Monday, 14 December 2015

The Music of Frank Bridge: Fabian Huss - book review Part 2

The main matter of the text is presented in largely chronological order. After the introduction which defines some of the basic parameters of Bridge studies, the first chapter examines the composer’s ‘Background, Royal College of Music and Early Works’. Important compositions at this time include the String Quartet in B flat, the Piano Quartet in C minor, the orchestral work 'Mid of Winter', and the more forward-looking Three Idylls. These works are examined in some detail. The songs and piano pieces written at this time, which established the composer’s popularity, are mentioned only briefly.

The period of ‘First Maturity’ (Chapter 2) scrutinises music composed between 1906 and 1912. This Huss deems to be characterised by ‘increased technical control and growing stylistic curiosity and individuality’. Major studies are provided of the First String Quartet, the Phantasy Piano Trio in C minor, the Piano Quintet, the Dance Rhapsody, the Suite for Strings and the well-loved The Sea which demonstrate the composer’s arrival at a mature orchestral style. This was the period of music that dominated (and still does dominate) the composer’s reputation.

Chapter 3 looks at the music that Huss considers to belong to the ‘Transitional Period’. Bridge appeared to be ‘limited’ by the ‘stylistic limitations of the previous decade’.  He is now more likely to explore ‘technical control’ using motivic manipulation and expansion of his ‘stylistic range’. Huss includes analysis of the great Cello Sonata, the Second String Quartet and the Dance Poem. This latter work marks ‘a new adventurous individuality in its treatment of the orchestra and in terms of style more generally…’ This is also the period of the ‘luminously impressionistic’ tone-poem Summer as well as the ‘pastoral’ Two Poems (after Richard Jeffries.)

The next section of the composer’s career is explored in Chapter 4, ‘Bridge’s Post-Tonal Idiom’. This reflects the period after about 1920 when the composer began to lose his popular following. Bridge rejected the ‘comforting pastoral’ and began to absorb a more dissonant, post-tonal language owing much to Scriabin and Berg. Reasons for this may be his reaction to the Great War, political awareness and personal family concerns. Elements of this chapter include a technical examination the composer’s use of the Whole-tone and Octatonic Scales and their derivatives. Major works from this period include the game-changing Piano Sonata and the Third String Quartet which are both given in-depth analyses.

Chapter 5 examines the ‘Progressive Works’ written between 1927 and 1932. This period has been important to scholars wishing to establish Bridge’s reputation as a modernist and radical composer. Yet what can be regarded as his (and possibly all British composer’s as well) definitive statement on English pastoral, Enter Spring was written at this time. More typical of this period was ‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook’, Oration for cello and orchestra and the Second Piano Trio.  These are often Spartan, melancholic and lacking in warmth.

The final main chapter examines ‘Bridge’s Last Years’. Key to this period is the ‘Janus-like’ Fourth String Quartet, which balances a forward looking harmonic language, influenced by the Second Viennese School, but still retaining a deep romanticism derived from his earlier music. The ‘note’ of English Pastoral has not totally disappeared.  There is a short ‘Epilogue’ which examines the fate of Bridge’s music since his death in 1941.

Two important sections of this book are the ‘interludes’; one of which majors on the composer’s relationship with his patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The second examines his famous pupil. A problem that has haunted the appreciation of Bridge’s music is that he is often spoken of a being Benjamin Britten’s teacher rather than as a composer and musician in his own right. It must be remembered that Britten was a ‘major advocate’ for Bridge’s music when it was at its least fashionable. The subsequent revival owes much to Britten.

Wisely, Huss has included a ‘List of Works’. This is a much simplified version of the listings in Hindmarsh’s catalogue noted above.  A number of incomplete or unpublished works have been omitted, although reference is made to various ‘lost’ pieces. Huss has given details of the date of composition and first performance (where known).  He has maintained the ‘H’ catalogue numbers (but without the ‘H’!) for ease of reference. For all other information the reader is directed to Hindmarsh. The List of Works is presented chronologically.

The bibliography is extensive. The first section notes various primary sources for Bridge’s correspondence, which include the Library of Congress for letters to Coolidge and the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh for letters to Benjamin Britten and his friend, Marjorie Fass.  The second section features a wide range of text-books, studies, biographical essays, dissertations and thesis. Some of these have been mentioned in the ‘assessment of the literature’ section of this present review. It makes an ideal starting place for any student of the composer’s life, times and music. For additional newspaper and periodical reviews of each work the reader should examine Hindmarsh’s Thematic Catalogue and Little’s Bio-Bibliography.
The index is wide-ranging with references to each work included alphabetically under ‘Frank Bridge’s Works’. Main discussions of each piece are shown in bold type. I wonder if a separate index for the works would have been more convenient.

Regarding the presentation of the book, I felt that the font was just a little small, but that is probably a failing of my age, rather than a profound criticism. The book makes use of footnotes rather than endnotes which usefully avoids page flicking.  The binding is strong, the paper good quality and with an orange cover and a slightly diffused picture of the composer in pensive mood.
This book is abundantly illustrated with musical examples, as any text offering a comprehensive exploration of a composer’s works would demand. Typically, these are presented in short score which makes for a clear understanding of the author’s argument. I was disappointed to find no photographs of Frank Bridge, his family, friends and musical associates. However, I accept that this is a study of the music rather than a biography.

Fabian Huss is currently the Visiting Fellow at the University of Bristol. He is a musicologist specialising in 19th and 20th century British and Irish music. Huss has recently produced scholarly work on E.J. Moeran, Herbert Howells and Malcolm Arnold.
Future projects include co-editing a volume of ‘Frank Bridge Studies’. He is also an active conductor of music and is current director of music of the Redland Liedertafel and Cheddar Male Voice Choir.

Like all academic books, this appears at £50.00 to be expensive. Yet this volume is a crucial addition to scholarship. Being the first ‘detailed and long-overdue study of Bridge’ it will be of huge interest to serious researchers into his music. Added value here is the thoughtful analysis of many works that have been previously ignored or just touched upon by critics. The book will be of great help to all reviewers and popularisers who choose to explore Frank Bridge’s music.  The most important achievement of all is the setting of the music into the various contexts implied by, romanticism, musical modernism, British pastoral and the composer’s own personal development as a man and a musician.

I have no doubt that Fabian Huss’ volume will be widely used (and hopefully acknowledged) in many forthcoming essays, theses, CD inserts, concert programme notes and record reviews. 

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