Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10
Introduction and theme - Adagio - March - Romance - Aria Italiana - Bourée Classique - Wiener Walzer - Moto Perpetuo - Funeral March - Chant - Fugue and Finale
When asked, after he had conducted a concert featuring Ravel's music, if such an eminent composer would ever emerge from England, Frank Bridge replied, "You will hear of one: Benji Britten."
The relationship between Britten and Bridge was of crucial importance for the younger composer: it was hearing and being "knocked sideways" by Bridge's Suite The Sea that set the young Britten on the path to becoming a composer himself, and it was his subsequent lessons with Bridge that honed and disciplined his natural talent, instilling in him his mentor's sense of rigour: Bridge insisted that a composer should write not one more note than was absolutely necessary to make his point, and this asceticism would become the backbone of Britten's own style.
So when the commission came to write a work for Boyd Neel's string orchestra to perform at the Salzburg Festival it was natural that Britten should take the opportunity to compose something in tribute to his teacher. The resulting work was heard in 1937, and confirmed Britten's growing reputation as England's brightest musical talent. What was particularly remarkable about the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge was their European quality: aside from the parodies of Italian, Austrian and French music, Britten had an obvious knowledge of such composers as Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, which set him apart from the insular attitude of much of 1930s Britain, exemplified by the suspicious reviews the work received in British newspapers, in contrast to the more positive reception afforded by the European press.
Perhaps Britten intended to provoke: the theme he uses - from Bridge's Three Idylls for string quartet - has a wistful, nostalgic quality (of a kind that Bridge himself had abandoned for a more abrasive style) that is blown away by its subsequent transformations. The work was intended as more than witty parody though: the variations originally had subtitles, intended to indicate aspects of his teacher's personality. It was only with difficulty that Bridge himself persuaded Britten to abandon these, unquestionably the right decision; while the brooding first variation might embody "his integrity", it is difficult to see what the distillation of every waltz cliché in the Wiener Walzer has to do with "his gaiety", and "his sympathy" is an entirely inadequate description of the extraordinary funeral march, whose bitterness is only magnified by the frothy vivaciousness of what precedes it. The extraordinary "Chant" that follows enters another realm altogether. A devilish fugue takes us to the conclusion, which weaves quotations from other works of Bridge around the main theme. So subtle are these that it is only in very recent years that anyone has noticed they are even there.