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Frank Bridge and Two Old English Songs


Frank Bridge (February 26, 1879–January 10, 1941) was an English composer, violist, arranger, and conductor.  Bridge was born on February 26, 1879, in Brighton, England, a younger child in a large family. He first learned to play the violin from his father, and enjoyed the benefit of early exposure to practical musicianship as a player in music-hall orchestras which his father conducted. In 1896 at age 17 he entered the Royal College of Music, where he studied violin and piano for three years. Following this, he received a scholarship to study composition for another four years under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.  He played the viola in a number of string quartets, most notably the English String Quartet (along with Marjorie Hayward), and conducted, sometimes deputizing for Henry Wood, before devoting himself to composition.  On graduating in 1903, he was awarded the gold Tagore medal reserved for the ‘most generally deserving pupil’ and received the highest praise from respected composer and teacher at the RCM, Sir Hubert Parry.

After leaving the RCM, Bridge earned his living by teaching and performing. As a violin/viola player, he played in London’s leading orchestras and was a member of three string quartets, and regularly coached student chamber groups at the RCM. In 1904, he performed in the British première of the newly completed Debussy String Quartet. In 1906 Bridge composed his own first String Quartet (in E minor) as an entry in a competition sponsored by the Filharmonica Accademica of Bologna, Italy. The same year, he formed a friendship with German-born businessman Edward Speyer – a relationship lasting to Speyer’s death in 1934.  Bridge’s future wife, Ethel Sinclair, was a fellow student at the RCM. In late 1907 she returned from her native Australia to England where she and Frank were married in September ,1908, and established themselves in Chiswick. In midwinter 1909-10, Bridge composed his famous Suite for Strings over a few short weeks.

Bridge was also active as a conductor around this time, as rehearsal director of the New Symphony (then recently formed) and at London’s Savoy Theatre during its 1910-11 season.  These conducting engagements included Covent Garden for Thomas Beecham.  It was around the time of the coronation of George V in 1911 that he composed his suite The Sea, which appeared frequently in Promenade concert programmes through the end of the 1930s. The great String Sextet (1912) is the culmination of this period in Bridge’s creative development.  In 1914, the Bridges moved from Chiswick to Bedford Gardens, Kensington, where Frank composed his second String Quartet (in G minor), which won first prize the following year in the annual chamber music competition sponsored by the industrialist W.W. Cobbett. The beautiful tone poem Summer was composed that same year. In 1915 he wrote his Lament (for Catherine, aged 9 “Lusitania” 1915), for string orchestra, as a memorial to the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.  In 1916, Bridge as part of the English String Quartet began to cut back on public engagements, in favor of more private performances.  One place for these ‘drawing room’ concerts was the home of Marjorie Fass, who lived a few doors down from the Bridges, with whom she became close friends.

Bridge had strong pacifist convictions, and he was deeply disturbed by the First World War, after which his compositions, beginning in 1920–21 with the Piano Sonata, were marked by a radical change in musical language which was no longer to reach the same wide audience as did the light and more lyrical output of his pre-war Edwardian years. In 1922, Frank Bridge had the good fortune of meeting millionaire American patron of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at the home of publisher Winthrop Rogers. That summer, Bridge and his wife Ethel, along with Rogers, toured France and the West Country with Mrs Coolidge.  Early in 1923, the Bridges and Marjorie Fass purchased land near the South Downs village of Friston, with the aim of constructing adjacent cottages.  It was there that Benjamin Britten frequently visited with the Bridges.  Britten was Bridge’s only composition pupil.

Through Coolidge’s patronage and mediation, Frank Bridge was able to bring his works to America’s orchestras, touring the United States as guest conductor in 1923, also returning to visit in later years. The more important consequence of this patronage was to enable Bridge to devote himself more exclusively to composing, though his health regrettably began to falter after 1930. Though active all his life, Bridge most preferred spending time in the company of a few close friends in the quiet retreat of the South Downs cottage, where he composed many of his finest works such as Oration (1930) for cello and orchestra and the opera The Christmas Rose (premiered 1932). During the winter of 1940-41 he was at work on a large composition for string orchestra. One very cold Friday afternoon in 1941, after puttering over his car and exchanging a friendly word with a neighbor, he came back into the house saying he felt sick, lay down for a few hours, and died on January 10, 1941, at Eastbourne, England, of congestive heart failure early that same evening. Only a single movement Allegro moderato was completed of the projected work

In the wake of what was to be a new and more terrible European war, Bridge’s music soon slipped into a temporary oblivion.  It was not until more than two decades later that his works truly began their reemergence, largely through the efforts of the Frank Bridge Trust. In effect, the higher quality of post-war recording technology permitted many more people to hear Bridge’s music than during his own lifetime, earning him in the time since his death, recognition he would certainly have appreciated.  His work is now beginning to enjoy some favor, not least through the fact that he was the teacher of Benjamin Britten, one of whose earlier works is based on a composition by Bridge. Bridge’s orchestral works bring useful additions to the string orchestra repertoire. These include his Lament of 1915, an earlier Suite and a Christmas dance, Sir Roger de Coverley, and versions of Sally in Our Alley and Cherry Ripe, originally designed for string quartet.  Although not an organist himself, and not personally associated with music of the English Church, his short pieces for organ have been among the most-performed of all his output.

My collection includes the following works by Frank Bridge:

An Irish Melody (1908)

Lament for Strings (1915)

Sir Roger de Coverly, A Christmas Dance (1922)

There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook, Impression for Small Orchestra (1927)

Two Entr’actes (1938)

Two Old English Songs (1916)

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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