BRIDGE: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3

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Frank Bridge (1879-1941)

String Quartets Nos. 1 & 3

Frank Bridge studied the violin and composition at the RoyalCollege of Music in London, where he was a pupil of Stanford from 1899 to 1903.Apart from composition, his career embraced performance as the viola player inseveral quartets, most notably the English String Quartet, conducting, in whichhe frequently deputised for Sir Henry Wood, and teaching, with Benjamin Brittenhis best-known pupil. Perhaps no other British composer of the first half ofthe century reveals such a stylistic journey in his music. His early works,such as the First String Quartet (1906), the Phantasy Piano Trio (1907) and theorchestral suite The Sea (1910-11), follow in the late-Romantic traditionbearing a kinship with Faure; subsequently, in the orchestral tone poem Summer (1914),for instance, Bridge comes close to the orbit of Delius. After the First WorldWar, however, his music became intense and chromatic as in the ScriabinesquePiano Sonata (1921-4). The radical language of the sonata was pursued in hischamber works of the 1920s, so that in the String Quartet No. 3 (1926) Bridgerubs shoulders with the early works of the Second Viennese School. Also to thisdecade belong two orchestral masterpieces, Enter Spring (1927) and Oration(1930). Finding little favour with public or critics, his late work, forexample the Fourth String Quartet (1934-8), languished and despite Britten'sadvocacy, it was not until the 1970s that Bridge's remarkable legacy receivedthe attention it deserved.

At the outset of his career Bridge established his namethrough a series of chamber works in which he demonstrated impeccablecraftsmanship, and a wholly idiomatic understanding of string instruments, withthe viola, his own main instrument frequently having prominence. A furtherinfluence on the form of these works lay in the prizes instituted by WalterWilson Cobbett, an amateur musician whose interests were chamber music and theperiod of the Elizabethan and Jacobean composers. In particular he wasinterested in the instrumental 'fantasy' or 'phantasy' form of that time, inwhich several unrelated but varied sections formed the basis for an extendedwork. In 1905 Cobbett established a prize for chamber compositions in onemovement and Bridge submitted several works for his competitions, winning firstprize in 1907 and 1915. What was significant, though, was that Bridge adaptedaspects of the phantasy form within subsequent compositions, so that thematicunity within a work of one or several movements became a hallmark of hiscompositions.

This is apparent in Bridge's First String Quartet, which waswritten in haste in the space of a month during 1906, in response to acompetition organized by the Accademia Filarmonica, Bologna, hence thequartet's sobriquet. Of the 67 quartets submitted only Bridge's received a'mention d'honneur'. He had had to work at such speed that there was no time tocopy a second set of parts, and it took the Accademia two-and-a-half years toreturn the originals; consequently, the work was not given its first performanceuntil 1909 when the English String Quartet performed it in London.

The first movement begins with a characteristic structuralfeature of Bridge's works that is clearly linked to the experience of writinghis Cobbett compositions: a short slow introduction in which key thematic ideasare introduced. Here it is a two-bar, sad, falling chromatic cello phrase. Twopianissimo chords follow, pregnant with anticipation, before the music plungesdirect into the drama of the Allegro appassionato with the first violin takingover the motif. Overall the mood is turbulent, although respite is supplied bythe movement's other main thematic idea, a tender melody introduced by theviola. Cast in an arch shape, the Adagio molto opens with mysterious chords,alternating with a plaintive first violin phrase. An extended theme on violafollows, whose initial reticence is transformed into a passionate burst ofemotion. The middle of the movement is more animated, then the opening ideasreturn with the cello taking up the viola's melody, in dialogue with the firstviolin. The Scherzo is all dancing airiness and light, whilst the trio isgraced by a melody shared between first violin and viola whose rhythm isfrequently at odds with the underlying pizzicato accompaniment. Later in thetrio Bridge clearly alludes to the main motif of the opening movement. Both themain melodic ideas of the finale are heard initially from the first violin, andboth are flowing in character, the first one accompanied by sonorous textureand the second incorporating triplets. In a masterly stroke of thematic unity,Bridge reintroduces the main motif of the first movement at the end of thework. The music fades, all comes full circle as the cello intones the motif forthe last time and the quartet ends in a mood of sombre tragedy.

The Third String Quartet was commissioned by the Americanpatroness of music Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and dedicated to her. It wascomposed in 1925-6 and first performed by the Kolisch Quartet in Vienna in1927. In it Bridge's advanced mature voice is fully revealed for the firsttime. The quartet's language shows kinship with Berg and Bartok; the twelvesemitones are constantly in play; octave doublings are avoided, and the musicis driven by a relentless momentum through the rigorous development of itsideas. These are generally short motifs from which the web is spun andthroughout the music is interrelated.

In the slow introduction and opening bars of the Allegro,the thematic motifs, and harmonic elements of the first movement, indeed thewhole work, are laid bare, ideas that are ripe for infinite change andtransformation in the highly charged sonata structure that follows. Ofparticular importance is a four-note semiquaver group that turns in on itselfand is pervasive through the quartet, whilst the main first subject begins onthe first violin with a wide leap upwards, and an angular falling back. Arising, eerie sequence in rhythmic unison leads to the second group of ideaswith the viola leading the way. These rise to a glorious climax when a magicalchange of harmony is like a ray of sunlight breaking through clouds. Themovement ends with an exciting coda and a terse concluding note. The ternaryform Andante con moto is utterly different, a shrouded, crepuscular world ofshadows and half-lights, evocative of the Sussex down-land where Bridge settledand which he loved, at dawn or dusk. It inhabits a mood of melancholyestablished by the wistful, muted dialogue between the violins heard againstpizzicato viola and single notes on the cello. Throughout links, either veiledor obvious, can be heard to the musical material exposed in the first movement.In the finale, a sonata rondo, the energetic contrapuntal dialectic of thefirst movement is enjoined again and much of the musical material resurfaces innew guises. An athletic long-limbed theme heard on the first violin,accompanied by dissonant chords forms the main idea, whilst the second is anagitated theme played by the cello high in its range. In the developmentsection the main themes of the first movement are considered again, whilst inthe recapitulation the second subject, now on viola, precedes the first. Aftera last climax, the work ends with an extended epilogue section in which thestrands are brought together with references to all three movements. In hisdedicatory letter to his patron, Bridge wrote 'That this score contains thebest of me I do not doubt'. Undoubtedly he was correct, for in its evidentmastery of the medium the Third Quartet is one of his highest achievements.

Andrew Burn

Item number 8557133
Barcode 747313213320
Release date 08/01/2003
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Bridge, Frank
Bridge, Frank
Orchestras Maggini Quartet
Maggini Quartet
Producers Walton, Andrew
Walton, Andrew
Disc: 1
String Quartet No. 3
1 Adagio - Allegro appassionato
2 Adagio molto
3 Allegretto grazioso - Animato
4 Allegro agitato - Allegro moderato - Adagio molto
5 Andante moderato - Allegro moderato
6 Andante con moto
7 Allegro energico
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