There is a a touching, pastoral lyricism in early Britten which owes much to Bridge
Benjamin Britten first came into contact with Frank Bridge through his orchestral work The Sea at the 1924 Norfolk and Norwich Festival – an event which left Britten ‘knocked sideways’. Aged 10, Britten was already composing prolifically and was studying viola with Audrey Alston, a once professional viola player who had married a vicar in Framingham Earl: a parish local to the Britten’s in Lowestoft. Alston had been a contemporary of Frank Bridge at the Royal College of Music and it was through Alston that Britten was introduced to the composer on his return visit to the festival in 1927 where Bridge conducted the world premiere of his own Enter Spring.
Bridge was reluctant to see the budding young composer, complaining that ‘he was always being asked to interview young people who were supposed to show musical promise, which they rarely had.’ A typical response of someone who had extremely high standards, strong opinions and a burning idealism – something that made him somewhat an outsider and unpopular in a British music scene that was insular and predominantly amateur.
Bridge however relented and met Britten – a meeting that made such an impact on Bridge that he agreed to mentor the young composer.
Bridge was far more than a composition teacher: he gave Britten a total cultural immersion expecting nothing in return. From a compositional point of view, he was exacting, highly critical and always pushing for idiomatic and practical solutions – something that was to have a profound influence on Britten. In an interview from 1960 he commented: ‘He really taught me to take as much trouble as I possibly could over every passage, over every progression, over every line.’ Bridge was technically very accomplished and this ‘scrupulous attention to good technique, the business of saying clearly what is in your mind’ rubbed off on the young composer.
Bridge was very generous and treated his charge like an equal. Britten recalled his ‘mammoth lessons’: ‘I remember we started at 10.30 and finished at tea time. Mrs Bridge came in and said “Really you must give the boy a break!”’
Bridge introduced Britten to the cutting-edge – The Second Viennese School, Ravel and Stravinsky. Bridge advocated that this was music that had technique, method and expression: it was progressive and Bridge incorporated this into his own works – many of them masterpieces. Oration, There is a Willow Grows aslant a Brook, Enter Spring and the Violin Sonata show these influences, particularly in the use of atonality as melody, harmony and texture. This is fused with Bridge’s innate lyricism, sense of melody and masterful orchestration. This departure made Bridge an outsider to a musical establishment that had late Romantics such as Elgar and pastoralists such as Vaughan Williams, Bax and Delius at its core. Britten viewed this music as being overly sentimental or twee. ‘My struggle all the time was to develop a consciously controlled professional technique. It was a struggle away from everything Vaughan Williams seems to stand for.’
Professionalism, being true to your instincts and embracing modernism were all part of Bridge’s legacy to Britten: an approach which was to contrast with the somewhat starchy, conservative and essentially amateur state of affairs at the Royal College of Music, which Britten entered as a scholarship student in 1930. Bridge had recommended John Ireland as his composition teacher: ‘A live composer whose activities are part of the present-day outlook with a heavy leaning towards tomorrow’s.’ Ireland was unreliable, late for lessons, often hung over and his house – which Britten thought was a tip – was the setting for many of his short and inadequate lessons that mainly revolved around counterpoint exercises. Britten described the RCM as ‘amateurish and folksy. That made me feel highly intolerant.’
Throughout his time at the RCM, Britten was in weekly contact with Bridge either visiting him in his house on Kensington Church Street or at his cottage in Friston in Sussex. Bridge was also a pacifist and this clearly had an impact on Britten throughout his career. Works such as the War Requiem and Owen Wingrave demonstrate this as do passages from the Cello Symphony which echo Bridge’s elegy to the fallen Oration (Concerto Elegiaco) for cello and orchestra (1930) Britten’s aversion to war was reflected in his decision to move to the USA from 1939-42. It was during this period in 1941 that Frank Bridge died: a neglected figure with few champions.
Bridge was his own worst enemy, frequently ruffling the feathers of orchestras by criticising them for their sloppy ways, speaking his mind about composers and contemporaries and being by all accounts an irascible character. He was also the master of the miniature which meant that his music was not as widely disseminated as a composer of symphonies and operas.
Britten undoubtedly shared many of Bridge’s dislikes but he was a politician and innovator driven to pursue a professional career on his own terms rather than be the victim of circumstance or the vagaries of fashion. Having the same set of professional values as Bridge and seeing Bridge’s star wane ironically may have been the biggest lesson Britten learnt from this great composer and musician.
Rather than merely criticise, Britten was proactive, invigorating music on so many levels and writing works that were designed to educate, inspire and involve people from all sections of society – for example Noyes Fludde and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. His reinvention of British opera and his way of turning vision into reality through the English Opera Group show his organisational skill and an ability to surround himself with doers, movers and shakers. This was also reflected in the development of the Aldeburgh Festival: an enduring legacy. During his lifetime he created an industry around him: something that resonates today. Witness the recent ‘Britten 100’ celebrations which were global.
It was a privilege to record works that were written in close proximity to each other with so much variety and invention – a strong and original voice with the influences of Stravinsky, Ravel, Berg and Bridge perfectly assimilated.
I unexpectedly found a touching, pastoral lyricism in early Britten which owes much to Bridge – something that is not so evident in his later music: empathy that perhaps becomes a victim of his own success and later fame. Bridge is so much more than a footnote in Britten’s meteoric career – Britten’s championship is testament to the enduring quality of his music.