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The Sea, Suite for Orchestra

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Frank Bridge
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Andrew Litton, conductor / Stephen Hough, piano, plays Rachmaninoff Apr. 19 - 21, 2012
© Paul Horsley

Just as the French impressionist composers of the early 20th century were fond of depicting water and the sea through music, British composers showed a similar fascination-appropriate, perhaps, for a nation surrounded by water. From Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony to Elgar's Sea Pictures or Charles Villiers Stanford's Songs of the Sea, composers took varying approaches, some casting the sea abstractly, others taking a more literal turn. Frank Bridge's little-known The Sea, a set of impressions along the lines of Debussy's La Mer is gently representational without being strictly programmatic.

Born in Brighton, England, Bridge studied piano and violin at the Royal College of Music before taking up composition with Stanford, who had a huge impact on his musical formation. After graduation, Bridge taught, conducted, and performed in leading British orchestras and string quartets (as violist). Today one of the least celebrated of the group of British composers that included Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Bax, Holst, and Ireland, Bridge is known to many of us chiefly through another composer's work, namely Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. A longtime admirer of Bridge's music, Britten regarded him as one of the great British composers of his day, and he held The Sea in high regard.

The Sea belongs to what might be called Bridge's first maturity, during the years leading up to World War I. The set of four miniatures was composed in 1911 and received its premiere in London on September 24, 1912, conducted by Henry Wood at the Proms. It is a finely crafted work, Romantic at its heart but often impressionistic in flavor, with a sophisticated command of line and texture.

The opening Seascape "paints the sea on a summer morning," Bridge writes. "From high drifts is seen a great expanse of waters lying in the sunlight. Warm breezes play over the surface." Here tender solo moments, chiefly in the winds, are juxtaposed with stately climaxes for full orchestra that are like waves, as if to convey the slow undulations of the sea. Scurrying winds and quirky outbursts characterize Sea-foam; the tempo broadens for a brief horn passage: "Sea-foam: froth among the low-lying rocks and pools on the shore," Bridge writes. Moonlight is a tender serenade, first for winds then for an increasingly full orchestra, with an undulating harp accompaniment that is like the surf. "A calm sea at night," the composer writes. "The first moonbeams are struggling to pierce through dark clouds, which eventually pass over, leaving the sea shimmering in full moonlight." The final Storm announces its intentions from the outset. "Wind, rain and tempestuous seas," Bridge writes of the melodramatic string cascades and brass cries for help. As the storm subsides, the composer reintroduces the broad, triumphant theme from Seascape, "which may be regarded as the sea-lover's dedication to the sea."