Frank Bridge was born in Brighton in 1879, a younger child in
a large family. He first learned to play the violin from his father, and
enjoyed the benefit of early exposure to practical musicianship as a player
in music-hall orchestras which his father conducted. In 1896 at age 17
he entered the Royal College of Music, where he studied violin and piano
for three years. Following this, he received a scholarship to study
composition for another four years under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.
On graduating in 1903, he was awarded the gold Tagore medal reserved for
generally deserving pupil' and received the highest praise from respected
composer and teacher at the RCM, Sir Hubert Parry.
On leaving the RCM, Bridge earned his living by teaching and performing.
As a violin/viola player, he played in London's leading orchestras and
was a member of three string quartets, and regularly coached student
chamber groups at the RCM. In 1904, he performed in the British
première of the newly completed Debussy String Quartet.
In 1906 Bridge composed his own first String Quartet (in E minor)
as an entry in a competition sponsored by the Filharmonica Accademica
of Bologna, Italy. The same year, he formed a friendship with German-born
businessman Edward Speyer - a relationship lasting to Speyer's death in
1934. In his memoirs, Speyer gives fond testimony to Bridge's role
in the many delightful musical weekends enjoyed at his Hertfordshire home.
Bridge's future wife, Ethel Sinclair, was a fellow student at the
RCM. In late 1907 she returned from her native Australia to England
where she and Frank were married in September 1908, and established
themselves in Chiswick. In midwinter 1909-10, Bridge composed his famous
Suite for Strings over a few short weeks.
Bridge was a thorough craftsman whose skill as a composer was
finely sharpened by the depth of his practical musicianship. He soon
established a solid reputation as violist in several quartets, most
notably the English String Quartet, in which he played from 1903 into
the early 1920s. He was also active as a conductor around this time,
as rehearsal director of the New Symphony (then recently formed) and
at London's Savoy Theatre during its 1910-11 season. It was around
the time of the coronation of George V in 1911 that he composed
his suite The Sea, which appeared frequently in Promenade
concert programmes through the end of the 1930s. The great
String Sextet (1912) is the culmination of this period in
Bridge's creative development.
As a consequence of his professional excellence, he was often sought
as 'last-minute' replacement conductor - a role which he openly
disliked. These conducting engagements included Covent Garden (for Beecham)
and the Promenade Concerts (for Sir Henry Wood). While Bridge felt hurt
and underappreciated not to obtain a permanent conducting post, this
failure was attributable in part to an exacting though at times tactless
manner with musicians. Though recognizing and respecting his exceptional
excellence as conductor, musicians viewed him at times as unencouraging
or even abrasive on the podium.
In 1914, the Bridges moved from Chiswick to Bedford Gardens, Kensington,
where Frank composed his second String Quartet (in G minor),
which won first prize the following year in the annual chamber music
competition sponsored by the industrialist W.W. Cobbett. The beautiful
tone poem Summer was composed that same year.
In 1916, Bridge as part of the English String Quartet began to cut back
on public engagements, in favor of more private performances. One place
for these 'drawing room' concerts was the home of Marjorie Fass, who lived
a few doors down from the Bridges, with whom she became close friends.
With a decline in publishing royalties during and immediately after the
Great War, Bridge's life was not easy, and he was compelled by economic
hardship to spend much of his time teaching violin far and wide, leaving
him little time for composing.
After 1920, Bridge took up a new direction with his music which was
no longer to reach the same wide audience as did the light and more lyrical
output of his pre-war Edwardian years. It is often repeated that the war
with its unprecedented, irrational toll in human lives left a deep
personal mark on pacifist Bridge and, by extension, his musical idiom.
This is no doubt true to some extent, as the depth of Bridge's pacifist
conviction is well-established. However, Lewis Foreman has suggested that
this worn formula misses the mark, and that Bridge's growing awareness of
the childlessness of his marriage was at the heart of this transformation -
an argument supported by the time and energy Bridge expended in teaching
and mentoring the young Benjamin Britten, the only pupil to whom he taught
composition. Young Britten's affectionate relationship with the Bridges
can almost be likened to that of an adopted son.
In 1922, Bridge had the good fortune of meeting millionaire American patron
of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge at the home of publisher Winthrop Rogers.
That summer, Bridge and his wife Ethel, along with Rogers, toured France
and the West Country with Mrs Coolidge. The Bridges and Coolidge soon
established what was to become a lifelong acquaintance. Before returning to
America, the influential Coolidge extended to the Bridges an invitation to
the following year's Berkshire Chamber Music Festival, in western Massachusetts.
Early in 1923, the Bridges and Marjorie Fass purchased land near the South
Downs village of Friston, with the aim of constructing adjacent cottages.
An amateur musician and artist, Fass was a close friend of the Bridges
since 1916 in Bedford Gardens. The cottages were eventually completed.
It was there that Benjamin Britten frequently visited with the Bridges.
Recalling his visits in 1931, Britten noted that Marjorie Fass was always
in and out of the Bridges' house, and used a variety of nicknames with
Bridge ("Franco", "Mr Brit", and "Duddles"). Composer, pianist,
and music editor Howard Ferguson, who frequented the Bridge's home in those
days, plainly said (in a phone interview with Britten's biographer
Humphrey Carpenter in 1990) that he judged Fass was in love with Bridge and
that it was a contented ménage à trois. In any
event, Fass seems at least to have had a sort of infatuated affection
for Bridge, with whom she first became acquainted when the English String
Quartet rehearsed regularly at her home; however, it may still be
questionned whether Bridge himself had any feelings beyond simple
friendship toward Fass.
Through Coolidge's patronage and mediation, Bridge was able to bring
his works to America's orchestras, touring the United States as guest
conductor in 1923, also returning to visit in later years.
The more important consequence of this patronage was to enable Bridge
to devote himself more exclusively to composing, though his health
regretably began to falter after 1930. Though active all his life,
Bridge most preferred spending time in the company of a few close
friends in the quiet retreat of the South Downs cottage near Eastbourne,
where he composed many of his finest works. During the winter of 1940-41
he was at work on a large composition for string orchestra.
One very cold Friday afternoon in 1941, after puttering over his car and
exchanging a friendly word with a neighbor, he came back into the
house saying he felt sick, lay down for a few hours, and died of congestive
heart failure early that same evening. Only a single movement
Allegro moderato was completed of the projected work. In the wake
of what was to be a new and more terrible European war, his music
soon slipped into a temporary oblivion.
It was not until more than two decades later that Bridge's works truly began
their reemergence, largely through the efforts of the Frank Bridge Trust.
In effect, the higher quality of post-war recording technology permitted many
more people to hear Bridge's music than during his own lifetime, earning him
in the time since his death, recognition he would certainly have appreciated.
Paul Hindmarsh Frank Bridge: A Thematic Catalogue (1983)
Anthony Payne, article "Frank Bridge" in The New Grove's (1980)
Humphrey Carpenter Benjamin Britten: A Biography (1992)
Liner notes by John Bishop, Anthony Payne, and Paul Hindmarsh, accompanying
Under continuous revision & amplification. This version: 2 FEB 1998