Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Frank Bridge (1879-1941)

 

 [Bullet6] An Irish Melody "The Londonderry Air" for String Quartet (1908)

  [Bullet6] Two Old English Songs for String Quartet (1916)

[Bullet6] Quartet No. 2 in G Minor for Strings (1915)

 


Frank Bridge (1879-1941)

Quartet No. 2 in G Minor for Strings (1915)

bridge.jpg (5508 bytes)The name Frank Bridge is probably best known to music lovers as being part of the title of a work by one of Britain’s most illustrious composers, Sir Benjamin Britten. The work Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for String Orchestra Op 10 (1938) gained Britten an international reputation which he continues to hold, while Bridge remains, despite recent efforts by contemporary British performers, one of Britain’s best kept musical secrets - the least known composer of the generation that included Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bax and Ireland. As a boy of 10, Britten heard Bridge conduct a performance of his orchestral suite The Sea and was "knocked sideways" by what he heard. Four years later, he embarked on a course of intensive study with Bridge, who would have a profound influence on his musical development.

Bridge was a professional in the best sense of the word. He was violinist and later violist with the English String Quartet. He also enjoyed a reputation as a fine and reliable conductor. His early compositions were very well received. His work was accessible, folkloric in style and always well crafted. However, unlike many of his fellow British composers, Bridge was receptive to "breathing the air of other planets" and following the first World War (Bridge was a pacifist, as was his pupil Britten), his music left the English countryside and ascended through the stratosphere, leaving the earth’s gravity to explore those regions of space pioneered by Scriabin, Schoenberg and Berg. This did not go over well with the folks at home and as Bridge remained true to his vision, he lost support for, and performances of, his music in England. While the musical avant-garde was embraced in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and even Moscow, England remained a bastion of conservatism. It is only in recent years that recordings of Bridge’s music are appearing, mostly, his earlier work. Much of his later work still awaits recorded performances.

The Second String Quartet is considered his first mature chamber music masterpiece and one of his finest achievements. It is a very melodic work, highly chromatic, with a passionate, erotic intensity found in few British composers of the time but reminiscent of the early music of Alban Berg. Bridge, himself a professional violist and quartet member had consummate skill in writing for that medium. The work was awarded the Cobbett Prize in 1915. The namesake of this prize for chamber music was a businessman and amateur violinist, Walter Willson Cobbett (1847-1937), who had a special love of the Elizabethan "Phantasy" form. Bridge won four Cobbett Prizes for the Phantasie String Quartet (1910), the Phantasie Piano Trio (1908), the Phantasie Piano Quartet (1910), as well as the Second String Quartet (1915) which was not especially written for the occasion but was nearing completion when the competition was announced.

Given the substantial amount of chamber music composed by Bridge it is hoped that we can present more of his works on future programs.

1993-94 Season, Program II, Sunday December 12, 1993

Back to the top of this page

Back to "Program Notes by Joseph Way"

Back to Richard's Home Page


Frank Bridge (1879-1941)

An Irish Melody "The Londonderry Air" for String Quartet (1908)

Two Old English Songs for String Quartet (1916)

The name Frank Bridge is probably best known to music lovers as being part of the title of a work by one of Britain’s most illustrious composers, Sir Benjamin Britten. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for String Orchestra Op. 10 (1938) gained Britten an international reputation, which he continues to hold. Bridge remains, despite recent efforts by contemporary British performers, one of Britain’s best kept musical secrets: the least known composer of the generation that included Vaughn Williams, Holst, Bax, and Ireland. As a boy of 10, Britten heard Bridge conduct a performance of his orchestral suite The Sea and was, in his words, "knocked sideways" by what he heard. Four years later, he embarked on a course of intensive study with Bridge, who would have a profound influence on his musical development. However, enough about the student, and on to the teacher!

