Frank Bridge

Hello all,

Our music for this week is “Variations on the theme of Frank Bridge” by Benjamin Britten.

British composer Frank Bridge was Britten’s childhood teacher and lifelong musical mentor. Britten wrote that he would often spend entire days in composition lessons with Bridge, who was an unrelenting perfectionist. Yet he also credited Bridge as the most formative influence on his musical development. Britten wrote the variations you will hear today as a musical tribute to his teacher.

This composition is written for string orchestra and contains one introductory theme followed by nine variations on the theme. Each movement depicts a different aspect of Bridge’s character. Britten even wrote in the score which personality trait he wanted each variation to reflect: “his integrity…his energy…his charm…his wit.” The original theme, as the title suggests, is taken from one of Bridge’s string quartets, titled Three Idylls for String Quartet.

Listen for the different musical influences in this music. If you listen closely, you can hear a bit of Schoenberg’s experimentation, a bit of Elgar’s grandeur, a bit of a Rossini opera, a bit of a Viennese waltz, and a bit of Ravel’s harmonic genius. Perhaps Britten had taken to heart T.S. Eliot’s notion that true art is the result of an arduous, lifelong process of synthesizing the art that has come before you. It is in this sense that a truly great work of art may be, as Eliot says, one in which “the dead poets . . . assert their immortality most vigorously.” 



Top 25 #3 – Elgar by du Pre

Hello all,

The third installment in our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music is the Cello Concerto by Edward Elgar, performed by Jacqueline du Pre.

First, the concerto. Elgar’s cello concerto is a tour de force. Its soaring heights and delicately-shaped melodies hardly suggest the fact that while he wrote it, Elgar was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. As he transitioned back to his home in Brinkwell, England, he spent the majority of every day of the summer of 1919 writing this concerto. His work was interrupted only by daily firewood-chopping duties.

Unlike most concerti, Elgar’s cello concerto is not always flashy or powerful. In fact, it can sometimes seem quite timid, almost too private. The opening roar of the cello solo, as spine-tingling as it is, quickly gives way to an intimacy and immediacy that is hard to find. Even the passion of the Adagio in the first movement (the main theme of the concerto) is reserved at points. This is a reflection of Elgar’s waning health, his wife’s impending passing, and the loneliness that he dealt with later in life. It is interesting that he chose to use the cello to convey these very personal emotions – not the more common violin or piano. Perhaps he saw something in the dark, rich colors of the cello that spoke to him.

Second, the cellist. Jacqueline du Pre is one of the most beloved musicians of all time and one of the most talented cellists to ever live. Her performing career was tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis at the age of 28 (she later passed away at 42 years old), but we are fortunate to have video and audio recordings of her performances of the Elgar concerto. In this video, she is only twenty years old. It is sadly fitting that she is the performer of a concerto that is part expose, part poetic epithet, part elegy.



Elgar – violin concerto

Our music for this week is third movement of the Elgar violin concerto, as performed by the former concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Silverstein. We have listened to another interpretation of the Elgar concerto before, but it was not nearly as good as this one (it was mine 😉

This performance is worth listening to because of the soloist’s ability to create a unique and memorable sound. This may sound simple, but it is the hardest thing in the world to do. Most violinists out there could play this concerto, but very few of them could make it sound as if they were improvising the notes on the spot. This performance shows an uncanny ability and an incredible giftedness that is hard to find. I want to take a few sentences to highlight some of the ways that this performer stands head and shoulders above most other performers you will hear today.

First of all, the sound is unbelievable. It has an amazing richness and fullness that is so hard to create without adding tension to the body. At the same time, however, the sound is amazingly lyrical and sensitive.

Secondly, the sounds never ends. Silverstein has mastered the art of the bow stroke to such a level that even when he is playing sharper notes or faster passages he is able to connect the sound. This is particularly effective in a romantic era composition like the Elgar concerto, because a connected sound is a more lyrical sound.

Third, Silverstein has a wonderfully smooth and continuous vibrato that sounds as natural as the human voice. Again, this is incredibly hard to do. He uses this vibrato to further create an impression that his sound never ends.

Fourth, he is technically on point. His intonation and execution are impeccable. Well those elements are not necessarily the determining factors for a great performance, his combination of perfect execution and a seemingly endless sound makes his performance all the more impressive.

Fifth and finally, you’ll notice that he is not throwing himself all over the stage like many of today’s musicians do. He has the maturity, composure, and concentration to let the music speak for itself without interposing a gymnastics performance on the audience as a compensation prize. Any musician who moves in that manner is compensating for something that he or she does not have. Silverstein, however, is as close to a complete mastery of the violin as I have ever seen.