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Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten: music for viola | Martin Outram

It is well known that throughout musical history a number of the greatest composers have played the viola. Sadly, many who might have written solo works for the instrument neglected to do so. However, two of England’s most accomplished composers, Frank Bridge (1879 – 1941) and Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) left a substantial repertory of high quality music for their chosen string instrument.

Bridge and Britten first met in 1927. Bridge, though established as a highly skilled craftsman, was by this time beginning to perplex his British audiences and critics through the expressive and harmonic complexity of his recent music. He conducted his new orchestral piece Enter Spring at the Norwich Triennial Festival on 27 October and there was introduced to the thirteen year-old Britten by Britten’s viola teacher Audrey Alston, with whom Bridge was staying during the festival. Bridge began teaching Britten in London in January 1928. Britten stated that Bridge ‘was most naturally an instrumental composer and, as a superb viola player, he thought instrumentally…He fought against anything anti-instrumental, which is why his own music is graceful to play’. Later he described the lessons as ‘immensely serious and professional study’. Britten’s mother observed that the teenager would emerge from them ‘blinking and twitching nervously, and white with exhaustion’. Feeling he was ‘very small fry’, Britten began to write for more modest forces, including a number of works featuring the string instrument both he and his teacher played.

Bridge was the tenth of twelve children of the lithographer, violin teacher and music hall conductor William Bridge. Aged six he began violin lessons with his father and as a teenager gained invaluable experience as a composer, arranger and conductor for his father’s light orchestras. In 1896 he enrolled at the Royal College of Music and three years later won a scholarship to study composition in Charles Villiers Stanford’s famous class. Although he continued to play the violin, his early professional career was centred around his activities as one of the foremost English violists of his generation. He made his first public appearance as a violist in November 1900 and soon after became a member of three professional string quartets (Grimson, Motto and English). In 1906, such was his eminence that he was invited to participate in a performance as second violist in the Brahms Sextet in G with Joseph Joachim’s quartet.

‘There can be no true approach to Bridge the composer except by the broad road of his own all-around skilled, natural musicianship. His viola-playing was no isolated force in him..’ So wrote Bridge’s contemporary Herbert Howells.  In addition to freelancing as a violist and string teacher, Bridge developed a career as a conductor. By 1914 he had conducted at the Queen’s Hall and at Covent Garden and as a chamber musician had played regularly at the Aeolian, Bechstein and Steinway Halls. In 1912, Bridge appeared with the legendary Lionel Tertis in the premiere performance of Bridge’s two viola duos, the beautiful and haunting Lament and the unpublished Caprice.

By 1908, Lionel Tertis (1876 – 1975) was already well known as a virtuoso and promoter of the viola as a solo instrument. In this year the publishers Stainer and Bell produced The Lionel Tertis Viola Library and Bridge’s Pensiero and Allegro Appassionato appeared in the first issue. Pensiero was first conceived in 1905 but was revised for publication and Allegro Appassionato was probably written around 1907/8. The Allegretto, a short and very charming ternary form recital bonbon,  may date from as early as 1904, but was left unfinished by Bridge. It was completed for publication in 1980 by Paul Hindmarsh, who added the final eighteen bars. Each of these three pieces perfectly exhibits Bridge’s supreme ability to convey a dramatic and wide-ranging narrative within a relatively short time. In particular, Pensiero has a brooding melancholic quality prevalent in much of Bridge’s chamber music and the Allegro Appassionato has a tremendous sense of sweeeping energy to its outer sections, contrasted by more nostalgic music in the middle. It is worth noting that Bridge transcribed for viola the Adagio Lamentoso from William Hurlstone’s Sonata for cello and piano, a relatively rare work from this gifted composer who died young at only thirty years old.

Although it is known that Britten began viola lessons aged 10, the earliest music he wrote for his instrument is an unpublished Étude for solo viola dated 18 February 1929, which he states in his diary entry of 21 March that he transcribed for violin. Next comes the Introduction and Allegro for viola and strings, recently published. It was completed towards the end of October 1929 and premiered by Roger Chase as soloist in 1997 at Snape Maltings. It is also available in a reduction for viola and piano by Susan Bradshaw.

