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8.557842 - BRIDGE: Piano Music, Vol. 1
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Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Piano Music, Vol. 1

 

Frank Bridge studied 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 of several quartets, most notably the English String Quartet), conducting (he frequently deputised for Sir 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 First String Quartet (1906), 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 Scriabinesque Piano Sonata (1921-4). The radical language of the sonata was pursued in his chamber works of the 1920s, so that in the Third String Quartet (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 either with public or critics, and despite Britten's advocacy, it was not until the 1970s that Bridge's remarkable legacy began to receive the attention it deserved.

Bridge was also a fine pianist, and his contribution to solo works for the instrument date primarily from the first two decades of his career from 1900 onwards. Up to the First World War much of it was composed in response to the demand for salon music, which was played by the many skilled amateur musicians of that time, as well as for professional pianists to include in recitals. The evocative titles chosen for pieces were often at the behest of publishers as a sales ploy. Overall Bridge's pieces are marked by his superb craftsmanship and apart from Fauré, Ravel and Debussy influence them too. Occasionally they are related to larger works that were occupying the composer at the same time. During the war years Bridge mainly composed smaller works, particularly for piano, as well as songs, and this seems to be due, in part, to the anguish he felt at the death and destruction wrought by the conflict. (It is known that he was so distressed by the war that he would wander the streets by himself at night, mulling over the horrors.) It was as if he could not muster the necessary concentration to work on extended pieces, as witnessed by the four-year gestation period of the Cello Sonata (1913-17). In addition 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 (1921-4).

The suite, A Fairy Tale (1917), gives no hint of the angst that Bridge was feeling about the war. Indeed perhaps these 'once upon a time' evocations of the stock components of any fairy-tale were for him a means of escape from the times. The music for The Princess is pert, carefree and graceful, in contrast to the menacing, ungainly portrait of The Ogre. The Spell is music of dreamy enchantment with its cascading figure like the waving of a wand. Finally, the debonair, heroic music of The Prince suggests that the spell has been broken and that everyone lives happily ever after.

The trio of pieces that comprise The Hour Glass (1919-20) form a particularly effective sequence built around images of transience. Bridge's music, especially from the 1920s onwards, inhabits, at times, a nocturnal world, one of shadows and half-lights as in Dusk. Here fleeting wisps of melody and a melancholy phrase that turns in on itself evoke a twilight pall. The shimmering flight of The Dew Fairy provides translucent contrast, before darkness returns in the rolling waters of The Midnight Tide that brings to mind Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie. It ebbs and flows from sombre chords that build to a dramatic climax as the pianist tumbles down the piano in octaves like foam breaking over a wave. Over a hushed pedal-point the chords swell again to a further swirling outburst, before subsiding to a brooding conclusion.

Miniature Pastorals (1917) was the first of three sets under the same title conceived as pieces for children which in their original edition were accompanied by line drawings by Margaret Kemp-Welch. In character they are in the tradition of Schumann's Kinderszenen and are cast in the manner of Bridge's salon music. The first dwells on a delicate rhythmic figure with a repeated note, which for Kemp-Welch suggested a girl dancing to a pipe played by a boy in a tree. Her drawing for the second movement, a wistful waltz, suggests that the boy and girl have quarrelled, whilst in the last, reconciled, they stare up spellbound at some unseen wondrous sight in the branches of a tree to music imbued with innocent charm.

The first two pieces of the Three Lyrics were composed in 1921 and 1922 respectively and were published as Two Lyrics, with The Hedgerow added in June 1924, three months after the completion of the ground-breaking Piano Sonata. Heart's Ease harks back to Bridge's early salon music and is formed around a descending bell-like tinkling phrase in the treble and the simple, but warm and reassuring, melodic fragment that follows. Towards the end there are some luscious harmonic twists before the tintinnabulations are recalled to round off the piece. Dainty Rogue is an ebullient, humorous scherzo marked by rapid changes in metre and bravura writing for the instrument. The Hedgerow is elusive in character with its rapidly changing musical images and moods. It is far more chromatic in its harmony than either of the preceding pieces and reflects the stylistic developments Bridge achieved in the sonata.

The Three Pieces (1912) are the earliest works included here. Of them Columbine and Minuet are in the style of Bridge's early music. The former, a waltz, has the elegance of Edwardian salon music with just a hint of sentimentality, although at its climax it seems made of sterner stuff, while the Minuet was originally composed in 1901, and was substantially revised in 1912. Romance is predominantly tender in mood, culminating in two impassioned climaxes.

Composed in 1924 during the months immediately after the completion of the Piano Sonata, the two pieces comprising In Autumn are major achievements amongst Bridge's piano music. They clearly are written in the wake of the harmonic world Bridge had established for himself in the sonata: the mood of Retrospect is inward-looking, with bleak, lean textures and an extended sombre chromatic melody which gradually rises inexorably to two dissonant climaxes. In a letter to his patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Bridge commented that he was particularly pleased with the piece. Its faster companion, Through the Eaves, is a fleeting vision shot through with rustlings and furtive movements.

At the turn of the years 1913-14, Bridge conceived the idea of writing a four-movement suite under the title of Four Characteristic Pieces. He later changed his mind, submitting just the first three pieces for publication with the title Three Poems (the fourth movement was published two years later as Arabesque). Two of the pieces indicate connections with contemporaneous orchestral works, thus Solitude is related to the chromatic harmony of the Dance Poem (1913), whereas the wistful Sunset shares a relationship with the first of the Two Poems of Richard Jeffries (1915). The extended middle movement, Ecstasy, provides a vibrant and passionate contrast to the pensive moods of the outer pieces.

Andrew Burn


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