About this work
Benjamin Britten began taking composition lessons from Frank Bridge in the year of 1927. Bridge was fairly well known as a composer and a viola player, but his greatest contribution was definitely in the role of a teacher. Britten also was a violist and greatly admired Bridge's playing. Over the next few years, Britten grew immensely as a musician and as an individual. His raw talent in composition was refined and his ideals were formed under the tutelage of Bridge. In 1932, Britten wished to compose a tribute piece for his teacher and began work on a set of variations on a theme from one of Bridge's works. The young composer soon was distracted from this project and was forced to temporarily abandon work on it.
Five years later, the opportunity arose for Britten to complete the dedication composition for Bridge, and to fulfill a rather important commission. Boyd Neel, an English conductor, founded the first chamber string orchestra consisting only of players of virtuosic ability in England. The reputation of this orchestra soon spread quickly across Europe, and Neel's ensemble was invited, in May 1937, to perform at the Salzburg Festival, which was occurring the upcoming August. The only condition was that the group was required to perform a new work by a British composer. Britten was not well known at the time, but Neel had conducted his film score for Love from a Stranger (1936). Neel remembered being astonished by the quickness in which Britten could compose quality music. With only three months until his scheduled performance, Neel asked Britten to accept the commission and to work fast. Neel could not have expected that Britten would have completed a composition sketch of Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (1937) only 10 days after accepting the task. The work was fully scored for Neel's string orchestra within a month. The finished score is dated July 12, 1937, and is dedicated "to F.B. A tribute with affection and admiration." The theme is from the second of Bridge's Three Idylls for string quartet.
This set of ten variations were definitely a challenge for Neel's virtuoso orchestra. With Britten's experience of playing the viola, the parts were not impossible, but they did take the performers to the boundaries of their abilities. At the orchestra's first rehearsal of the piece, the principal violist was having difficulty with a passage involving harmonics. Britten and Bridge both happened to be present at the rehearsal, and both subsequently played the passage without error.
Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge was premiered at the Salzburg Festival on August 27, 1937, and was immediately received by the Europeans as a fine composition. The London premiere took place on October 5, 1937. For the first time, Britten's name was known on an international level as the work was performed over 50 times within the first two years of its composition in Europe and the United States.