Wednesday, February 19, 2014

One-Off - Frank Bridge's Lament (for Catherine, aged 9 "Lusitania" 1915)

Known throughout most of the 20th century as one of Benjamin Britten's teachers, Frank Bridge is now recognized as one of the finest British composers of his time, with piles of recording project springing up in the 80's and 90's when people realized how gorgeous much of his music is.  While Bridge wrote some arrestingly beautiful and creative works throughout his career, one piece in particular sticks in my mind as a perfect wedding of aural beauty and immense sadness.  On May 7, 1915, a German U-Boat fired torpedoes at the RMS Lusitania, a civilian ocean liner, and sank it in the Atlantic.  1,195 people died, and the incident cause international furor, catalyzing the already messy first World War and giving America more reason to declare war a couple of years later.  Among the lost was Catherine, a 9-year-old girl and friend to Bridge, who died with her family, and the loss was too much or Bridge to let pass him by without writing an elegy.  What he created is probably the most beautiful piece of music ever written about a nautical disaster.

While Bridge began his career transitioning from late romanticism to a sophisticated impressionism, his music took a dark turn after the Great War was underway.  Bridge was a pacifist and the War shook him to his core, and his late works are strikingly original in their harmonic language and bold structures.  The Lament doesn't reflect the language he would later perfect in his masterful Piano Sonata, but it does show an intensely wrought and unbearably melancholic vision of the emotional capabilities of impressionism.  While many of the devices are familiar to fans of Debussy and Ravel, such as whole tone chords and planing figures, what matters most is how these figures pitch, bow and settle, and how Bridge is able to synthesize exotic harmonies with yearning tunefulness.  That yearning is brought out through closely knit melodic voicing, constantly in movement and surprising in their resolutions.  While it is easy to follow the tune the use of superimposed varied rhythms heightens the sense of despair, though the piece never explodes in anguish like so many anti-war works do.  Bridge wasn't a political activist in any sense of the term, and his pacifism was driven by the loss of friends and colleagues.  Lament isn't a call to action or a vindictive howl - it merely acknowledges the hole in the universe left in the wake of Catherine and the nearly 1200 other souls who perished in a disgraceful war crime.  Its commitment to private anguish is what makes it timeless rather than a historical anecdote, though it remains criminally underplayed for reasons that can only make me sad.  While the score above is the piano version, I've chosen the string orchestra version for the recording, as Richard Hickox and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales savor every nuance and fleeting emotion the score has to offer.  I could have waited until May to write about the Lament, but I think its emotional impact is universal and all too essential, and listeners should be able to pull it out when they need it the most.  It doesn't insist or overbear - it merely offers a profound solace that can't be found anywhere else.

(Watch out for a loud electronic snap at the very beginning)



  1. My best guess is that Catherine was Catherine Crompton, whose entire family died in the disaster.

  2. My best guess is that Catherine was Catherine Crompton, whose entire family died in the disaster.