Isabella (1907)

By Jeremy Dibble, University of Durham, England

Written for the concert Victorian Secrets, performed on April 2, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Frank Bridge’s symphonic poem Isabella dates from what is regarded as the composer’s “first” mature period of creativity during the opening decade of the twentieth century. One of Stanford’s most prodigiously talented students, and a fine viola player (he played in the English String Quartet for many years), Bridge was essentially indebted to the intellectualism of Brahms’s instrumental works, filtered through the work of his teacher; but by 1904, with the performance of his first major orchestral work, Mid of the Night, it is evident that he had assimilated the music of other more contemporary Europeans, and as he completed his Phantasie Quartet in F minor (1905) and First String Quartet “Bologna” (1906), the influences of composers such as Scriabin, Delius, Bax, and Debussy are clearly divulged in contributing to the rich chromatic amalgam of his distinctive, melancholic voice. Bridge completed Isabella in January 1907 and it was first performed at a Queen’s Hall Promenade Concert on October 3 the same year, under Henry Wood.

Just as Holman Hunt had taken inspiration from Keat’s famous extended poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil,” in his renowned picture of 1867, so too was Bridge moved, with his dark, introspective yet generously romantic imagination, to create a narrative symphonic poem depicting the same lurid events of Boccaccio’s Florentine story. In brief, Isabella’s love for Lorenzo is discovered by her two merchant brothers who lure him into a forest and murder him. Visited at midnight by Lorenzo’s ghost, Isabella rides into the forest, exhumes her lover’s body and places his decapitated head in “sweet basil, which her tears kept ever wept.” Her brothers, finally learning of this deed, flee with the pot to banishment, leaving Isabella who “died forlorn, imploring for her basil-pot to the last.” The grave, solemn, yet powerfully erotic material of the opening yields eventually to Isabella’s tender, yearning oboe melody and this is combined with the heroic “horn call” of Lorenzo in a spacious climax in which Bridge demonstrates both his consummate skill as an orchestrator and as a composer who used the orchestra as a projection of his genuine polyphonic thought. The two melodic ideas of Isabella and Lorenzo, strong, fervent, and underpinned by a fabric of sonorous harmony and surprising modulation, form the basis of the work’s entire structure (along with secondary fragment, representative of the evil brothers which frames the central section). Transformed, they appear more chillingly in the Allegro vivo where Lorenzo is brutally murdered, and his ghostly appearance to Isabella and her midnight ride to seek the corpse of her beloved are dramatically illustrated. This discursive episode—effectively a scherzo—shows the unbridled advancement of Bridge’s harmonic palette and incipiently foretells of the composer’s extraordinary stylistic development throughout the war, the 1920s and 1930s (when he would finally discover a language infused with the dodecaphonic, yet post-romantically-conceived music of Berg). Arresting progressions, conveying a newer, “modernist” inclination, vividly portray the violence of the grisly narrative and of Isabella’s heart-rending discovery of her brothers’ treachery. As a foil to this high drama Bridge provides a poignant lament, using a reworking of Isabella’s theme in the minor mode. Though on a more uplifting note, the closing apotheosis (a transformed recapitulation of the opening material) gives us a redemptive, Tristanesque picture of Isabella’s reunion with Lorenzo in death.