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ClassicsOnline Home » BRIDGE, F.: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2 / Miniatures for piano trio (Liebeck, Chaushian, Wass)
Frank Bridge’s reputation as the teacher of his most famous student, Benjamin Britten, has long hindered appreciation of his own impeccably crafted music. Between the early Phantasie Trio (1907) and Miniatures (1908) and the masterful Piano Trio No. 2 (1928–29), Bridge developed from being a pupil of Stanford to becoming a composer whose music—by turns graceful, nocturnal and vigorous—pointed towards the future.
By Em Marshall
Albion Magazine Online
By Paul Ingram
By Perry Tannenbaum
American Record Guide
Frank Bridge (1879–1941)
Phantasie Trio • Piano Trio No. 2 • Miniatures
Frank Bridge studied the violin and composition at the Royal College of Music, where he was a pupil of Stanford from 1899 to 1903. Apart from composition, his career embraced performance (he was the violist in several quartets, most notably the English String Quartet), conducting (he frequently deputised for Sir Henry Wood), and teaching (Britten being his best-known pupil). No other British composer of the first half of the twentieth century reveals such a stylistic journey in his music. His early works, such as the Phantasie Trio (1907) and the orchestral suite The Sea (1910–11), follow in the late-Romantic tradition bearing a kinship with Fauré; subsequently, in the orchestral tone poem Summer (1914–5), for instance, Bridge comes close to the orbit of Delius. After the First World War, however, his music became intense and chromatic as in the Scriabinesque Piano Sonata (1921–24). The radical language of the sonata was pursued in his chamber works of the 1920s, so that by the String Quartet No. 3 (1926) Bridge rubs shoulders with the early works of the Second Viennese School. Also to this period belong two orchestral masterpieces, Enter Spring (1927) and Oration (1930). Finding little favour with public or critics his late work, for example, the Piano Trio No. 2 (1928–29) and the Fourth String 0uartet (1937), languished, and despite Britten’s advocacy it was not until the 1970s that Bridge’s remarkable legacy began to receive the attention it deserved.
At the outset of his career Bridge established his name through a series of chamber works in which he demonstrated impeccable craftsmanship. An important influence on the form of these works was the prize instituted by Walter Wilson Cobbett, an amateur musician whose interests were chamber music and the period of the Elizabethan and Jacobean composers. In particular Cobbett was interested in the instrumental ‘fantasy’ or ‘phantasy’ form of that time in which several unrelated, but varied, sections formed the basis for an extended work. In 1905 he established a prize for chamber compositions in one movement and Bridge submitted several works for Cobbett’s competitions, winning first prize in 1907 and 1915 for his Phantasie Trio and Second String Quartet respectively. What was significant though is that Bridge adapted aspects of the phantasy form in a number of subsequent compositions, so that thematic unity within a work of one or several movements became a hallmark of his compositions.
Cobbett’s second competition was announced in June 1907 specifying the composition of a ‘short Phantasy in the form of a Piano Trio’. Bridge probably wrote his Phantasie Trio in C minor in the same year and was awarded the first prize of £50 and a première performance, which took place on 27 April 1909 with the London Piano Trio.
Formed of a single arched span, the Phantasie embraces sonata exposition and recapitulation, interspersed with a slow movement that incorporates a scherzo. It opens with a short dramatic introduction containing the thematic seeds of the work; for instance, the melancholy melody that follows, alternating between violin and cello and accompanied by a brooding piano ostinato figure, is derived from it. This forms the first theme of the sonata-allegro section and is expanded to create a broad paragraph, reaching a climax when the introductory fragment returns on piano, and the strings follow with an impassioned unison variation of the ‘melancholy’ theme.
A brief transition leads to the contrasting theme of the sonata section introduced by the piano, which is warm and romantic in character. Violin and cello join, echoing each other in ardent imitation and driving the music to a climax, before a slower transition passage, with flecks of thematic material, leads to the slow movement and a broader tempo. The cello takes the limelight here with an expressive, relaxed melody. The mood is interrupted by a playful fragment on piano echoed by pizzicato strings initiating an elfin scherzo section. After reaching its climax, it evaporates into nothing, like a will-o’-the-wisp. The piano takes up the strands of the slow movement again, its melody now developed to the climax it was denied before. With the return of the introduction and the sonata-section melody, the music comes full circle until the second subject becomes an animated coda that rounds off the Phantasie joyously.
The three sets of Miniatures for piano trio were probably composed the year after the Phantasie Trio in 1908. They were written for Bridge’s violin pupil Betty Hanbury and her cellist sister, Rachael, and later their other sister Patricia played the piano part. Published in 1915, they are examples of Bridge’s skill at writing works for the specific skills of young musicians which test their techniques through immediately engaging short pieces.
The Piano Trio No. 2 composed between 1928 and 1929 ranks among Bridge’s greatest achievements and was dedicated to the American patroness of music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who supported Bridge financially from the mid-1920s onwards, and to whom the work is dedicated. The première on 4 November 1929 was given by three of the foremost performers of the day, the violinist Antonio Brosa, cellist Anthony Pini and pianist Harriet Cohen. By and large the critics were hostile to the work which both wounded and depressed Bridge. For instance, the reviewer of The Musical Times wrote after the second London performance: ‘It seems evident that he [Bridge] has made common cause with the advocates of modernity and put technical interest before aesthetic pleasure.’
The Trio is cast as a pair of interlocked movements; the first two concentrate on the linear development of the thematic material, the third on its harmonic expansion, whilst the finale binds together what has gone before. The melodic lines all spring from combinations of related major and minor thirds, which when combined vertically as harmony result in bi-tonal chords (i.e. chords made up of two keys). Bridge’s later music often seems to inhabit a haunted world of shadows and half-light as heard in the first movement of the Trio. Within just a few bars too, it is apparent how far Bridge’s compositional language developed when compared to the Phantasie Trio. The musical argument develops from ideas in the opening bars, a filigree arpeggiated piano chord and the sinewy, chromatic lines of the string instruments. A second principal theme (marked ‘graceful and peaceful’ and derived from the all pervasive thirds) is introduced by the piano. The opening music returns, building now to a passionate climax, followed by a short burst of fast music, which shatters to leave a bleak, hollow end to the movement. The linked scherzo carries forward the twilight mood but in music that is now fast and spiky, featuring ostinati patterned anew from major and minor thirds. Pizzicato strings and staccato piano writing dominate a landscape that rarely rises above pianissimo. Offsetting this, the piano has a short lyrical theme over triplets, and at times both violin and cello take wing for individual solos. In the middle of the movement the strings join together for a soaring expressive flight of fancy but always accompanied by the scurrying fragmented figures. In the nocturnal and mysterious slow movement an obsessive piano ostinato creates a pulsing rhythm giving it the character of a relentless processional. Over this eerie tramp, made all the more sinister by the strings’ rustling tremolos, an elegiac threnody emerges accompanied by ever richer bi-tonal chords. With the energy of the finale comes a release from the tension engendered by the previous movements. In form it is a sonata-allegro beginning with a bounding triplet figure for the strings. A vigorous march-like theme emerges, as does a heroic second main theme introduced by the piano and taken up by the strings. Reflecting the phantasy principle, the threads of the overall work are brought together as the opening of the first movement returns and, following the movement’s culminating climax, the second theme as well. In the final pages though, its momentum spent, the music alludes to the slow movement and achieves a mood of tranquillity at the conclusion of an epic musical journey.
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