Britten immortalised his teacher Frank Bridge in a set of variations but isn’t it time we recognised Bridge for the innovative composer he really was?
Over 50 years after his death, Frank Bridge is still primarily remembered as the composer of some delightful songs and as the teacher of Benjamin Britten. Britten himself would have been dismayed at this: as a young man he counted Bridge alongside Stravinsky and Schoenberg as one of the few ‘real composers’ then living. Later he programmed Bridge’s works alongside his own at the Aldeburgh Festival in an attempt to make them better known. But Bridge remains on the fringe of the repertory (or beyond it) despite his pupil’s advocacy.
Or because of it, perhaps? The greatest teachers aren’t necessarily the greatest composers, and we can read Beethoven’s affectionate message to his teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe (‘If I ever become a great man, you will share part of my success’), or Verdi’s warm memory of his, Vincenzo Lavigna (‘I wish all teachers were like him’) without feeling any need to hear their music (though Neefe, as it happens, wrote some good songs). Surely Britten’s affection, like theirs, was due to gratitude and fond piety, not to any realistic assessment of Frank Bridge’s talent?
We might have a second thought about Frank Bridge if we recall that Britten was his only pupil. Bridge never held a teaching post: apart from his work as a composer he was far too busy as a conductor and a string player (he was a fine violist). But on seeing the manuscripts of this unknown 13-year-old he immediately offered to give him lessons: he was obviously a remarkably shrewd musician to perceive talent in a schoolboy who had so far had no training as a composer at all. To a friend asking whether England would ever produce a composer of Ravel’s stature he replied ‘You will hear of one: Benjy Britten’.
An important part of Britten’s disconcerting brilliance as a young composer was his awareness of what was going on outside the narrow world of British music. He owed a good deal of this knowledge to Frank Bridge, who showed him scores, took him to concerts and played recordings to him. Bridge admired and understood Stravinsky in a way that very few British critics and even fewer British composition teachers of that time did. No less important, he was virtually alone among English composers of his generation (he was born in 1879, and thus a close contemporary of Arnold Bax and John Ireland) in his respect for Schoenberg and his pupil Alban Berg.
Bridge’s own later music owes something to his open-eared acceptance of the European avant-garde, and it did his reputation no good at all. To British critics of the time, the genial composer of Go not, happy day, Love went a-riding and the sumptuous orchestral suite The Sea had gone all trendily tuneless and atonal, and by the time of his death in 1941 Bridge was receiving very few performances indeed. Britten was distressed and bitter at this (he had had a pretty hard time with those same critics himself), but it is only now, when the majority of Bridge’s works have at least been recorded (though they still turn up rarely in concerts) that we can see how wrong those critics were.
Yes, his late style was formed, in part, by his understanding of what Schoenberg and Berg were doing. But that was only part of it, and Bridge was moving towards a radical new style before he knew very much of what those European contemporaries were up to.
War turns Bridge into a great composer
Another of the major influences on him was the First World War. Bridge was a pacifist and his horror of war was greatly intensified by the appalling death toll of that war in particular: many of his friends died in it. Bridge’s Piano Sonata is dedicated to the memory of one of them, the young composer Ernest Farrar, and to express his grief and pity as well as his poignant realisation of a whole world ending with that war, a world that could no more be reborn than Farrar could. Bridge’s language had to expand. As it did so he developed from a greatly talented composer into a masterly one.
And yet he was born in 1879, and thus came of a generation to whom Englishness was important. Bridge’s achievement, after the Piano Sonata’s cry of pain and bereavement, was to continue expanding his musical language without ever surrendering his individuality or his Englishness. The severe but superb Third String Quartet is as meticulously organised and thematically economical as Schoenberg, but Bridge’s English lyricism survives in it, all the stronger for being distilled and refined. And it was a composer of real stature who could proceed from that Quartet not to still greater austerity but to an exuberant second flowering of orchestral romanticism – the gorgeous tone poem Enter Spring.
All Bridge’s subsequent works – he didn’t live long enough, alas, to write ‘late’ ones – continue to explore the seemingly impossible but in fact fascinatingly rich path of reconciling English lyric romanticism, ‘modernist’ rigour and a haunted contemplation of a world changed for ever by the First World War. Not all are masterpieces – Bridge’s chosen path was a hugely difficult one – but some are (the noble Oration for orchestra, his most eloquent lament for war victims; the extraordinary Fourth String Quartet, so filled with incident that it demands 100 per cent attention from the listener – and richly repays it) and all the others come very close.
He lived to see the beginning of another World War, which distressed him terribly, but in his last works – the overture Rebus and an unfinished Symphony for strings – there is a new optimism. Ignored by his own countrymen (he was better received in the USA) and with the world descending again into barbarism, Frank Bridge saw new frontiers and strode towards them.
Classic CD magazine, 1997