Variations of a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10

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            Benjamin Britten is one of the last century’s most respected composers, and unquestionably the most influential and admired British composer from WW II until his death in 1976.   Fantastically gifted from an early age (almost a thousand compositions before his first mature, published one!), he was blessed with the early attainment of an authentic personal “voice” in his musical style.  That style was at once perceived as modern, fresh, and non-derivative—and yet generally accessible and popular with the broad public for art music.   From the beginning he was practically contemptuous of the main stream of revered British composers—Elgar, Vaughan William, Holst, and others, sometimes dubbed the “pastoralists,” but which Britten cheekily referred to as the “cowpat” school.  Their utilization of traditional English folk music as an important stylistic source was substantially criticized by Britten as evidence of a lack of imagination and a reactionary step in a century whose art was moving rapidly into the future.  

            It is clear that he had a special gift for vocal music, and there are hundreds of works in various genres as evidence; in point of fact, it is in the field of opera and stage works that he made perhaps his most important contribution, starting with his first big success, Peter Grimes.  That opera was finished in 1945, and he went on to compose well over a dozen more works that collectively place him with Richard Strauss, Puccini, and Janáček as the giants of twentieth-century opera.

            Nevertheless, Britten was an active and successful composer of instrumental music—the list is long, one only has to think of such works as The Young Person’s Guide to the OrchestraFour Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes,” film scores, and several important solo concertos.

            The Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge stands of equal merit with the foregoing, and is considered one of his best compositions for orchestra.  It is an early work, and brought him widespread recognition.  Britten enjoyed a long association with Bridge, and studied composition with him privately early on.  Bridge was a well-known composer and violist in Great Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, and composer of almost 200 works in most of the major genres.  At the age of eleven Britten was introduced to the works of Bridge at a concert, and was bowled over by one of Bridge’s symphonic poems.  A couple of years later a mutual acquaintance introduced Britten to Bridge, and the composition lessons began.  Later, of course, Britten studied at The Royal College of Music under luminaries such as John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin.  By the early 1930s his compositions were garnering national recognition, and his career flourished.

            The Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge was composed in 1937 and received its première that year at the prestigious Salzburg Festival.  Worldwide acclaim soon followed.  The theme that Britten employed as the basis for his variations is taken from the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet, composed in 1906.  Following the introduction and statement of the theme, there follows ten variations.   Part of the charm and accessibility of the work is the specific genre, popular style, or allusive mood of each variation.  There are many kinds of musical variations, and Britten’s are so-called “character” variations. That is, the idea is not to clearly track the melody in each variation with the basic identity of the melody clearly preserved as each variation unfolds.   Rather, the composer—based on his own imagination, and the procedural challenge--extracts for each variation a specific, distinct element of the original tune as a basis.  The listener is generally not even expected to clearly hear the original tune lurking in each variation—it’s a “private” inspiration for the composer alone.  The originality of the result is the point for the listener.  And so it is here.

            The introduction opens dramatically with jagged figures and the theme, which will serve as the basic material throughout soon follows—but to be honest, it’s not really easy to spot.  What follows is a delightful—but decidedly “modern”—series of historical genres, dances, styles, and techniques.  Each of them a virtuoso exploration of familiar musical elements.  

            The composer himself made clear the association of each of the unique variations with aspects of his mentor’s personality.  It’s a bit tedious, but to wit:  the Adagio, his integrity; the March, his energy; the Romance, his charm; the Aria Italiana [think of Rossini’s comic operas], his humor; the Bourrée [a Baroque dance], his tradition; the Wiener Waltzer [Viennese Waltz], his enthusiasm; the Moto perpetuo, his vitality; the Funeral March, his sympathy; the Chant, his reverence; the Fugue—and it’s a doozy—his skill.   The Finale wraps it up, and is meant to symbolize and embrace their warm relationship.

            Throughout Britten demonstrates his mastery of the panoply of special effects possible in writing for string orchestra.   The variety and nuance of his imaginative scoring            is impressive. The fugue is especially remarkable, even to the point of scoring for up to fifteen distinct parts for the five sections at times.  While the composer may have rather ambiguous and coy in delineating Bridge’s melody way back at the beginning in the section labeled “theme,” in the “fugue” you can hear it clearly alluded to in the four solo instruments playing it slowly over the frenetic fugue.  The dazzling fugue ends softly on a stark unison.  In the ensuing “Finale” one finally hears the theme clearly and simply articulated.  It’s rather like Elgar’s famous “Enigma Variations,” where the fundamental theme is never revealed.  But, in this case, Britten at the end lets us in on the secret.

            Britten is almost universally acknowledged as the greatest composer of English opera since the seventeenth-century works of Henry Purcell.   The Variations of a Theme of Frank Bridge is a relatively early work, and Britten did go on to write other acclaimed instrumental pieces.  Yet, it makes us wish only that he had gone on to write more of them.

  --Wm. E. Runyan

©2022 William E. Runyan