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Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Benjamin Britten
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: John Storgårds, conductor / Sol Gabetta, cello, plays Shostakovich Nov. 7 - 9, 2013
© Peter Laki

Benjamin Britten would have turned 100 on November 22. This weekend, the NSO celebrates the British master's anniversary by performing the work that first brought him to the attention of the international music world. In this colorful score for string orchestra, Britten paid tribute to his composition teacher Frank Bridge (1879-1941), who had turned him from a brilliant child prodigy into a seasoned professional. Bridge was a successful composer in his own time, although his fame has certainly been eclipsed by his famous pupil-the only one he ever taught. The young Britten chose an early work by Bridge for his set of variations-a melody from Three Idylls for String Quartet, written in 1906, seven years before Britten's birth. At the time, Bridge was still writing in a late Romantic, ?Edwardian" style that had something in common with Elgar.

The young Britten's musical orientation couldn't have been more different. Yet he must have remembered Elgar's "Enigma Variations," where the individual movements offered musical portraits of the composer's friends. For Britten, each variation represented a different facet of a single person's portrait. His model throughout the work was his teacher, and in the different variations he wanted to capture, in turn, Bridge's ?integrity . . . energy . . . charm . . . wit . . . gaiety," as he noted in the sketches. In the process, he moved rather far afield from the stylistic world of the original theme. Britten prefaced the "Idyll" (a gentle melody in waltz rhythm) by an agitated introduction. Of the eleven variations that follow, the first-a hesitant Adagio-gives an inkling of what Britten's mature style would be like: the constant interruptions of the melodic line anticipate a much later set of variations (Lachrymae for viola and piano, 1950). Each subsequent variation in the string-orchestra piece contrasts strongly with its neighbors. First we hear a grotesquely chromatic march, then, in turn, a "Romance" whose sentimental effusiveness borders on parody; an "Aria italiana" with playful allusions to the world of opera; a "Bourrée classique" with Baroque rhythms and modern harmonies; a "Wiener Walzer" that, surprisingly, is never quite allowed to get off the ground; a dashing "Moto perpetuo"; a "Funeral March" or, rather, lament where the idyll almost turns into tragedy; and a "Chant" that juxtaposes the choral recitation of Russian church polyphony with some eerie string harmonics. Finally, the melody is turned into a fugue theme; it assumes a complex form and is developed rather extensively. The concluding section features instead an ?endless" string melody against a rhythmically active background that, after a lengthy transition, leads into the work's dignified ending.