantasy was not in the ‘academic’ manner and nodded in its style and tone towards Dvořák. It is safe to insist that these characteristics never really deserted Haydn Wood. Fortunately it is possible to get a good impression of Wood’s Phantasy: it was reworked by the composer into his Fantasy-Concerto of 1949. It is certainly a work that seems, on the strength of contemporary reviews and the 1949 redaction to deserve reviving – at least for its premiere recording.

Harry Waldo Warner (1874-1945) is a name little known these days. Yet in the early years of the twentieth century he wrote a number of successful chamber works. Perhaps the most prestigious success came in 1921 with the winning of the Coolidge prize for his Piano Trio. This was for a $1000 – probably about £250.

However the earlier Phantasy Quartet of 1905 work has Brahms in the background. It was apparently in the ‘usual’ Phantasy form with a slow central section. Cobbett reckons that is was still largely a student work but notes that the London String Quartet had it in their repertoire for a number of years. Finally he suggests that is unlikely to be revived.

The other works that are noted in Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music are James Friskin’s (1886-1967) Phantasy String Quartet in D and Josef Holbrooke’s (1878-1958) Phantasy String Quartet in D minor Op.17b.

Friskin’s offering was felt to have had a ‘delicacy of feeling.’ Holbrooke’s work was written in three connected movements that were subtitled Departure, Absence and Return. Cobbett wrote that the "themes are fine, and (unlike some works of the composer) there is no falling off in the last movement." Of course, we are lucky to have a fine recording of the Holbrooke – released on Dutton Epoch CDLX 7124. Rob Barnett has written that this Quartet "…is a smooth and highly polished essay in which Brahmsian treatment and Mozartian abandon meet with material seethingly Elgarian and full of life." Curiously the CD liner notes for this CD seems to disagree with both the chronology of the first Cobbett competition and with the number of entries submitted.

When we come to investigate what recent scholarship has said about Frank Bridge’s Phantasie in F minor for String Quartet we are on very shaky ground indeed.

Firstly, and in chronological order, there is no mention of the present work in Peter J. Pirie’s book ‘Frank Bridge’ (1971). He begins his survey of Bridge’s music with the Phantasie in C minor for violin, cello and piano of 1907.

A perusal of Lewis Foreman’s ‘Catalogue of Works’ published in ‘The Music of Frank Bridge’ (1975) finds references to three ‘Phantasies’ of one sort or another.

The first (chronologically) mentioned is the Phantasie for String Quartet in F sharp minor (6 May 1901 – 21 July 1901). Foreman claims that this work had the parts published in 1906 by the [Worshipful] Company of Musicians. Yet he suggests that the first performance of the work was at the Royal College of Music on 4 December 1901. So this cannot be Frank Bridge’s entry to the first Cobbett competition of 1905.

The second work that Foreman mentions is the Phantasie in C minor (for violin, cello and piano) which was written in 1907 and was finally published by Novello in 1909. This is probably better known as the Piano Trio No.1.

And finally there is the Phantasy in F sharp minor (for piano quartet) which was completed on 2 June 1910. This was published by Goodwin & Tabb in 1911 and republished by Augener in 1920.

So no one of the above works mentioned by Lewis Foreman appears to be our Phantasy in F minor for String Quartet of 1905.

Turning to the contribution by Anthony Payne in the same book, he mentions the profound influence that the Cobbett competition philosophy had on Frank Bridge. On page 10 he points out that three of Bridge’s early chamber works were entered for the competition: the Phantasie String Quartet (1901) the Phantasie Piano Trio (1907) which took first prize –and the Phantasy Piano Quartet (1910). Payne thus preserves Foreman’s chronology.

In Payne’s book ‘Frank Bridge – Radical & Conservative’ (1984) the author gives the same dates for the three Phantasies cited the text in the earlier volume to which he had contributed.

Finally the MusicWeb composer page Frank Bridge perpetuates Foreman’s contention that the key of the first Phantasie was F# minor although it does gives the date as 1905. And what is more this page suggests that Bridge took 1st prize!

If we investigate Paul Hindmarsh’s definitive ‘Thematic Catalogue’ we find the Phantasie in F minor was composed in 1905. In fact Hindmarsh has examined the holograph and states that the score was ‘probably’ completed between July and September of 1905 – just before work commenced on the First Book of Organ Pieces. He allocates the Phantasy with the catalogue number of H55.

A brief look at Bridge’s compositions for the year 1901 reveal only two chamber works – a Scherzo Phantastick for two violins, viola and cello (H6) and a Quintet in E minor for strings (H7). There appears to have been no phantasy string quartets produced in that year.

