Oration (Concerto Elegiaco) for solo cello and orchestra (1930)

By Byron Adams

Written for the concert The Gathering Storm, performed on April 7, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Frank Bridge was emotionally scarred by the carnage of the First World War. His firmly held pacifism prevented him from enlisting, as did his colleagues Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but the social disruption caused by the War and its aftermath affected him deeply. At this time, Bridge’s style underwent a profound aesthetic and technical transformation that bewildered his English contemporaries. Until 1914, Bridge had composed fluently in a suave but expressive idiom that owed an equal debt to Brahms and Fauré; after 1920, he became fascinated with progressive trends and with the music of the German expressionists, especially Alban Berg. Certain British colleagues went so far as to accuse Bridge of distorting his style in an obeisance to fashion dictated by his American patron, the redoubtable Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge.

Such assertions were both inaccurate and unfair. Bridge paid a heavy price for his stylistic experimentation after the war, as his music fell rapidly out of favor. In a recent study of BBC broadcasts of “ultra-modern” music during the 1930s, Jenny Doctor has documented the growth of a healthy English audience for Berg and his contemporaries in England. Such listeners should also have acclaimed Bridge, but both official and popular acceptance eluded him. Bridge’s travails were doubtless due in part to his difficult character: he was heartily disliked by most of his fellow composers, as well as by orchestral players for his tactlessness and arrogance. Thus Bridge’s later work had to wait decades to be granted a measure of posthumous respect, even though his name had been kept alive through the persistence of his most famous pupil, Benjamin Britten.

Bridge’s Oration for cello and orchestra, which the composer subtitled “Concerto elegaico,” is unquestionably his finest achievement in his late style. This expressionist Concerto in one movement, which alternates ghostly funeral marches with outbursts of terror and indignation, is both an elegy for the fallen of the First World War, and, in as much as Bridge anxiously followed political developments during the late 1920s, an anguished warning. Bridge’s writing for the soloist is uncanny: the cellist sounds at times like a declaiming speaker, and at others as if muttering a train of thought arising from deep within the unconscious. Bridge died suddenly in January of 1941, just at his country’s darkest moment in the Second World War.