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Frank Bridge

Frank Bridge, c.1929

(1879 - 1941)

Frank Bridge, underappreciated, underplayed, and still little known even in his native England, is most frequently recognized today as the teacher of the young Benjamin Britten, who acknowledged his teacher's influence in a popular early work. Bridge's sizable musical catalog is devoted primarily to chamber music and songs; he wrote orchestral music but composed no symphonies and only one work he called a concerto, Oration, Concerto Elegiaco for Cello and Orchestra.

Born in Brighton in 1879, Frank Bridge was the tenth of twelve children of William Henry Bridge, a violin teacher and music hall conductor, and the first child of his third marriage. Frank began violin lessons with his father and by age eleven had started to compose, play in his father's orchestra, sometimes substituting on other instruments, and occasionally to arrange and conduct. In 1896 he entered the Royal College of Music as a violin and piano student and after winning the Foundation Scholarship became a composition student of Charles Villiers Stanford. His first surviving composition is dated 1900. After switching to the viola he continued performing, especially in string quartets and he conducted frequently, often called upon to fill in at short notice for ailing conductors. A shy, retiring man who never accepted a regular conducting post, he supplemented slumping post-war income by teaching violin both to private pupils and in schools.

In 1922 Bridge met the great American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, with whom he and his wife formed a lifelong friendship. Mrs. Coolidge organized a lengthy American stay for the Bridges during 1923, when he conducted and met many notable figures in American life. Eugene Goossens offered Bridge a post teaching string music at Eastman College, Rochester, but while he was quite impressed with American musical life he did not wish to undertake more teaching. Shortly after his return home, Bridge accepted Mrs. Coolidge's offer of financial help and for the remainder of his life he received an annual grant and promises of regular performances in her Festivals of Contemporary Chamber Music – the only composer to whom she gave a regular stipend. This enabled him to dedicate himself to composing, but by 1933 he expressed bitterness "at the almost complete indifference to my existence in London music … I realize how alone I am when I observe the contentment with inferior standards and the degradingly necessary wire-pulling to obtain recognition which means one's livelihood." For the next four yours he composed little and his health, already poor, deteriorated steadily. By the time of his death in 1941, with his country again at war, he had become a generally forgotten figure. Perhaps because of the preoccupation with war he received few tributes or memorials, and the public shortly forgot him and his music. Britten, who as a young student had occasionally spent months with the Bridges, continued to perform and champion the music of his teacher, whose influence was particularly strong and whom Britten credited with teaching him the discipline necessary for good composition.

The music of Bridge's first period, some of which he later disowned, was quite Impressionistic but not especially original and, perhaps for that reason, won some popularity. World War I left Bridge, a devout lifelong pacifist, with profound, deep psychic scars. From that time his music became much darker – more abstract and experimental. His late music was almost twelve-tone, although he was neither a serialist nor a follower of Arnold Schoenberg. His music is much more international than that of his compatriots, perhaps because of the German influence of his early training, and this may be another reason he never achieved great popularity. ~Jane Erb

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