Thereafter, Britten completed three works for viola in the spring and summer of 1930, around the time of his leaving Gresham’s School in Holt, Norfolk. During this period, Britten’s diary indicates that he was regularly practising the viola and, according to his sister Beth, ‘Ben was playing the viola well’. During weekend stays with Frank and Ethel Bridge at their Friston house near Eastbourne, Britten would play chamber music regularly and Beth states that ‘when he was not at the piano, he would play the viola’. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that at such a formative time in his life Britten should turn to write more works for this instrument.

The first of these works of the new decade, later given the title Reflection, was written on 11 April 1930 and revised on 1 June that year. Britten wrote in his diary that he was ‘getting very fond of Schönberg, especially with study’. A week or so earlier he had heard Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony, Suite op.25 and Pierrot Lunaire which he thought ‘most beautiful’. This new viola piece, together with the Quartettino that he similarly submitted for consideration for a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, demonstrates the more advanced harmonic language he was exploring, no doubt encouraged by Bridge. The Elegy for solo viola was completed on 1 August 1930, the day after Britten left school. Its brooding quality and eruptive climax perhaps reflect his complex feelings at the time. Dated 10 September 1930, the Portrait No.2 ‘E.B.B’ is a self-portrait, the second of three projected portraits of the composer and two school friends. Originally scored for viola and strings this has a disarming and unsettled quality. It is hoped that the transcription by the present author for viola and piano can help to bring the work a wider audience.

Dating from 1932, Britten’s Double Concerto for Violin and Viola was left in draft short score only. It was realised and prepared for publication by the composer and great Britten scholar Colin Matthews and premiered in 1997. A striking and very ambitious work which demonstrates the young Britten’s growing confidence in handling both the solo instruments and larger orchestral forces, it has been performed widely and already recorded several times.

Benjamin Britten’s skill as an arranger is represented in the extraordinary reduction for viola and piano of Bridge’s ‘impression’ for small orchestra There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook. The original orchestral piece was written in three weeks in January 1927 and is a response to the famous Queen Gertrude’s speech at the end of Act IV of Hamlet, in which the death of Ophelia is described. The transcription of this exceptionally sensitively scored work for just two instruments is in itself a tour de force, completed by the eighteen-year-old in only three days in December 1932. Britten had attended on 4 December a ballet choreographed to the piece and Bridge subsequently presented him with a miniature score providing the necessary impetus and means for the transcription. Thereafter it seems to have been forgotten and was not performed publicly until 1988, when it was given by Nobuko Imai and Roger Vignoles. Britten’s commitment to and fascination with Bridge’s masterpiece is further indicated by his quotation from it in the Fugue in the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge and a reduction of the original orchestration for a performance at the 1948 Aldeburgh Festival.

A year later, while on tour in New York with Peter Pears, Britten met the great Scottish viola virtuoso William Primrose (1904-1982) and enticed him to the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival by offering him the dedication of his haunting Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland. After an introduction in which the first part of Dowland’s lute song If my complaints could passions move is heard, the work consists of nine variations (in the sixth of which Britten quotes from Dowland’s Flow my tears) and is completed by a coda section in which the initial song is at last heard in its entirety. Primrose and Britten premiered the work in Aldeburgh on 20 June 1950, a performance which was also broadcast by the BBC. A work of exquisite subtlety and tremendous emotional range, Britten returned to it towards the very end of his life when he arranged it for viola and strings in early 1976. This was at the instigation of his long-standing friend and colleague, the South African violist Cecil Aronowitz, who had performed Bach’s sixth Brandenburg concerto with Primrose and Britten as continuo in the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival.

Britten took every opportunity to promote the works of his beloved teacher throughout his life. He achieved this through performing, arranging, recording and publicising them in interviews. In addition to the works mentioned earlier, as late as 1965 he organised the premiere of Bridge’s Rhapsody Trio for two violins and viola at the Aldeburgh Festival of that year. The two composers shared so much common ground artistically, philosophically and musically. As violists we are greatly indebted to them for the rich and varied repertory that they left us.

Martin Outram and Julian Rolton’s disc of music for viola and piano by Bridge and Britten will be released in autumn 2013 on the Nimbus label. Martin Outram’s arrangement of Britten’s Portrait No 2 ‘E.B.B’ for viola and piano is being prepared for publication by Chester Music.