It is, I feel, highly unlikely that Foreman was confusing the Phantasie in F minor with the Scherzo Phantastick or any other work. I fear that it may have been a misprint that became canonical for a number of years. The confusion over the key of the work appears to derive from the fact the Bridge did compose a Phantasy in F sharp minor – but not until 1910 – and that work was in fact a piano quartet.

Finally Keith Anderson in the sleeve-notes for the Naxos recording of the Phantasie in F minor quotes both the correct key and the correct date (to Hindmarsh’s reckoning). This is followed in the latest edition of Grove.

So for future reference it is important to tabulate the results of this brief investigation. I will follow Hindmarsh.

Phantasie in F minor for String Quartet H55 1905

Phantasie in C minor for violin, cello & piano [Piano Trio No.1] H79 1907

Phantasy in F sharp minor for piano quartet H94 1910

A few notes on Frank Bridge’s Phantasie in F minor for String Quartet H55 will be of interest to listeners. Payne observes that Bridge exploits the ‘arch-shaped structure.’ He goes on to say that the quartet is ‘little more than a short traditional structure in which the three movements are connected by rudimentary links.’ In fact, the recording by the Maggini String Quartet has very short but quite obvious breaks between the movements.

The work opens with the strongest movement - an ‘Allegro Moderato’ which is based on an arch shaped sonata form. The key to this is that the second subject or theme is recapitulated before the restatement of the first subject.

This first subject is a stirring tune that is initially given out in unison before being heard supported by detached chords. Then the most attractive theme of the work is presented. Evans, quoting Cobbett, describes this tune as being "a delicious sort of crooning, accompanied by simple arpeggios on the cello." There is no doubt that this idea is the emotional heart of the work. After a little bit of interesting and quite involved development the second subject returns followed by the opening music. The ‘Allegro Moderato’ ends with a short coda. This is an extremely logical and satisfying and quite lovely movement.

The ‘Andante Moderato’ is in ternary form and is really a meditation on the gorgeous violin melody that dominates this movement. This tune has touches of Dvorak whilst the accompaniment nods to Delius without any suggestion of pastiche. The first and second violins explore the depth of this music in a contrapuntal duet that is expressive and quite romantic. After some interesting key changes the theme is played ‘con sordino.’ The movement ends with a partial restatement of the main theme.

Edwin Evans did not feel that the finale reached the same standard as the two proceeding movements, although he conceded that the work ‘finished brilliantly.’

The ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ is in ‘short’ or abridged sonata form. The opening theme is strong but somehow manages to have an air of wistfulness at the same time. This is perhaps out of character with many ‘final’ movements. Yet it can be said that at times this tune fairly trips along. Soon it slips into the lovely second subject given out by the violin. There is short development section before the work ends with the main theme. There appears to be certain cross-references back to the first movement here, but whether they are structural or not is a matter of opinion. The work ends strongly.

The Phantasie in F minor for String Quartet may not be a work of genius: it may not present the listener with fingerprints of Frank Bridge’s future style. Yet as a short chamber work that is approachable, well crafted and thoroughly enjoyable it deserves better exposure than it has had heretofore.

Finally, I wonder if an enterprising CD company would consider embarking on a series of ‘Cobbett’ discs – concentrating on the winners but not forgetting some of those composers that were ‘placed’ and maybe even one or two also-rans. It seems to me that there is a great wealth of music here waiting to be explored in depth.


Frank Bridge - Works for String quartet including Phantasie Quartet in F minor H55

Naxos 8.553718 Maggini Quartet 1995.

Joseph Holbrooke – Chamber works including the (Ph)[F]antasie in D minor Op.17b

Dutton Epoch CDLX 7124 The Rasumovsky Quartet 2002 review

Haydn Wood- English String Miniatures including the Fantasy-Concerto

Naxos 8.555068 English Northern Philharmonia conducted by David Lloyd-Jones review

Short Bibliography

Cobbett's Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music Volumes 1 & 2 W.W Cobbett OUP London 1929/ 1963

Frank Bridge Peter J Pirie Triad Press London 1971

The Music of Frank Bridge – Anthony Payne, Lewis Foreman and John Bishop Thames Publishing London 1976

Frank Bridge Radical & Conservative – Anthony Payne Thames Publishing London 1984

Frank Bridge – A Thematic Catalogue – Paul Hindmarsh Faber & Faber London 1983

MusicWeb Frank Bridge pages



John France June 2006


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