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ClassicsOnline Home » BRIDGE: Piano Music, Vol. 2
Perhaps no other British composer of the first half of the twentieth century reveals a stylistic journey as varied as that of Frank Bridge, whose magnificent late-romantic orchestral suite The Sea (Naxos 8.557167) is his best known work. His later style of composition, more experimental and demanding, and with no concessions to contemporary popular taste, was strongly influenced by the war of 1914-18. This is exemplified in his masterpiece, the Piano Sonata, completed in 1924, in his Lament for Catherine, for a child lost when the Lusitania was torpedoed and, less directly, in his Three Improvisations for the Left Hand, for the pianist Douglas Fox, who had lost an arm in the war.
By David Denton
Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Piano Music • 2
Frank Bridge studied violin and composition at the Royal College of Music where he was a pupil of Stanford. Apart from composition, his career embraced performance (he was the violist of several quartets, most notably the English String Quartet), conducting (he frequently deputised for Henry Wood), and teaching, Benjamin Britten being his most renowned pupil. No other British composer of the first half of the twentieth century reveals such a stylistic journey in his music. His early works, like the Phantasy Piano Trio (1907), and the orchestral suite The Sea (1910-11), follow in the late-Romantic tradition bearing a kinship with Brahms and Fauré; subsequently, in the orchestral tone poem Summer (1914), Bridge comes close to the orbit of Delius. After the First World War, however, his music became intense and chromatic as in the Piano Sonata (1921-4). The radical language of the Sonata was pursued in his chamber works of the 1920s, so that in the String Quartet No. 3 (1926) Bridge rubs shoulders with the early works of the Second Viennese School. Also to this decade belong two orchestral masterpieces, Enter Spring (1927) and Oration for cello and orchestra (1930). These and later works, for instance, Phantasm for piano and orchestra (1931), and the overture Rebus (1940), languished, finding little favour with public or critics alike, and despite Britten's advocacy, it was over thirty years after his death before Bridge's remarkable legacy began to receive the attention it deserved.
As a pacifist of deep conviction Bridge was scarred by the misery caused by World War I. It is known that he was so distressed by the news from the battlefields that he would wander the streets by himself at night, mulling over the carnage. Furthermore his response to the war also seems to have triggered a stylistic crisis in his music, and a need to develop a more radical harmonic voice to express himself. The first major manifestation of this new style was his most important solo work for piano, the Sonata. A negative consequence of this development though was Bridge's alienation from both audiences and the conservative critics of the day; the critic and writer Frank Howes, for instance, accused him of 'uglifying his music to keep it up to date'. In reality this development of his voice as a composer unleashed music of greater depth and emotional power than he had hitherto achieved.
The Piano Sonata was composed between Easter 1921 and May 1924, and since Harold Samuel, the pianist Bridge initially had in mind to give the première, found it bewildering, its first performance was played by Myra Hess on 15 October 1925 at the Wigmore Hall. Bridge dedicated the sonata to the memory of his composer friend, Ernest Bristow Farrar, who had been killed in action in 1918 aged 33. It was the first of Bridge's works to receive a mauling by the critical fraternity: for instance The Daily Telegraph reviewer felt it was 'inclined to dourness throughout', whilst in The Morning Post it was dismissed as a 'disappointment'.
The characteristics of Bridge's late style are foreshadowed in the sonata. There is dissonance arising from bi-tonal and intensely chromatic harmony; the phrase structure differs from the smoothness of his earlier music, reflecting the more complex harmony, with balanced musical sentences replaced by phrases of varied lengths; lastly there are rapidly alternating changes of mood and intensity. What is also manifest throughout is a technical mastery in his command of the overall formal structure and in his writing for the instrument.
The first movement is cast in sonata form, and like many of Bridge's works it begins with a slow introduction in which the germs of the entire work are introduced, then subsequently developed by an organic process. Here there are two main ideas: the first a brooding processional that grows from a repeated note, with ominous doom-laden chords below; the second a consoling melodic phrase, quintessentially Bridge in character, marked by a grace note. The latter may be thought of as a motto theme since allusions are made to it in all three movements. Harmonically the music is ambiguous in its tonality and frequently bi-tonal which adds to the tension of the fast music that now erupts. As it lurches from one climax to another, amidst the evident anguish and pain, moments of solace and consolation based on the motto theme fleetingly appear, but time and again the battle is rejoined until the processional finally reappears as at the opening, but now with the repeated notes hammered out fortississimo as if in railing despair, before a fast coda halts the movement tersely.
The still slow movement, arch-form in structure, offers a haven of calm amidst the slaughter, an elegy mourning not only the waste of life, but equally the futility of war. Overall the chromaticism is less intense than the outer movements although initially, in the sombre opening paragraph the harmony still inhabits the dark world of the first movement. It gives way to a tender melody of elusive beauty which is heard initially in a sparse single line over soft chords. With a central section the music becomes more elegiac and brings fleeting hints of the motto theme, before the tender theme, now elaborated, returns followed by the opening music, and a peaceful coda alluding again to the main melody now shrouded within chords.
In the finale, after the briefest of introductions, the strife returns with a menacing march of destruction, which vividly evokes archive newsreel images of wave upon wave of soldiers going over the top of the trenches, only to be mercilessly mown down. In between its two main appearances, an expressive theme is developed and the motto theme is heard again, but now a mangled, distorted version of its former self, as the music hurtles to two vehement climaxes. At the end the music returns full circle with the reappearance of the processional amidst swaying chords like tolling bells. The motto makes its final appearance but now drained of all hope and the sonata ends in a mood of utter bleakness.
Lament for Catherine is the first of Bridge's overt references in his music to the tragedy wrought by war. Composed in a day on 14 June 1915, it is a memorial to a child Bridge knew who was drowned when the ' Lusitania ' was torpedoed. Better known in its version for string orchestra, first performed at the Proms that year conducted by Henry Wood, the Lament makes a concise, wholly sincere statement of grief.
The Three Improvisations for the Left Hand also arose as a direct result of the First World War, being composed between May to July 1918 for the pianist Douglas Fox, who had lost his right arm in the conflict. Both At Dawn and A Vigil seem tainted with Bridge's grim mood of the time; the first has a mysterious play of first-light flickering shadows about it, whilst A Vigil is pensive. By contrast A Revel has a puckish quality and is a study in triplets exploiting scales and arpeggios.
The Three Sketches (1906) are superior examples of Edwardian salon character-pieces, couched in the harmonic idiom of Bridge's early music. Their first professional performance was given in November 1910 by Ellen Edwards. April has a freshness suitable to its title and piquant harmonic progressions in the middle section. With its charming melody, the opening of Rosemary has a song-like quality reminiscent of Fauré; it includes a contrasting miniature allegro section. Valse capriceuse is of a romantic cast with a whispering presto conclusion.
The last three pieces included here were unpublished in Bridge's lifetime and date from his student years at the Royal College of Music or just after. The manuscript of the Moderato is dated 5 September 1903, five months after he left the college with a glowing reference from its principal, Hubert Parry. Pensées fugitive s I was composed in the summer of 1902 and was intended to be the first of a series under this title although only this one was completed. As the manuscript is torn, the date of the Scherzettino is unknown, however, its style indicates a work from this period. All are primarily studies of differing pianistic techniques, the most effective being Pensées fugitives I with its oscillating triplets surrounding a melancholy theme.
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BRIDGE: Piano Music, Vol. 2