Benjamin Britten was a precocious musical talent, composing prolifically and studying piano and viola. It was his viola teacher who introduced him to Frank Bridge, now a largely forgotten composer who was then a major figure in English music. Bridge liked the boy’s music, and arranged to have him travel to London for lessons. Britten may have lost some of his youthful swagger working with Bridge—he later wrote, “I, who thought I was already on the verge of immortality, saw my illusions shattered”—but he emerged from the demanding lessons with new rigor and technique to match his natural inventiveness. Britten later studied with John Ireland at the Royal College of Music, but Bridge remained his dominant influence.
Bridge’s name mostly arises now thanks to the tribute composed by his top pupil in 1937. Britten accepted the commission on very short notice from the Boyd Neel Orchestra, which desperately needed a new English piece to play at the prestigious Salzburg Festival. The orchestra had already performed Britten’s Simple Symphony for strings, making the young composer a natural choice. Britten obliged by writing Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge within a month.
The source material, taken from Bridge’s Three Idylls for string quartet from 1906, is just the slightest wisp of a melody, which Britten expanded into a set of free variations. Coming out of the dramatic Introduction, a chord sustained under a series of plucks reveals itself as the start of the Theme. Each brief variation highlights a particular aspect of Bridge’s personality, as outlined by Britten: the Adagio corresponds to “his depth,” the March “his energy,” and the Romance “his charm.” The next three movements drift toward parody, with a Rossini-inspired Aria Italiana (“his humor”), a neo-Baroque Bourrée classique with prominent violin solos (“his tradition”), and an irreverent Viennese Waltz (“his enthusiasm”). A fiery Perpetual Motion (“his vitality”) clears the air for the haunting Funeral March (“his sympathy”) and the ethereal Chant (“his reverence”). The work closes with a Fugue and Finale, a testament to Bridge’s “skill and dedication.”
Aaron Grad ©2014
Schubert was barely 18 when he wrote this music — impressive, given the assurance with which he ventures into a field dominated by a near neighbor who happened to be the greatest living symphonist: Beethoven. Beethoven cast a long shadow and, even 50 years later, Brahms felt intimidated by him. But Schubert is insouciant. Much as he venerated the great master, he trusted his own composer’s instincts. His is not titanic music of great struggle, of blazing triumphs and heroic victories. Instead, it reveals an utterly different spirit — poised and spacious, as you can hear in this piece.
Few of Schubert’s larger works were heard in his own short lifetime, but he was far from unknown. Indeed, he was highly regarded as a composer of songs and chamber music, music of a scale suited to concerts in salons and at the celebrated “Schubertiad” evenings devoted to his work. He had greater trouble securing performances for his symphonies. This piece, written in 1815, may have had a private performance around that time, but its first documented outing was not until 1860. Even then, only the finale was played. The movement resurfaced in 1865, this time appended to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in a bizarre attempt to “finish” it for the premiere.
For its debut, the full Third Symphony had to wait until 1881, when it was presented in the glamorous surroundings of London’s Crystal Palace — appropriate, given the clear influence of Haydn’s celebrated London symphonies. You can hear the old man in the grand opening, though the way the music launches into its fast section is pure Schubert. It all sounds so effortless, yet we know this was hard won. For example, Schubert tried several different alternatives before hitting on the idea of using the clarinet for that perky opening tune. The clarinet continues to enjoy a prominent role (a lovely solo in the second movement), and the oboe and bassoon also have a fine duet in the Menuetto’s central “trio” section. Once the grandness of the opening is over, this symphony overflows with youthful exuberance and finishes in a comic whirl.
Svend-Einar Brown ©2007