Bridge Piano Trio no. 2

performed by the Dartington Piano Trio, or below by Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Maurice Gendron, cello; Benjamin Britten, piano

We’ve visited Frank Bridge before, a number of years ago, but that was a while ago, and I didn’t discuss his upbringing and education in too great detail, so here’s a quick overview.

Frank Bridge was born on 26 February 1879 in Brighton. He studied at the Royal College of Music under C.V. Stanford and others, played the viola in a number of ensembles and conducted, even deputizing for Henry Wood, before he began composing. Wikipedia says he wrote “a series of substantial chamber works produced during his studies with C.V. Stanford at the Royal College of Music, along with a number of shorter works in various genres,” and that “Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Franck, and Fauré are notable influences of this period.”  As he matured, and as we shall see, he is said to have showed greater interest in “modernist tendencies.”

Much of this could be said to be a result of the First World War, unsurprisingly. Wiki again says:

Bridge’s idiom in the wartime works tends towards moderation, but after the war his language developed significantly, building on the experiments with impressionist harmony found in the wartime piano and orchestral music.

This development of his harmonic language is described as a move “specifically towards a coloristic, non-functional use of harmony, and a preference for harmony derived from symmetrical scales such as whole tone and octatonic.” Bridge is a composer about whom I’m sure much more is written elsewhere, but that’s a slippery slope, and I already have enough books in my waiting list. Maybe another time, sir.

In any case, his  second piano trio comes from that post-war period. In Surprised by Beauty, Robert R. Reilly discusses Bridge in one chapter, perhaps one of the only inclusions that barely made it, seeing as Bridge flirts with atonality and “succumbed to Arnold Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School of organized atonality”, (p. 72) but also says that he “never lost his essentially rhapsodic and somewhat melancholic nature.” (p. 73) One clearly gets the message in Reilly’s book that he is wholly against the turn towards atonality, serialism and the avant-garde, hence the title of the book, so he says of Bridge’s wandering away from harmony:

…one wonders about Bridge’s partial conversion to atonality after the First World War, especially in the later chamber pieces… although these are not as forbidding as it may sound.

He also mentions (p. 74) that one writer says Bridge’s move to atonality was prompted not so much by any war as much as  “Bridge’s dawning realization that his marriage was inferior,” but giving no source for this statement or who this writer is. He continues:

His more tonally conflicted kind of music, sometimes despite itself, seems ineluctably to express disillusionment and anger. Hear, for instance, the pained, halting steps in the laments of the third movement of the Piano Trio no. 2. Bridge obviously knew the expressive content of this sad language and how to employ it to great effect.

Whatever the reason for this change in tone, or whether you perceive it as good or bad, it’s palpable in this work. In contrast with some of Bridge’s earlier work (in particular his earlier Phantasie Trio), Calum MacDonald says that “The much larger Trio No. 2 (1928-29), on the other hand, is an austere, haunted masterpiece in his later idiom: its eerie opening at once plunges one into an entirely different sound-world.”

And we hear that right from the beginning. The opening of the piece reminds me of something yet more modern, and only because they share a little piano flourish that might not sound all that similar if I go back and listen to it now. Go listen to the first few phrases of Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet. That’s a piece I can’t say I’m particularly in love with, especially considering its length, but it is very dreamy, and it feels like Bridge and Feldman start from the same jumping off point. I know Feldman came along half a century later. I know.

But Bridge gives us this dreamy, shimmery entrance. Listen to the first three utterances, one from each instrument, violin, cello then piano. These will stick with us in this 35-minute, four-movement work. I get the feeling that each of these gestures, each brush stroke, is like a delicate carving out of a shape, that with each repeated pass, each reappearance, more shape is taken in the work, and the underlying figure, a sculpture, appears.

I don’t really feel any need to discuss the structure or development of the work. The first movement alone is powerful, compelling, at once diaphanous and grave. Everything we hear billows out slowly from those first three utterances, like curls of smoke that slowly fill a room, and what develops isn’t pretty melodies, not even unpretty melodies, but an atmosphere, an environment, shimmery or suffocating, and it envelops the listener. Where do we go from here. Where can we go?

The second movement is marked molto allegro, and acts as a scherzo of sorts, I suppose, and its opening is chattery and disconnected, almost, but once the separate pieces seem to come together, and everyone is in step, the more full-bodied scherzo is presented, and it is obviously more energetic and spirited, but really not terribly far removed from the atmosphere of the opening, just a different phase. The word ‘agitated’ comes to mind. As has been said of many other scherzos, there’s nothing terribly joking about it; at the most, it has a very dark humor, mischievous, but not sarcastic or acerbic like we’d hear from Prokofiev.

The middle two movements together are shorter than the first, and the third is marked andante molto. It plays, at least to me, more on the tender side of this atmosphere of solitude and melancholy. Not so dark or tragic, with some softer harmonies, some tenderness. That being said, there’s still not much relief from this wandering remoteness, and the sense of distance and loneliness prevails.

And then the finale comes along, making these two middle movements feel more like interludes, side rooms to the larger space of the first and last movements. The finale opens with a nervous energy, developing quickly into the first sense of drive and momentum we’ve heard in the entire work, until about halfway through.

No spoilers here, but I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, the way the work finishes. It gives a compelling, beautifully-constructed close to a work that has stepped beyond the familiar territory of the Romantic idiom, sounds distant and eerie, but should present no real challenges to even the uninitiated listener. It’s not pretty, soft tunes like you’d hear from Tchaikovsky or something, but that’s also not the only thing music is about, is it?

It’s also a good example of how dissonance and modern harmonic vocabulary can be put to good use. There’s nothing here I’d describe as harsh. In fact, this is not a piece, overall, that blows you away at first listen, or at least it didn’t for me. You kind of have to let it soak in. There’s nothing shocking or jarring about it, but it is unmistakably not your run-of-the-mill whitebread Romantic chamber music, and I quite like that. Reilly might be a bit less convinced, but there’s good music here.

This is one of the more outrightly modern works we’ve discussed in this series. The symphonies, by and large, have had their roots firmly in the traditions of the Romantic era, albeit with greater use of dissonances and modern sounds, but it’s through some of the chamber music we’ll discuss that we will hear some of the adventures into more avant-garde sounds Actually, one symphony was scheduled for the end of this series until I learned the composer was Scottish, not English, although he’s listed as both. I have nothing against the Scots at all, and was looking forward to featuring the composer and the piece, but for organizational purposes, I’ll have to save it for later.

In any case, that’s all for this week, so stay tuned for some outstanding symphonies next week, and as always, thanks for listening and for reading.


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