Monday November 6 2017

Every month, a member of staff from the Britten-Pears Foundation choose their favourite item or object from the collections. This month Head of Archive and Library Dr Christopher Hilton talks about his personal connection to Britten’s photograph of the composer Frank Bridge.

‘One photograph stands on the bookshelf in Britten’s studio: Frank Bridge peers out from under the brim of his hat, watching his pupil at work. It’s a reminder of a touching story: of how Britten, at the age of ten was taken by his viola teacher Audrey Alston to hear Bridge conduct his suite The Sea; of how at thirteen Alston introduced him to Bridge, with whom she had been a fellow-student twenty years before; of how he became the older composer’s only pupil and spent long days at Bridge’s homes in London or Sussex learning an uncompromising rigour and capacity to take pains in composition; and of how in he became, in effect, the son that Frank and Ethel Bridge never had.

Britten acknowledged his teacher with his early Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, in effect his announcement that he was now striking out as an adult composer in his own right, and always spoke highly of what Bridge had given him: not necessarily the technical elements of composition but an approach and a habit of mind, a stress that one should write what one had to and be truthful to one’s own instincts. This applied in the world of music, of course – Bridge began as a popular and accessible composer but, unusually, became more harmonically radical and “difficult” as he got older – but also in the wider world: Bridge’s strong revulsion to the horrors of World War I and his refusal to toe society’s approved line will undoubtedly have been a role model for Britten’s own pacifism. In 1963, writing in the Sunday Telegraph for his fiftieth birthday, Britten addressed this political issue and said that most importantly Bridge had taught him “to argue and argue and argue”: to be true to your own beliefs and not to back down in the face of opposition.

It’s a poignant story of the older composer handing on the torch to the pupil. In our Gallery space we display Bridge’s viola, which he presented to Britten in 1939 when the younger man was setting off to America, so that, as Ethel Bridge scribbled on a note with it, “a bit of us accompanies you on your adventure”: doubly poignant because that parting was the last time they saw each other, Bridge dying of a heart attack in 1941 before Britten returned. But it’s the photograph that’s my favourite object relating to this story, for personal reasons. At the start of my career I met a young archivist called Helena Bridge: now my wife. Not long after we met, she mentioned one day that she would be going to the Proms to hear her great-uncle’s music: Frank Bridge had no children, but his younger brother William (a professional cellist) did, and one of them was Helena’s father. The Bridge genes are clearly strong and the Bridge face is passed on from generation to generation: when I met Richard Bridge, my future father-in-law, the face I saw was essentially the same one that watches Britten at the piano. So when I walk into Britten’s Composition Studio and look at that photograph, I see Britten’s mentor keeping an eye on him (and probably making sure that he doesn’t fall away from the high standards of artistic honesty he was taught); but I also see my late father-in-law and, with allowances for sex and age, I see features I recognise in my own wife and son.

Archives tell human stories: sometimes, startlingly, that story turns out to be our own.’