Frank Bridge: piano sonata, H. 160

performed by Ashley Wass (per the YouTube video info)
(Hexameron has apparently not uploaded the second movement…)
(There was another fantastic performance of this piece in its entirety up on YouTube, but apparently has since been taken down. That’s very unfortunate.)

This piece…
Do you ever have music that you love so much, or that’s so deeply touching, that you can only listen to it on rare occasions? Something so powerful, or so emotional (hard-hitting or sorrowful or beautiful or whatever way) that you can’t take it more than once every now-and-then, and any attempts to explain or voice or vocalize your feelings toward the piece seem futile?

This is the primary reason it’s taken me until now to write about this piece.
The beauty of enjoying a piece is that you can do it on your own terms. While you may not be able to expound on the key changes and harmonic structure of the work, it may be that it tells a story that is perfectly, powerfully unique, and enjoying music is just that subjective and personal; no one will ever enjoy or understand or hear it exactly the way you do, and that’s wonderful.

Frank Bridge was a genius. I know very little about him, but he seems to have just oozed with talent in all areas of music. To be honest, this is the only piece of his I’ve heard in its entirety. You may want to listen to this wonderful hour-long presentation of the man and his work, from the BBC. I was hoping for something more specifically related to this work, but it does a good job of putting this one piece in the context of what came before and after it. It’s a great listen.

Bridge also studied under Charles Villiers Stanford and  privately tutored Benjamin Britten, who apparently spoke very highly of him. He also enjoyed the patronage of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Aside from that, maybe not much jumps out.
Wikipedia describes his earlier output (perhaps that of his twenties, from 1900 or so?) as “Edwardian,” and it gained the greatest attention from most people. Britten was born in 1879, and was an Englishman.

He seems a bit like the English Hindemith, but hopefully not just because they were both violists. Bridge also played the violin, and held posts in something like three string quartets/ensembles, was a conductor, and (obviously) was a composer. I think of both Bridge and Hindemith as triple (quadruple?) threats, consummate musicians, and even though I’m not thoroughly familiar with their works, they seem to be towering figures of talent, some of the greatest of the 20th century. If you haven’t already, I would go back and listen to the BBC presentation for a good overview of what makes me think that.
I don’t remember quite how I found out about this piece, but I think I owe it to this YouTube channel, linked above. I got digging into a few lesser known pieces, sonatas by Krein, Draeseke, Antheil, Griffes, Pasternak, and a few others I can’t seem to remember. In any case, Bridge’s made the biggest impression. Some of them seemed to be very much in the same vein, a post-Romantic, Debussy-influenced perhaps pre-Schoenberg-ian experimental sort of stage in music, some of it more clattery and noise-like than others, the kind of thing that it takes you (or me, then) a little time to settle into, like putting on a pair of jeans after they’ve been through the dryer and letting them relax out again. But from the first listen, Bridge’s sonata grabbed my by the shoulders and wouldn’t let me go until the very end. It’s a tiring ride. Quite intense.

I think it’s quite easy to identify (with) the emotions being conveyed in the piece, which at once makes it universal, even if you don’t know the whys and wherefores. The piece begins in a tone that is at once ominous and melancholy. There’s a repeated G# at the beginning that kind of … well, I’ll talk about it later. It echoes out at pp marked Lento to begin the piece, and the bass chords enter, making it seem even more ominous. It’s not evil ominous, but just kind of… dark. In the eleventh bar, one of the major themes shows up for the first time. It solidifies the melancholy; marked  Andante ben moderato, it’s a nostalgic, tender, kind of longing theme. The lento returns and these are our first two ‘characters’ if you will. It builds in volume, speed, and harmony until it reaches a holy climax followed by dramatic runs up and down the piano. Our tender theme comes back, and there’s a frantic, energetic, almost violent passage that begins after a brief pause. This opening and the contrast of a few of these themes sets the tone for what we’re going to experience throughout this piece.

