Music: A Bridge Too Far?

There are certain “one-work” composers whose renown, however unfairly, seldom extends beyond a single composition. Take English composer Gustav Hoist, who lived to rue the popularity of The Planets, which eclipsed his many jewel-like compositions. His countryman and exact contemporary Frank Bridge (1879-1941) seems to have suffered a similar fate, though in his case as a “three-work” composer. In the mid-1970s, the EMI label issued a stunning recording of Bridge’s The Sea, Summer, and Enter Spring, gorgeous tone poems of the first rank, beautifully performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, under Sir Charles Groves. This recording, now available on a mid-price CD, is a classic. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, under James Judd, offers a new, energetic performance of these three on the budget Naxos label. Beyond these popular works, little was known except that Bridge was Benjamin Britten’s teacher. Britten memorialized Bridge by subtitling his popular Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra as Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge.

Thanks to the Chandos label, this is about to change. Chandos has already issued five CDs in its complete traversal of Bridge’s orchestral music, each one containing a recording premiere and featuring the superb BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under Richard Hickox. So far, a fascinating picture is emerging of a composer who sometimes left his audience somewhat confused over what to expect from him. Was Bridge a British pastoralist, a romantic, a salon composer, or a modernist? A partial “yes” to each of these seemingly mutually incompatible designations may provide a clue as to why Bridge’s work was neglected for so long. No one thing seems to have been consistently true of him except for the high level of his craft.

The heart of the consternation over Bridge is that, after the First World War, he jumped ship and, in the words of the Musical Times in 1930, “made common cause with the advocates of modernity and put technical interest before aesthetic pleasure.” In other words, he succumbed to Arnold Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School of organized atonality. Anyone wishing to illustrate this thesis might turn to the Naxos CD containing Bridge’s First and Third Quartets, compellingly played by the Maggini Quartet. The 20 years separating these two works contain a rude journey from the world of Schubert and Dvorak to that of Alban Berg and Béla Bartók. However, this puts the matter much too simply. The Chandos CDs and other releases show a far more complicated picture of a composer who may have varied his style but who never lost his essentially rhapsodic and somewhat melancholic nature. And despite the scenario of his “progressive” evolution proffered by many critics, Bridge proved perfectly capable of returning to his earlier tonal style when it suited his purposes. Listen, for example, to the sweetly simple The Christmas Rose from 1929 or to his last work, Rebus. Bridge was not doctrinaire, nor was he driven by Schoenberg’s revolutionary ideology. Only in England, which was largely immune from the dodecaphonic plague, could he have been considered a revolutionary.

In Bridge’s musical pedigree may lay the seeds of some of the confusion. His principal teacher at the Royal College of Music, Charles Stanford, was in thrall to Brahms. From Stanford, Bridge learned a German craft and discipline that would stand him in good stead in terms of the formal construction of his many rhapsodies and fantasies. Bridge’s early music seems more continental European than English. In harmonic warmth and melodiousness, Dvorak comes to mind, as does even Tchaikovsky in Mid of the Night. The sumptuous, absolutely gorgeous String Sextet in E-flat (1912) could easily pass as a work from the twilight of the First Viennese School along with Zemlinksy, early Schoenberg, and Schmidt, though without the hint of decay from over-ripeness that is in their music. The Hyperion label, featuring the Raphael Ensemble, offers a new, indispensable recording of this work that also displays Bridge’s considerable melodic gift. It is especially effective in capturing the Schubertian poignancy of the second movement. Do not miss it.

Bridge may have had a formal grounding in German structure, but his sensibilities were French. The influence of Impressionism from Debussy and Ravel is highly audible in the great sense of refinement in even Bridge’s most vigorous works and very direct in pieces like the Two Intermezzi from “Threads” and the delightful Vignettes de danse, composed as late as 1938. Coincidentally, Bridge wrote The Sea, described by Britten as “a riot of melodic and harmonic richness,” at the same hotel in Eastbourne in which Debussy put the finishing touches on La Mer.

Despite French and German influences, Bridge was not immune to his native soil and first flourished during the bucolic period in British music at the beginning of the 20th century. Derisively called “the cowpat” school by English composer Constant Lambert, this vein of light romantic music steeped in pastoral reverie was once described to American composer Aaron Copland as like “looking at a cow over a fence.” “Yes,” responded Copland, “and the cow is looking back.” Bridge may have participated in the pastoral school, but he did so with a vigor that belied any bovine disposition. His magnificent evocations of nature have an elemental aspect to them, most especially in The Sea and Enter Spring, that is overwhelmingly powerful. These tone poems easily sweep away any contemporaneous British works of the same sort. If Delius’s music seems too flimsy or diaphanous and Box’s too glutinous, Bridge’s works have just the right measure. Nothing quite like them was heard until Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, which, in its turn, was clearly inspired by Bridge.

Nonetheless, one wonders about Bridge’s partial conversion to atonality after the First World War, especially in the later chamber pieces, Oration (1930), a cello concerto; and Phantasm (1931), a piano concerto—though these are not as forbidding as the description may make them sound. Many critics have used the war, in which Bridge lost close friends, and Bridge’s pacifism to explain his conversion. However, one writer intriguingly suggests that it was not so much the war as Bridge’s dawning realization that his marriage was infertile that drove him into a more hermetic means of expression. I have always wondered what impelled composers in this direction. One inadequate explanation is the search for new resources. This new language seems to me, however, both to express a deep hurt, whatever its source, and to hide it, as if less is expected of reality now. It is as if there is a wound that one can no longer afford to show openly. This kind of music, sometimes despite itself, seems ineluctably to express disillusionment and anger. Hear the pained, halting expression in the third movement of the Piano Trio No. 2 for evidence that Bridge knew the expressive content of this sad language and how to employ it effectively.

Every time I think I have Bridge properly categorized, he slips away. Bridge proves elusive because he was an ambidextrous composer. Not only could he switch between distinct styles, he could also almost simultaneously deal with quite contradictory content. Right in the middle of the swaggering exuberance of Enter Spring, Bridge broke off to compose the touching lament for Ophelia, There is a Willow Aslant a Brook (1927)—two pieces at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Bridge did too many different things well. That makes him confusing but also uniquely rewarding, as the Chandos CDs reveal.

Beginners should start with either of the inexpensive renditions of the big trio of tone poems on EMI (still my first choice) or Naxos. If they strike your fancy, explore further into the varied world of this intriguing man with the Chandos series, which contains such major additions as the Dance Rhapsody, and with the various chamber work releases.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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