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It’s easy to tag Frank Bridge with the “British pastoral” label and leave it at that, but if we think about it, the language here is au courant, and not a little revolutionary. To pigeonhole Frank Bridge as some Edwardian throwback misses a great deal.

Frank Bridge (1879–1941). Summer (1914)
Bridge. The Sea (1911)

Frank Bridge, 1921

Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.

In Fleisher Discoveries, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.

If you know the name of Frank Bridge at all in classical music, it’s likely you know it because of Benjamin Britten. And that’s because that composer wrote the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which I’m sure is performed more than all of Frank Bridge’s works put together. In his delightful work Britten honors his teacher—yes, Bridge taught the young Britten and they remained lifelong friends. Not only a friend, Britten was also a champion of Bridge’s music, conducting much of it, when hardly anyone else was. In 1963 he told the Sunday Telegraph, “I haven’t yet achieved the simplicity I should like in my music, and I am enormously aware that I haven’t yet come up to the technical standards Bridge set me.”

But other than that quote we won’t hear a peep out of Benjamin Britten on today’s Fleisher Discoveries, as we turn the entire podcast over to the music of Frank Bridge, specifically, his tone poem Summer and a suite called The Sea. If you’ve never heard his music, these will serve as an excellent introduction to a composer who I think should be heard more.

Summer and The Sea are appropriate for this July Discoveries, and appropriate also, because Frank Bridge was born in that most summer- and sea-loving town in all of England, Brighton. Brighton is now, was at Bridge’s birth, and had been for generations a seaside resort, a destination of escape from London for those who could. It’s referred to throughout 19th-century British literature. To those of us in the Philadelphia area, Brighton is the Jersey shore. It’s as if Frank Bridge were born in Atlantic City or Cape May.

Bridge was the tenth of a passel of children from his father and his three wives. The family was in a line of tradesmen, of shoemakers and printers, until his father chucked it all and began working in the field of his passion, music. He played and taught violin, and conducted the local theater orchestra in Brighton. He saw to it that young Frank not only took up the violin, but he made him practice, practice, and practice, to the end that the boy became good enough at it to play in local orchestras and bands. Then, he was accepted into the best music school in the country, London’s Royal College of Music.

There were scads of good violinists, he discovered, so he took up the viola and began subbing in some of the leading string quartets in the city. With that experience, on top of his years of playing in and even conducting Brighton orchestras, Frank Bridge began to earn a reputation for a deep knowledge of ensemble sound. His upbringing wasn’t far different from that of Richard Strauss, 15 years older than Bridge. He also, from playing violin in his father Franz Strauss’s community orchestra, knew in Germany, as Bridge in England knew in his fingertips and in his bones, how to make an orchestra sound fantastic.

Frank Bridge married an RCM classmate, Ethel Sinclair, and was accepted into the composition studio of the revered composer and teacher Charles Villiers Stanford. He played, he composed songs and chamber music, including a prize-winning string quartet, and he conducted.

Throw anything in front of him, and he could play or conduct it: that was his theater orchestra experience paying off. He ascended the ranks of conductors by being able to fill in for anyone, with any program, at any time.

He was known as the “ambulance conductor,” many times filling in for sick conductors, often conductors from the continent. The great Anglican church composer Herbert Howells once wrote that Bridge, “more than any man in recent musical history, could survive with dignity, and even with profit, the ordeal of conductor-proxy, and leave his compatriots wondering why it was so often necessary for a celebrity’s toothache to be the ridiculously inadequate reason for our having the opportunity to hear a naturally endowed native conductor.”

All of his scholastic and practical experience went into his tone poem Summer. From the year of the beginning of the First World War, 1914, Summer has been heard not only as descriptive music but also as music by a pacifist—for such Frank Bridge was—composing at the edge of that violent abyss.

In its ten or so minutes, listen not only to a description of summer, and not only to an engagement with the emotions summer can produce in a young man, but listen for this particular summer, this particular man who grew up with summers in a particular town in England, and written in the year a world war began, and see if it speaks to you even more.

On Fleisher Discoveries, Summer by Frank Bridge, from 1914, here performed by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, conducted by Norman Del Mar.

[Frank Bridge (1879–1941). Summer (1914)]

The tone poem Summer by Frank Bridge. Norman Del Mar conducted the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.

Bridge composed this in 1914, the beginning of World War I, and you may have noticed something else about the musical language, which definitely sets it in this time period, and that would be the sound of Impressionism, the sound of Debussy. What’s interesting to me is that it’s easy to tag Frank Bridge and other English composers of his time with the “British pastoral” label and leave it at that, but if we think about it, the language here is au courant, and not a little revolutionary.

Bridge’s teacher Stanford, for one, would have nothing to do with it, sniffing at the modern French influence as claptrap, music which defied the settled laws of harmony. And, of course, Stanford was right, in that accepted harmonic language had been upended by Claude Debussy, who learned his revolutionary ideals from Richard Wagner. Some went for it, some resisted it, and of such intrigues is the drama of music history written. But to try to pigeonhole Frank Bridge as some Edwardian pastoral throwback misses a great deal of what we can learn from him. Plus, he would go on, in music from the ’20s and ’30s, to manifest an engagement even with the Schoenberg school. His music, we sense, is always searching.

Just to mention one other aspect of his music besides the harmonic, is the clarity and expertness with which he writes for the orchestra. Benjamin Britten was right to have a lifelong admiration for Bridge’s technical prowess. The scoring is imaginative, crystalline, elegant. It is complex and simple at the same time, the mark of absolute mastery over one’s materials. Everything on the page—and sometimes there is a lot going on—everything you can hear.

An even greater example of this, if only because it’s longer and surveys a greater scope of emotions, is the suite for orchestra The Sea. It’s an earlier piece than Summer; Bridge started work on this in 1910 and completed it in 1911. He composed it in another English coastal resort town, Eastbourne, which just happens to be the same town in which Debussy finished La Mer. Must be something in the air—or in the water. Henry Wood conducted the premiere of The Sea in 1912 at a London Proms concert. Its four movements are Seascape, Sea Foam, Moonlight, and Storm. As with Summer, listen for the way Bridge brings out the particularity of things. It’s marvelous. Richard Hickox conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The Sea, by Frank Bridge.

[Frank Bridge. The Sea (1911)]

The Sea, a suite for orchestra by Frank Bridge. The movements were Seascape, Sea Foam, Moonlight, and Storm. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales was conducted by Richard Hickox.

I said before that we weren’t going to hear from Benjamin Britten again, but I can’t resist. The Sea was not only the first piece by Bridge that Britten heard, but the first substantial piece of contemporary music he’d ever heard. He was ten, and he said he was “knocked sideways” by it. He then studied composition with Bridge, became almost a son to Bridge and his wife Ethel, and, as I said, became a lifelong friend and champion of the composer. May there be more champions of this absolutely deserving English composer, Frank Bridge.

I hope you liked this installment of Fleisher Discoveries. Here’s how to get in touch. The Fleisher Collection is on Facebook, and I’m on Facebook, so you can like us there. I’m also on Twitter, @KileSmithMusic, and on Instagram I’m kilesmithmusic. And you can always drop an email to and I’ll get right back to you.

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And thanks again for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.