The first movement is unrelenting. It plays off of these three ideas, which work, at least for me, like emotional cues, and the jumping back and forth between them and how they work against each other, along with the dissonances and incredible virtuosity of the piece, make for a very passionate movement. There are lots of tempo changes and markings, everything from repeated largamentes to con fuocos, tranquillo, animato, and lots more.
You can’t not feel the sadness, the passion, tinges of anger, resentment, disappointment, and longing in the first movement alone, but there’s two more to come. There are so many little passages and themes and moments even in the first movement that I’d love to talk about; each turn of the piece is just perfectly moving. This entire piece is literally breathtaking. It’s one of the most impassioned pieces I’ver listened to. There’s a certain persistence of those themes at the beginning. It really sounds like they endure through the torment and drama of the first movement, they keep showing up, not really changing, always identifiable, kind of like the heroes of the movement. After the 9/8 section (on p. 21 of my score, about 13:50 into the piece) that G# bell toll comes back over thundering bass chords. It gives me chills. This section is notated in three staves. The movement comes to a stormy and furious end. These contrasts make for a very full-feeling first movement, and it ends triumphantly and commandingly enough to lead one to believe that it’s a standalone, one-movement work like a late Scriabin sonata, but there’s still lots more to come.
The first movement ends on a held rest, but is also marked attacca (well, the whole thing is played without pause). Thusly the second movement begins. This opening reminds me of like, Scriabin’s eighth sonata (I think) marked languido, but only a bit. The content of the second movement is identifiably taken from the cloth of the first movement, but is noticeably less… fiery. That’s not to say it’s a peaceful, happy or relaxing movement. While it’s far more lyrical (certainly fulfills the ‘slow-movement’ space), it too is unsettled and longing and almost sorrowful. It’s delicate and dolce (marked as such in places) relative to the first (and third) movement(s). I think it’s needed. It’s as much rest as we’ll get out of this piece. It’s also the shortest of the three. Bookended by two seriously intense movements, it almost feels like an interlude.
The third movement begins much like the first, but this one even more unsettlingly quiet. It then begins with a kind of… well, as much of an enlivened gallop as we will get in the piece, again building up to some very virtuosic passages. This one is the chattiest… it’s clinky and busy. There are glimpses and echoes and reminders of content from the first movement quite clearly stated again here, and this, coupled with the overall feeling and expression of the piece gives it real unity. It’s also part of the reason I feel there is almost zero break in the piece. Aside from a middle quiet movement, it. just. keeps. going. Even in like, a giant Mahler symphony like the third, we get a sort of change of gears with a scherzo movement or a ländler or something to break up the intensity, but here, we don’t. For better or worse, it’s one long heavy line, a narrative told in one continuous thread, more like a one-movement work in three sections than a three-movement sonata. There are some sections in this movement, like at the beginning (and again about halfway through) that we feel real motion forward. I used the word ‘gallop’ earlier, even though I know that isn’t right. There’s a push, an energy different from in the first movement, and to me… for lack of a better explanation, it’s like the emotions of the first movement have been kind of …. processed, matured, they’ve not necessarily mellowed or festered, but maybe we’ve accepted them. I dunno. Toward the end of this movement, we get markings like risoluto and Allegro energico. The last section of the movement (and the piece) begins with (huge) quiet chords. I think perhaps this is the Bridge chord. I forgot to make a point to try to find this in the piece, but it looks like this could be it (among other places). We are again at three staves. This feels like the resolution (or at least emphasis or restatement) of the content from the opening movement. It’s just as moving as it was half an hour ago, and at the very end, it’s finally quoted directly, almost like we’ve come full circle, after all that… it’s home. We get a heavy series of chords that end the piece quietly, powerfully, and hauntingly. And then, just as quietly and unsuspectingly as it began, it ended.
When you read more about the composer and his reasons for writing this piece, or what kind of headspace he was in when he composed it. It was after the atrocities of World War I, and dedicated to his friend and fellow composer Ernest Farrar, who had been killed in 1918 at 33 years old. Bridge’s horror at World War I, and apparent disappointment in his country, perhaps embodied in the death of his friend, was the mental climate he was in during the composition of this piece, having started in 1921. I didn’t get into any of the details of the composition earlier because I think… well, I hope you will have listened to it first, with no expectations or impressions made by any of my (potentially biased) comments.
In most if not all of the (sparse) resources I found about the piece, Bridge was referred to as a pacifist, so perhaps the tragedies of World War I, not only in his home country, but (as the name implies) worldwide, affected him especially deeply, and it seems they did. The sonata marks a turning point, according to many, in his output, from the “Edwardian” more palatable or approachable style of his earlier works, to one that was post-war… he began to embrace a far more modern vocabulary, as is visible here.
It wasn’t necessarily welcomed, though. The original pianist to premiere the piece, Harold Samuel declined/refused because he “found it bewildering,” it was instead premiered by Dame Myra Hess (someone who I only know for her very classical repertoire, like Scarlatti and Bach and Schumann [okay, so not all classical]) on October 15, 1925. Apparently critics didn’t care for it either, and being the first of his works in such a new style, was also the first of his works to be so heavily criticized. The YouTube notes on the above video state that “The Daily Telegraph [italics mine] reviewer felt it was ‘inclined to dourness throughout’, whilst in The Morning Post [italics mine] it was dismissed as a ‘disappointment’.” This was a solid decade after Scriabin’s stuff had hit the scene, and around the time Schoenberg really got systematic about his atonality with the twelve-tone system, but it seems his audiences hadn’t warmed up to it.
Aside from the heavy use of chromaticism and bitonality, the piece is at turns violent and chaotic, then eerily quiet, and this jarring contrast was apparently also a source of criticism from the audience.
For a fantastic resource about this piece, read the notes for this video (at the time of writing, I’m not sure if I will feature that one at the top of this article or not) (It turns out the other candidate has been removed). It’s where I got a lot of my info for details of this piece, although they can’t be corroborated.
My immediate thought about this piece was that it sounds like a not-so-Russian Scriabin, or like Debussy. There’s the harmonic language, use of dissonance, and the general palate or vocabulary of the piece.
Once I read about the relation to Bridge’s response to the war, the G# bell toll took took on the character of a radio signal, or a beacon, a call for help slowly drowned out by the noise around it.
That being said, there’s also discussion that the violence of WWI wasn’t wholly responsible for Bridge’s shift to a much more modern idiom. A YouTube commenter points out that he wasn’t the only one (composer) appalled by the war, but that it didn’t mark such a dramatic change in everyone else’s careers as it did with his. Reference was made to childlessness, but regardless, this is certainly a landmark work, a milestone in his output, and it conjures up questions about composers and their relationships with their art and their audience. I have read that Bridge was disappointed that his later works weren’t as accepted or welcomed as his earlier stuff. Did he perhaps feel that this was really his voice? Was he looking to begin to express himself differently regardless of the world’s political climate? It was obviously a conscious decision, no matter the reasons behind it, and unless there are any quotes from the man himself about his thought process, any other talk about it is speculation at best. What we have to assume is that the music, this piece, sounds the way the composer wanted it to sound, and it seems he clearly didn’t write it to reach the Billboard Top 100. And that is 100% okay with me.
It’s passion, emotion, it’s visceral, it’s real, and that’s what makes music.
Some other references you may want to check out:

trevor-bray-music-research.co.uk/Bridge%20LinB/ch4_42.html
http://www.musicweb-international.com/bridge/chapt2.html
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