Frank Bridge was one of the best equipped musicians in 20th-century Britain: a professional violinist and violist; a skilled conductor; and a composer who combined the thorough training of Stanford with a profound understanding of developments abroad. Bridge’s pupil Benjamin Britten recalled his ‘loathing of all sloppiness and amateurishness’ and his prime concern as a teacher ‘that you should try to find yourself and be true to what you found’.
For Bridge himself, this was a long-drawn-out process. At the start of his composing career his musical language was essentially conservative, indebted chiefly to Brahms and Fauré. Many of his best-known songs and piano miniatures date from this period. There are also some fine pieces of chamber music – several of them in the continuous multi-sectional ‘phantasy’ forms – and orchestral works of great accomplishment, notably the suite The Sea (1910–11).
These early achievements were followed by a transitional phase, in which his musical language became more chromatic, while still not going beyond the bounds of late Romanticism. The key works of this period are the symphonic poem Summer (1914), the second of his four string quartets, and the superb Cello Sonata (1913–17). Bridge’s only stage work, the one-act opera The Christmas Rose (1919–29), was also begun at this time, though only completed some years later.
In the 1920s Bridge’s musical language became considerably more radical, as a result both of his reaction as a pacifist to the First World War and of his openness to European developments – in particular those of the later Debussy, Bartók, Schoenberg and Berg. A Piano Sonata (1921–4) signalled the change; other works to exemplify it include the Third Quartet (1926) and Second Piano Trio (1929), and for orchestra the teeming rhapsody Enter Spring (1927) and the Shakespearian threnody There is a willow grows aslant a brook (1928).Sadly, ill health and a lack of public appreciation inhibited his subsequent output, but during the 1930s he did complete the noble cello concerto Oration (1930), Phantasm for piano and orchestra (1931), the Violin Sonata (1932), the Fourth Quartet (1937) and the Overture Rebus (1940).
After Bridge’s death in 1941 most of his major works languished unperformed for many years. But his name was kept alive by Britten, whom he had taught as a boy and who remained devoted to his memory. The foundation of the Frank Bridge Trust, the publication of short books by Peter J. Pirie in 1971 and Anthony Payne in 1984 and of an authoritative catalogue, a number of broadcasts and recordings, and the appearance in print of some previously inaccessible scores have all contributed to a revival of interest in his music.
Profile © Anthony Burton