Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Frank Bridge: Three Idylls for String Quartet

The strange thing about the Three Idylls is that they are best known through the lens of Benjamin Britten. The second was used to provide the theme for Britten’s well known Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. This was the pupil’s ‘affectionate’ tribute to his master.
Perhaps the term ‘Idyll’ is a little misleading for this work; it is not a particularly ‘idyllic’ piece of music in the accepted sense of the word. When I first heard these pieces I expected something loosely pastoral in sound and was perhaps a little disappointed to discover that they are anything other than the proverbial ‘cow and gate’. However, these pieces have a happy genesis: they were written for, and dedicated to, a certain violinist called Ethel Elmore Sinclair. This Australian lady shared a desk with Bridge in the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra. The piece was composed in 1906 and was performed the following year. After a trip to Australia, Ethel returned to England and became Bridge’s wife.
The general mood of this music is one of melancholy: Bridge makes considerable use of the darker string tones. The first Idyll opens with a lugubrious melody for solo viola, which was the composer’s favourite instrument. It leads into a reflective and moving adagio. There is a slight brightening of atmosphere with music that has been described as having a ‘Latin beat’ before the original material returns.
The second is the shortest of the three pieces and once again is somewhat dark in humour. However the middle section is a little more animated and raises the spirits. There are hints of the ‘blues’ here created by some interesting syncopation.
The last Idyll is animated and lifts the entire work out of its moody introspection. This is the nearest that this music comes to a summer’s day as opposed to the frost-bound landscape of the previous two Idylls.
The entire work is a small masterpiece. Everything about this piece reveals a composer who is totally at home with his media, who is able to create wide ranging music with a variety of tonal explorations and instrumental effects. It was a worthy gift to his wife-to-be.

Listen to these Three Idylls on Naxos, Hyperion or Helios

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