Program Notes

Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Lament for 2 Violas (1912)

Notes for: August 1, 2006

Bridge was better known during his lifetime as a chamber music musician and conductor than as a composer. Born and trained in Britain, he spent his professional life mainly in London, and in the mid-1920s moved to the South Downs in southeastern England, where he died in relative obscurity. A generation after his death, his importance as a composer came to be recognized, thanks to the efforts of his student Benjamin Britten, who sponsored performances of Bridge’s music at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival.

Bridge was initially trained at the Royal College of Music as a violinist, but he switched to the viola and studied under Lionel Tertis, at the time the world’s leading violist and viola teacher.

Now, the viola has long been a favorite instrument in chamber music because of its ability to complement the violin or violins and to fill in the inner harmonies. Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn all wrote lively parts for the viola, and they preferred to play it when playing chamber music with their friends.

However, there has always been, and continues to be, a shortage of solo or chamber material for the viola. There are structural reasons for this. First, as a practical matter, the overall range of the viola is smaller than that of the violin. While violinists can play high on the fingerboard, composers generally avoid the extreme upper notes of the viola because the instrument’s additional size puts them out of reach for most players.

Second, the viola is typically about one-seventh larger than the violin, but to equal the violin in strength and brilliance it would have to be at least 50 per cent larger. This would prevent its being played on the shoulder. Because of this, the notes in the lower register are only incompletely reinforced, and the resulting sound is less rich and powerful than a violin’s and sometimes strikes our ears as faintly hollow and with a nasal quality.

Given the shortage of viola material, Lionel Tertis prodded his composer friends to expand the limited repertory for the instrument. Although a prolific composer, Bridge responded with only two short solo pieces and two viola duets to play with Tertis in 1912 at a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. The duets were never published and the manuscripts were lost, but a pencilled draft of the second duet, the Lament for Two Violas, was later found in the Royal College of Music library. It was reconstructed by the composer and performed by him with composer Paul Hindemith, also a violist.

The lament is an eight-minute, warmly romantic, three-part, instrumental song. The work opens with a spacious and eloquent solo for one viola, and then the second viola joins in counterpoint. Together they spin out one of the most haunting musical dialogues ever written, with the contrapuntal texture becoming more animated, rising to a climax, and then subsiding.

Copyright © 2006 by Willard J. Hertz