Frank Bridge, Phantasm

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert This England, performed on Jan 31, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Bridge born Feb 26, 1879 in Brighton, England; died Jan 10, 1941 in London
Phantasm composed in 1932; Premiered in 1934 as part of the BBC “Festival of British Music” broadcast
Approximate performance time: 26 minutes
Instruments: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, strings, and solo piano

The son of a music hall conductor in the seaside town of Brighton, Frank Bridge entered the Royal College of Music in 1896, studying both violin and viola. Bridge was a brilliant student on these instruments, especially the viola, and a superb and accurate conductor as well, trained in the split-second timing needed to lead the orchestra in a music hall, as Bridge had often deputized for his father at the Empire Music Hall. In 1899, Bridge won a scholarship that enabled him to study composition with the redoubtable pedagogue Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Stanford, whose attitude toward his students was volatile, disliked the confident young Bridge, but trained him with a mixture of exasperation and thoroughness.

A respected violist in a number of string quartets active in the drawing rooms of fin-de-siècle London, Bridge concentrated on composing chamber music in a style predicated upon that of Brahms and, especially, Gabriel Fauré. Edward Speyer recalled that Bridge “dominated and guided the various London quartets of the time. . . . He has the conscience of the true artist.” A precocious composer, Bridge won a number of prizes, including the prestigious Cobbett Prize in 1907.

Gradually, however, Bridge’s conscience began to lead him away from this refulgent early style towards what could justly be called an “English expressionism.” While he occasionally used British folk songs and dances in his lighter work, Bridge was no nationalist: his pacifism, born during the First World War, had a marked effect upon the development of his impressionable pupil, Benjamin Britten. During that war, Bridge’s style gradually changed as his expressive range expanded and he studied the music of Arnold Schoenberg and, especially, Alban Berg, with whose aesthetic he felt a deep kinship. Bridge’s Phantasm for piano and orchestra, premiered in 1934 and dedicated to his American patron, Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, is a stunning example of his late Modernist style. Cast in one movement and subtitled a “rhapsody”—although anything but “rhapsodic”—Phantasm is Freudian music haunted by wraiths, dreams, and ghosts. Non-tonal and tightly organized, Phantasm is one of Bridge’s towering achievements.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.