Listening to Britten – Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10

Britten and Frank Bridge, 1930
Britten and Frank Bridge, picture courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation

Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10 (5 June – 12 July 1937, Britten aged 23)

Introduction and theme
Variation 1: Adagio
Variation 2: March
Variation 3: Romance
Variation 4: Aria Italiana
Variation 5: Bourrée classique
Variation 6: Wiener walzer
Variation 7: Moto perpetuo
Variation 8: Funeral march
Variation 9: Chant
Variation 10: Fugue and finale

Dedication To F.B. A tribute with affection and admiration
Duration 25′

Audio clips: using Britten’s own recording with the English Chamber Orchestra. With thanks to Decca.

Bridge – Idyll no.2 (theme) (Goldner String Quartet)

Introduction and theme

Variation 1: Adagio (his integrity / depth)

Variation 2: March (his energy)

Variation 3: Romance (his charm)

Variation 4: Aria Italiana (his wit)

Variation 5: Bourrée classique (his humour)

Variation 6: Wiener walzer (his tradition)

Variation 7: Moto perpetuo (his enthusiasm)

Variation 8: Funeral march (his vitality)

Variation 9: Chant (his reverence)

Variation 10: Fugue and finale (his skill / our affection)

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s work for Love From A Stranger came back to haunt him in a good way in 1937, when the musical director of that film Boyd Neel recalled his ability to produce high quality music to aggressive deadlines. Neel needed a piece to take to Salzburg in the summer – and in the space of just 20 days Britten fulfilled his brief.

Not only that, he paid a handsome tribute to his teacher and close friend Frank Bridge in the process. The initial concept of the variations was to write one each on Bridge’s character, as shown in italics above, but these were dropped from the finished piece. The theme itself gets a rigorous workout, and in the Fugue Britten plays the trump card by quoting from his favourite Bridge pieces. The reference to The Sea is especially poignant, given out on their shared main instrument, the viola.

Michael Oliver is right to highlight what he calls the ‘Europeanness’ of the piece, citing this as the reason for the success of the premiere in Salzburg, which was more successful than any performance in the UK in that period. This is, he reasons, due to their closer affinity to Bartók, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Mahler than any other English works of the time.

Thoughts

The Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge are quite rightly held up as one of the finest – if not the finest – English works for string orchestra in the 20th century.

It is interesting to note how much Britten draws from the immediate past to make them so. Bridge supplies the theme, of course – but an unlikely source of inspiration is Elgar, for his concept of personalised variations and also the idea of separating a string quartet from the main body of the orchestra. Britten develops this theme with what is known as ‘divisi’ writing, splitting one section of the string orchestra in two or more. It is possible to hear how arrangers in pop music have adopted this technique, with Nellee Hooper (Massive Attack and Björk) and Craig Armstrong (Madonna’s Ray of Light album) prominent examples.

Sonically the Variations are a wonderful piece to turn up loud and indulge in. You get the hefty Funeral March, which really packs a punch, but then you get the creepy Chant, which surely has potential as a horror film soundtrack. The galloping Aria Italiana is great fun, as if Britten is trying to musically represent one of his hair-raising car trips in the company of Bridge, while the Romance is a real balletic beauty. It is easy to see how a young Peter Pears was so affected by this movement when he reported back both to Britten and his diary on the Salzburg premiere.

As Michael Kennedy shrewdly points out in his biography of the composer, nobody hearing Our Hunting Fathers should be surprised by the advances made by Britten in this piece – but for concert audiences the Variations have endured to become one of Britten’s most popular works. Long may that stay the case!

Recordings used
English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields / Sir Neville Marriner (Decca)
London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (LPO)
Scottish Ensemble / Clio Gould (Linn)
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra / Iona Brown (Virgin Classics)
Amsterdam Sinfonietta / Candida Thompson (Channel Classics)
Boyd Neel Orchestra / Boyd Neel (Pearl)

The Variations are one of Britten’s most recorded works. At the top of the list must stand the composer’s own recording, made in 1967. Not only is it authentic and deeply personal but its sound still stands up incredibly well against modern digital rivals. The high violin phrases are beautifully rendered.

Almost as good is the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields version, superbly realised with virtuoso playing and bags of character, and a lovely sweet tone and triple time poise in the Romance.

Iona Brown, one of the violin soloists in that recording, delivers a highly charged version of her own with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, though there are a couple of tempo fluctuations here that don’t feel as secure. Speaking of tempo, Camerata Amsterdam set a furious pace in the Moto perpetuo, part of a strong recording, while the Scottish Ensemble are incisive too, their slightly reduced numbers benefiting from the clarity of Linn’s demonstration recorded sound.

The Boyd Neel version is very useful as a historical document and has plenty of feeling, if not the full technical expertise of its later counterparts. The composer, though, gets the strongest possible vote here, a recording that ought to be in the home of every Britten collector!

Spotify
A playlist containing the Bridge Idyll no.2, together with the versions conducted by Britten, Jurowski and Clio Gould, can be found here

Also written in 1937: Shostakovich – Symphony no.5 in D minor, Op.47

Next up: A Company of Heaven

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4 Responses to Listening to Britten – Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10

  1. Pingback: Britten and earworms | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Les illuminations, Op.18 | Good Morning Britten

  3. “The Variations” will be part of the program of the Greenwich Symphony Orchestra this Saturday and Sunday in Greenwich, Connecticut. My wife will play the viola.

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