Born: November 22, 1913, Lowestoft, England
Died: December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, England
Thought by many to be the greatest British composer of the twentieth century, Britten wrote over a dozen operas, including Peter Grimes – which brought him international fame – as well as numerous songs and song cycles, orchestral works like The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and his memorial for the dead of the two World Wars, the War Requiem, which Dmitri Shostakovich dubbed “the greatest work of the twentieth century.” Britten showed great musical promise in his teens, and won many prizes while attending the Royal College of Music. A committed pacifist, Britten left England in 1939 and lived in the U.S. and Canada for several years before returning as a conscientious objector. By that time he was famous, acknowledged in particular for his vocal works, many of which were written for his longtime partner, tenor Peter Pears. In 1948, they founded the still-thriving Aldeburgh Festival. Britten wrote for some of the most prominent musicians of his day, including Mstislav Rostropovich and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He was also an excellent conductor and pianist. Shortly before his death, he was the first British composer to receive a life peerage, becoming Baron Britten of Aldeburgh.
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10
Duration: 27 minutes
English composer and violist Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was one of the main reasons that Benjamin Britten became a composer. On hearing Bridge’s most popular orchestral work, The Sea, at a concert when he was eleven years old, Britten said that he was “knocked sideways.” It lead him to start composing at an even more prolific rate (Britten started writing music at age five). Three years later, in 1927, Britten got to meet Bridge and show him some of the music he’d been writing. Bridge was impressed, and invited Britten to study with him.
Bridge was Britten’s first proper composition teacher, and although Britten had written a considerable amount of music before then, Bridge’s formal training was invaluable. “Bridge insisted on the absolutely clear relationship of what was in my mind to what was on the paper,” wrote Britten many years later. “I used to get sent to the other side of the room; Bridge would play what I’d written and demand if it was what I’d really meant … He taught me to think and feel through the instruments I was writing for.”
In 1932 Britten started writing a set of variations on a theme from one of Bridge’s works, but he got stalled and set the piece aside. Then, in May 1937, the Salzburg Festival asked conductor Boyd Neel and his orchestra to perform three works at that year’s Festival, one a previously unperformed work by a British composer. Neel sought out Britten, who returned to that notion of a work based on a melody by his teacher. Taking the same theme he’d used five years earlier – the main tune from the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls, Op. 6/2 for string quartet (1911) – Britten wrote his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge in just ten days, and had the work completed within a month. The work’s premiere on August 27, 1937 was a huge success, bringing Britten his first international attention.
After the work’s forceful beginning, Bridge’s theme emerges quietly in solo strings. This introduction leads directly into the first variation, an Adagio. After a March comes the syncopated, dance-like Romance third variation. Pastiche of various musical styles and genres was part of Britten’s approach in his Variations. For instance, the fourth variation Aria Italiana makes a nod to the music of Rossini. The fifth, Bourrée Classique, evokes not only actual Classical period composers like Mozart but also the modern Neoclassical style of Igor Stravinsky. The sixth, Wiener Walzer, pretty strongly suggests Maurice Ravel’s La valse. Contrasting with the lively seventh movement Moto Perpetuo is the intense eighth, a Funeral March. After the ninth variation Chant comes an elaborate concluding Fugue which makes reference to several other works by Frank Bridge, including The Sea and his orchestral works Summer and Enter Spring.
According to handwritten notes in the score that Britten gave Bridge, each variation was also meant to allude to an aspect of Bridge’s personality: the first variation his integrity, the second his energy, the third his charm, the fourth his wit, the fifth his respect for tradition, the sixth his gaiety, the seventh his enthusiasm, the eighth his sympathy, the ninth his reverence, and the tenth both Bridge’s skill and the mutual affection that Bridge and Britten enjoyed.