Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Music of Frank Bridge: Fabian Huss - book review Part 1

I first read about Frank Bridge in the mid-1970s in the fascinating, but rather eccentric, book Contemporary British Composers, written by Joseph Holbrooke and published in 1925. It was then considerably out of date and took little account of the generally accepted stylistic periods of Bridge’s life.
By this time, Lyrita were just beginning to issue several recordings of his music. In 1977 the Phantasm: Rhapsody for piano and orchestra (SRCS.91) which explored ‘the twilight world so dear to Bridge…’ (Payne, 1984) was released. Subsequent albums included Sir Adrian Boult conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra (SRCS.73) in the Suite for Strings, ‘Cherry Ripe’, ‘Sally in our Alley’, ‘Rosemary’, ‘Roger de Coverley’ and Lament. The most revelatory performance (for me, certainly) on record was Sir Charles Groves’ rendition of the stunning Enter Spring. This was issued in 1976 on LP (ASD 3190) coupled with The Sea, Summer, Lament and ‘Cherry Ripe’.  Like many listeners, my understanding of Frank Bridge was greatly increased by a diligent study of these sleeve notes.

Meanwhile, scholarship was catching up. Clearly, there were many essays, dictionary entries and reviews published over the years since Bridge became an established composer. Nevertheless, the past 45 years has seen a relative explosion in studies and performances of his music.
In 1970, R.M. Keating majored on ‘The Songs of Frank Bridge’ in his dissertation presented to the University of Texas –this is not quoted in the bibliography of the present book. It was an important forerunner of current academic attention. An early popular study of the composer was Frank Bridge by Anthony Payne, Lewis Foreman and John Bishop which was published in 1976.  This short pamphlet (50 pages) re-presented Payne’s illustrated account of the music printed in Tempo (September & December 1973). The catalogue of works by Foreman was helpful in gaining a bird’s eye view of the composer’s achievement.
Studies were advanced immeasurably by Paul Hindmarsh’s Frank Bridge: A Thematic Catalogue (1983). Here the composer’s works were listed chronologically, with details of manuscripts, instrumentation, first performances, bibliographic references and a commentary on many of the works. There is a chronology of the composer’s life, a select bibliography and discography, and indices. It was the first appearance of the ‘H’ (Hindmarsh) numbers to Bridge’s music. A revised version of this seminal work is due to be published as an eBook in the near future.  
The following year, Anthony Payne published his book Frank Bridge: Radical and Conservative. It was the latest incarnation of his Tempo articles. In this volume Payne reassessed the earlier compositions and found them just as important to the composer’s reputation as the later ‘radical’ works. It was deemed by Stephen Banfield as a ‘mature critical survey…a rounded accomplishment from the best man for the job.’ (Musical Times, April 1986). The book was reissued on 1999.
In 1991 Karen R. Little presented Frank Bridge: A Bio-Bibliography. Some of this material was concurrent with Hindmarsh’s Catalogue, however there were interesting additions. The succinct biographical chapter is excellent, the discography is extensive (up to 1991) and there is a comprehensive bibliography with brief précis of articles and many reviews. It is a useful adjunct to Hindmarsh’s book.
Other important sources include Trevor Bray’s Frank Bridge: A Life in Brief, (2004-13) conveniently published online, Peter Pirie’s early Frank Bridge (1971) and a detailed study of the early ‘Modern Maritime Pastoral: Wave Deformations in the Music of Frank Bridge’ by Stephen Downes included in British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960 (2010).
Exploring Fabian Huss’ bibliography in this present volume discloses that there are a growing number of dissertations and theses being addressed to Frank Bridge. This includes studies of his piano works, his relationship with Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Musical Modernism, and the Late Works as well Huss’ own examination of the chamber music (2010).

The introduction to The Music of Frank Bridge notes the key critical problem in any discussion of his music – the ‘seemingly wide range of stylistic and aesthetic directions, [employed by the composer] from the Edwardian romanticism of the early works, through the impressionist transitional period, to the dissonant, idiosyncratic modernism of much of the later music.’ This is exacerbated by two contradictory reactions to his work. Firstly, the music most popular with the listener is derived from the earlier period –The Sea, the tone-poem Summer, the songs and some piano pieces etc. But, secondly, there has been a tendency by ‘recent commentators…to focus on the merits of the later works.’ Huss suggests that this may be to ‘establish suitable modernist credentials –and hence artistic status – for Bridge and his music.’  Matters are complicated by his short-lived ‘membership’ of the group of ‘English Musical Renaissance Composers’ with his ‘impressionistic’ pieces that led him to belong briefly to the ‘pastoral’ school of composition. There has come to be a hiatus between his earlier and later styles. The main purpose of the present book is to ‘trace his development through its various phases, and integrate the different strands of his compositional activity into a coherent understanding.’
In Huss’ dissertation on the chamber music, he quotes Bridge, in relation to the difficulty of coming to terms with modern idioms, saying that ‘a composer’s early work possibly has stepping stones upon which an understanding may grow.’ This is a key pillar of the present study (Huss, 2010). 
From a personal point of view I have always regarded the ‘late’ orchestral work Rebus as being infused with romanticism: he had relaxed his more uncompromising style. Rebus was composed around the same time as the much more expressionist Three Divertimenti. So simplistic stylistic analysis is never going to be straightforward. 

The Music of Frank Bridge: Fabian Huss
The Boydell Press, hardback, 259 pages
IBSN 978-1-78327-059-0
To be continued. 

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