Britten, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge

March 1, 2013

Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976

Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10, 1937

Frank BridgeThe English composer Benjamin Britten has proven to be one of the most original and enduring composers of the 20th century. Celebrated primarily for his vocal music, particularly his songs, several successful operas and the War Requiem, Britten was an equally brilliant instrumental composer with a number of excellent chamber pieces and at least two very popular orchestral scores: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell (also known as A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra) and Variations on the Theme of Frank Bridge. The common element between both works (and a number of other examples in his oeuvre) is a marvelous specialty of Britten's: a theme and variations with a concluding fugue, naturally based on the theme as well. Commissioned by Boyd Neel for his string orchestra, The "Frank Bridge Variations" were sketched, orchestrated and premiered within a three-month whirlwind in 1937. The result established the international reputation of Britten who was only 24 at the time. Frank Bridge was a progressive English composer a generation older than Britten who, upon learning of Britten's talents, agreed to take the young boy as his pupil. Britten studied with Bridge for several years eventually referring to the forgotten composer as crucial influence on his own mature style. Bridge was deeply touched by the variations that Britten dedicated to him with the words "To F.B. A tribute with affection and admiration."

The variations are an astonishing composition, representing the best kind of music that works on multiple levels. First, it is a stunning showcase of possibilities for string orchestra rich in texture, sonority, technique and expressive affect. For this alone it is already original. Second, it works as a delicious suite of musical selections regardless of their unifying relationship to Bridge's theme. Britten offers a panoply of styles and genres, again, in highly original treatments: march, slow movement Romance, Italian operatic aria, Viennese Waltz, moto perpetuo, funeral music, otherworldly chant, a brilliantly polyphonic fugue and a luscious Mahler-esque conclusion for a really ravishing summary. The music reveals Britten's encyclopedic musical awareness even at such a young age, as well as highlighting his imagination and wit. But wait, there's more! The variations, as the title suggests, are all cleverly (both obviously and subtly) related to a theme by Bridge such that the richness of diversity in style and mood is magically bound together with an artistic unity that, whether apparent, is vividly within the music for the curious and patient to discover.

Benjamin BrittenFor a "theme", Britten chose one of Bridge's short works for string quartet, the second of Three Idylls, O"/>For a "theme", Britten chose one of Bridge's short works for string quartet, the second of Three Idylls, Op. 6 from 1906. The piece lent more than just a theme to Britten's variations because Bridge's piece is itself a theme, a variation and a musical bridge. Britten uses not just the theme, but parts of the variation and the contrasting bridge to build his series of musical tableaux. The clearest recurring motif throughout Britten's variations is the first two notes of Bridge's theme, the descending interval of a perfect fifth. But there is much more to discover. Bridge's theme is clearly stated (without the contrasting musical bridge) in the "Introduction and Theme", in the middle section of the fugue and again in the finale. But almost all of the remaining music is cleverly derived and transformed from Bridge's brief two-and-a-half-minute miniature. Whether for its exquisite string orchestra textures (the fugue is astonishing), entrancing mood paintings, sweeping stylistic diversity or intriguing musical puzzles, Britten's variations are a multi-layered tour de force that entice one to seek out not only more Britten, but music of the worthy Frank Bridge as well.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.