Frank Bridge

1879 1941

Frank Bridge



Frank Bridge was an English composer, violinist, and violist. His works vary greatly in mood and style. His prewar works have an accessible French charm while his postwar works display his disgust with the violence surrounding him and are much more closely related to the style of the Second Viennese School.

Bridge was born in Brighton in 1879 to a middle-class family. He was the tenth of twelve children. His father was also a musician and worked as the music director of the Empire Theatre in Brighton and as a violin teacher.

Because of his father’s profession, Bridge was surrounded by music and the orchestra from a young age. He began violin lessons at the age of twelve at the Brighton School of Music and composed his own music. He also played in the orchestra and learned other instruments, to fill in for missing members. In addition, he would conduct the orchestra during his father’s absences, giving him a thorough understanding of the orchestra.

At the age of 17, Bridge entered the Royal College of Music with a composition scholarship, though his main study was the violin. During his studies he won several awards including the Sullivan Prize and the Gold Medal of the Rajah of Tagore for ‘the most generally deserving pupil’. Bridge also studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford, who, with his strict and cruel methods perhaps stifled Bridge’s creativity for many years. Despite this, Bridge’s compositional skills became finely honed under Stanford and by the 1920s, after Stanford’s death, his creativity blossomed, leading Bridge to be the most free-spirited composer to have studied with Stanford.

Bridge graduated in 1903 and worked as a violinist in various orchestras before switching to the viola, on which he built a solid reputation; he even played as a substitute in the Joachim Quartet in 1906 when the group visited London. Bridge was also a member of the English String Quartet and was an active teacher. Bridge’s vast string quartet experience is obvious in his String Quartet No. 1 ‘Bologna Quartet’ (1906), which combines the spirit of Dvorák and Smetana with the romantic qualities of Zemlinsky, Elgar and even the earlySchoenberg. Performances of music by Ravel and Fauré in 1913 and 1914 also greatly impacted the composer. His preference for chamber music and lighter textures is perhaps adopted from these French composers, and quite possibly even fromVaughan Williams, who had studied with Ravel. Other influences in Bridge’s early music come fromDelius and Debussy.

Bridge composed many teaching pieces, which made him popular but did not establish him as a major composer. He also composed many songs, though some are merely simple salon works. Of his songs, the most impressive and colourful are Love Went a’Riding(c1915-6), Come To Me in My Dreams (1906), Fair Daffodils (1906) andO That it Were So (1913).

During World War I, Bridge composed many escapist works. Perhaps he was not yet ready to express his true response to the tragedies of the time. These works includeSummer (1914), Two Jefferies Poems (1915) and also the String Quartet No. 2 (1915). With his Cellos Sonata (1913-17) Bridge, a pacifist, began to hint at the ugliness of the world around him, but this is delicately balanced with his previous style. During these years his insomnia led him to wander around the city in the wee hours contemplating the futility of World War I and the world in general.

Many of Bridge’s students died in the war, including Ernest Bristow Farrar, to whom Bridge dedicated the Piano Sonata. Bridge changed immensely after the war and his music became, in response, much less popular. Instead of opting for a light, jazz influenced style his music became much darker. The Second Viennese School also became an important influence in Bridge’s works, as first seen in the String Quartet No. 3 (1926). More accessible to both listeners and performers is theRhapsody Trio (1928) for two violins and viola, published many years after his death.

Bridge’s piano music is quite varied in style, ranging from small, charming works to the strength of the Piano Sonata (1922-5). For the orchestra,Franck composed many works in a rhapsodic form, allowing for more freedom than that of the symphony. His first rhapsody,Dance Rhapsody (1908) was written in the same year as the first Rhapsody by Frederick Delius. References toTchaikovsky, De Falla, Elgar and Bliss are evident in this grandioso work for orchestra. It is quite possible that this work influencedSamuel Barber’s Souvenirs.

One of Bridge’s best-known works is The Sea (1912) which is very much in touch with the sea-themed works ofBax, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rubinstein. It also influenced theFour Sea Interludes by Britten much later.

The 20th century musicologist Peter Pirie described Bridge’s music from this point on as containing ‘a haunted, dark aspect, the counterpart to those attributes of nature in our islands that are evoked by owls, enchanters' nightshade and moths, a loveliness mingled with unease. A decided harmonic stringency began to be felt, and an increasing mastery, while the salon influences slowly vanished’. Bridge’s orchestralThere is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook (1926) fits this description perfectly with its tale about the Death of Ophelia.

At the time of Bridge’s death in 1941, his music was quite unfashionable in England and has, to this day, remained rather unknown despite his many intriguing works. Bridge’s works also greatly influenced his primary student Benjamin Britten, who tirelessly championed Bridge’s music, and composed the Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge to commemorate him.

Header image courtesy of Musico Four Time Other images courtesy of Cherry Classics and public domain

With the help of Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Bridge’s new patron, he was able to focus more on composing and performing than on teaching. She was an avid supporter of modern chamber music and also aided the Italian composers Casella and Respighi. For her, Bridge composed his third and fourth string quartets (1926 and 1937), Piano Trio No. 2 (1929) and the Violin Sonata No. 2 (1932). He also composed many melancholy nocturnes in Friston, such as Orationfor cello and orchestra (1930) and Phantasm for piano and orchestra (1931), along with the celebratoryEnter Spring (1926) which echoes the sounds of Ravel and Stravinsky, providing a fusion of his earlier and later works.