Bridge was a professional in the best sense of the word. He was violinist and later violist with the English String Quartet. He also enjoyed a reputation as a fine and reliable conductor. In the field of composition, his early compositions were very well received. These works were accessible, folkloric in style and always well crafted. However, unlike many of his fellow British composers, Bridge was receptive to "breathing the air of other planets", and following the First World War (Bridge was a pacifist, as was Britten) his music left the English countryside and ascended through the stratosphere, leaving the earth’s gravity to explore those regions of space pioneered by Scriabin, Schoenberg and Berg. (He had hoped to study with Alban Berg, but this never came to pass). This did not go over well with the folks at home. As Bridge remained true to his vision, he lost support for, and performances of, his music in England. While the musical avant-garde was embraced in Paris, Vienna, Berlin and even Moscow, England remained a bastion of conservatism. The notable exception to Bridge’s abandonment was the continued support and patronage of an American: Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, 20th Century Chamber Music’s Saint Cecilia. Though mostly his earlier works, it is only in recent years that recordings of Bridge’s music have appeared . Much of his later compositions still await recorded performances.

"As a composer, it is chiefly in the field of chamber music that Frank Bridge made his reputation...Bridge remained faithful to the logic of the exceptionally fine technique he acquired early in his career, and did not find his orthodoxy an impediment to originality of thought. He also had a more scrupulous regard than most of his contemporaries for the performers who, especially in chamber music, invariably enjoy playing his works. These characteristic qualities, which doubtless derive to some extent from Bridge’s own experience as an executant, are the basis of a style that nevertheless has much freedom combined with its classic breadth and formal coherence." Edwin Evans, in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians

The works by Bridge presented on today’s program (originally scheduled for the Sierra Chamber Society’s 1993-94 Season) are actually arrangements - and highly original at that - of a folksong, and two songs by other composers. The folksong is an Irish one; known variously as Would God I Were the Tender Apple Blossom, Farewell to Cucullain, Danny Boy or most commonly the Londonderry Air (or, as certain wags would have it the "London Dairy Air" or the "London Derriere"). An Irish Melody is the title of Bridge’s wonderfully inventive treatment of this familiar tune. He fragments the melody (notice that even the three repeated chromatic chords with which the piece opens, contain the first three notes of the song), then plays with these facets, developing them, but not revealing the entire melody until the end of the piece. This work dates from 1908 and, with the addition of a part for double bass, can also be performed by a string orchestra.

Two Old English Songs, dated May 9, 1916, are Bridge’s arrangements of old but perennially popular songs by English composers. Sally in our Alley was written by the composer and playwright Henry Carey (1687-1743). Again, I’ll defer to Groves. "In 1724 a volume of cantatas and songs, words and music by Carey, was "printed for the author" on subscription, "to please my friends, to mortify my enemies, to get money and reputation", and an enlarged edition, now proudly called "The Works of Mr. Henry Carey", came out in 1726. Among the additions appears the song which has kept its name alive, the famous "Sally in our Alley" ("the words and tune by Mr. Carey"), at least as the author of the words; his melody, which was very popular for fifty years or so, was then superceded by the one sung today (which, even though still attributed to him, is of earlier origin)."

In his treatment of the song, Bridge presents the tune at the outset, allowing the harmonies to grow richer and more complex as the piece progresses. The second of the two old songs, Cherry Ripe is by singer and composer Charles Edward Horn (1786 - 1849). Horn’s works are mostly for the stage, though he also composed oratorios, a Christmas cantata, and songs. He pursued his musical career in London as well as New York and Boston. In Bridge’s ebullient arrangement, the melody is somewhat fragmented, and interwoven with effervescent chromatic figurations, emerging and sung out by the cello about midway through the piece. This piece is dated May 30,1916. Like the Londonderry Air, the Two Old English Songs can be performed by string orchestra.

1997-98 Season, Program V, Sunday June 7, 1998

Back to the top of this page

Back to "Program Notes by Joseph Way"

Back to Richard's Home Page


All original text on this page copyright 1997 by Joseph Way