Richard Hickox: Frank Bridge Isabella and Mid Of The Night Symphonic Poems

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Isabella, conducted by Richard Hickox with the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales.

Frank Bridge (1879--1941) made his name in Edwardian England as a chamber musician and com
poser. He was admired for his songs and piano miniatures, and for his tuneful chamber music which was described by his pupil Benjamin Britten as being 'easy on the ear and grateful to play'. Bridge was one of the leading viola players of his generation, the driving force behind the English string quartet for over fifteen years. However, he was also an orchestral musician of considerable pedigree, whose skills as an orchestral player, composer and eventually conductor were championed by no less a figure than Sir Henry Wood.

Romantic images of the night, of dreams and ghostly happenings, re-emerge in Bridge's second Symphonic Poem, Isabella, which he completed in January 1907. Henry Wood conducted the first performance at a Queen's Hall Promenade Concert on 3 October 1907.

No orchestral work by Bridge follows so detailed a narrative as Isabella. It is based on Keats's poetic version of the gruesome Florentine tale by Boccaccio. Isabella is in love with the handsome Lorenzo. When her two merchant brothers discover this they lure him into a forest and murder him. In a dream at the 'dull of midnight' Isabella is visited by Lorenzo's ghost and, taking her nurse with her, she rides into the dark of the forest, digs up her lover's body and places his decapitated head in a pot of basil. Later the brothers
 steal the 'horrid thing' and Isabella, heartbroken, 'dies forlorn, imploring for her basil to the last'. Taking the Lisztian model once again, Bridge's treatment is more richly scored and tightly constructed than Mid of the Night. Particularly impressive is the way in which he unfolds and combines the two themes associated with the lovers -- Lorenzo's heroic horn call and Isabella's tender oboe melody -- into a radiant climax. Their transformation into a spine-chilling midnight ride, the moment of Lorenzo's murder, and his ghostly appearance at Isabella's bed-side could hardly be more vividly portrayed. The final transformation of Isabella's theme into a haunting minor-key lament reveals just how much Bridge learned from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. In the final apotheosis tragedy gives way to tender resolution as the lovers are reunited in death.

Richard Hickox with the BBC Orchestra of Wales: Frank Bridge Mid Of The Night (1904)

Bridge was born in Brighton and studied at the Royal College of Music in London from 1899 to 1903 under Charles Villiers Stanford and others. He played the viola in a number of string quartets, most notably the English String Quartet (along with Marjorie Hayward), and conducted, sometimes deputising for Henry Wood, before devoting himself to composition, receiving the patronage of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.
He privately tutored a number of pupils, most famously Benjamin Britten, who later championed his teacher's music and paid homage to him in the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), based on a theme from the second of Bridge's Three Idylls for String Quartet (1906). Bridge died in Eastbourne.

29 May 1904 marked the first milestone in Bridge's professional career, when he conducted the first performance at London's St James's Hall of a symphonic poem he had finished the previous October. Mid of the Night, which is receiving only its second performance here, is an ambitious work of Lisztian proportions; the twenty-four-year-old Bridge clearly wanted to demonstrate all that he could do as a composer and orchestrator. The score is prefaced with these lines:

Comes the mid of the night, ends for a while the
Up from the depths of the soul memories well
into life.
Emblazened [sic] against the night more and more
real they are growing;
Comes the approach of dawn and they die in the
bleak grey light.

No longer under Stanford's watchful eye, Bridge looked further afield than Brahms and Dvorˇák for his models. He loved the music of Tchaikovsky, for example, and some of this composer's dark orchestral colouring finds its way into the brooding introduction. The music unfolds with freedom and confidence although within a sonata-form framework. The balletic first subject and the lilting, almost Elgarian second episode are both fast and flowing, culminating in a brilliant fanfare. In place of the development there is an extended lyrical episode, begun with haunting cor anglais and violin solos and brought to an impassioned climax. The recapitulation is compressed, driving the music on until it dies away with the 'approach of dawn'.

Frank Bridge
Frank Bridge (Photo credit: Steve Hunnisett)
Richard Hickox
Richard Hickox (Photo credit: Wikipedia)