Friday April 9 2021

The correspondence in Benjamin Britten’s archive is extensive: over eleven thousand files, including both letters to Britten and those from him. The range of correspondents and subjects is huge: professional exchanges with record companies, promoters and people commissioning works, fan mail, political and social agitation, and personal letters exchanged with friends and family. A core part of it, of course, is the series of letters that Britten and Pears exchanged when one was away from home: a vivid light shone on the most important relationship of each’s life. Before Pears enters Britten’s life, however, there is another run of correspondence that documents a vital relationship for the young composer: a box of letters from his teacher and mentor Frank Bridge.

Britten first encountered Bridge and his music at the age of ten, when his viola teacher Audrey Alston – who had studied with Bridge at the Royal College of Music – took him to hear Bridge conduct his suite “The Sea” at the Norwich Festival. Three years later Bridge returned to Norwich and this time Audrey Alston introduced them. Out of this introduction came a relationship of pupil and mentor that lasted through Britten’s student years and on into his early professional career.

Bridge’s teaching was unorthodox and, from Britten’s later account, focussed more on attitude and ethos than on the technical details of harmony or orchestration: on the need to work out what one wanted to say as a composer and then to say it, simply and directly. His letters to Britten do include technical content but are more focussed on encouragement and advice. They start when Britten is a schoolboy and take us into the Second World War when Britten and Pears are on the other side of the Atlantic. Throughout, even at the very beginning, this was a conversation of equals: an older composer who was further advanced in his career but who saw the talent in the younger man and paid him the compliment of addressing him as a peer.

This sounds rather sober, but the letters are anything but: their abiding quality is the sheer energy that fizzes out of Bridge as he chats about music, travel, tennis, and anything else that takes his attention. After the first few, when the two are still getting to know each other, Bridge addresses Britten as “Benjy”, Benj.” or (once) “Benjissimo”, and signs off with an affectionate and informal scribbled “F.B.” The text is scattered with abbreviations, in-jokes and double exclamation marks. These are letters that would have been fun to receive. Indeed, in one from 1932 Bridge explicitly tells Britten to stay cheerful: “At your age you may well kick up your heels when things go right, but if they don’t you are not to let the corners of your mouth sink downwards!!” The injunction is followed by a stylised sketch of a glum face – essentially, a 1930s emoji.

Not only does Bridge talk to Britten as a fellow-composer – dotting his letters with scribbled bits of musical notation he knows that Britten will understand – he also discusses their professional peer group with bounce and irreverence. Apropos of nothing, at the bottom of one letter he casually convicts Brahms of stealing a motif from Beethoven – “Isn’t it the limit?” In another, he recounts his experiences conducting Holst’s “St Paul’s Suite”, a work with which he is not impressed:

“St Paul’s Suite ends in the most footling & ineffective way. It makes one feel, when conducting it, that one is out with a dog on a chain, and a policeman watches you as the chain gets pulled out of your hand by the dog’s wilful rush around & through the local corporation’s much-prized bed of geraniums! One is helpless.”

Holst and Bridge came from entirely different traditions and the grounds of their difference are probably set out in this fleeting comment on the composer Ernest Moeran, the spelling in which suggests one should read it in a strong Mummerset accent:

“Certainly the fundamental Moeran is a nice sensitive musician, but I am more than ever right off PHOKE ZONG.”

Outside music, Bridge enthuses about all manner of things. Tennis is an interest the two had in common, Britten playing against Bridge at the latter’s Sussex home, and at the bottom of one postcard Bridge drops in the note that “We played tennis yesterday! A sponge court is MA-AR-ARVELLOUS!” Postcards come to Britten from foreign travels – in Italy, for instance, Bridge notes that “That there fellow Toscanini has a house opposite here… It is so hot that thinking becomes a nuisance.” And in 1940, when Britten is in the USA and clearly feeling out of place in this foreign country, it is Bridge who encourages an open-minded attitude:

“And so you don’t like the iced drinks Eh? Well, you must have gone to the wrong shops. But it is worth while being in America solely for the sake of the coffee. Almost always a miracle, even in modest-priced places…”

The most moving letter, however, is largely free of jokes. In early 1938 Britten’s “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” was premiered, and Bridge writes to the younger man to thank him for the tribute:

“…Your title page really touches me. I don’t know how to express my appreciation in adequate terms. It is one of the few lovely things that has ever happened to me & I feel the richer in spirit for it all, including the charming dedication. Thank you & thank you, Benji..”

And then, just a little reminder that even in emotional moments Bridge is always there carrying out quality checks on his protegé’s work: “…And ‘ain’t I glad’ I love the work itself?”

He goes on to touch on the way that Britten, who came into Bridge’s life (and that of his wife Ethel) at around the time it became clear they would not have children, had become something of a musical son:

“I like to think of you just forging ahead & perhaps the most pleasant reflection is that you should have come into my life just when you did. Of course I should say our lives because Ethel and I are united in our devotion to you. God bless you, keep in good health. You’ll have lots of prosperity before posterity has anything to say – thank goodness. Much love & continued good luck, Your ever devoted F.B.”

It is a symbolic moment: the point at which Britten begins to forge ahead in his career, and the moment at which Bridge, briefly, writes seriously and emotionally to his pupil to acknowledge that. A year later, on the quayside at Southampton, Frank and Ethel Bridge saw Britten onto the liner to the USA, Bridge presenting his viola to his pupil as a symbolic passing of the torch. They never saw each other again: the letters continue, crossing the Atlantic, but Bridge was to die of a heart attack in his early 60s in 1941, before Britten returned. It’s a constant sadness that Britten’s side of the correspondence is lost: when he returned to the UK Ethel Bridge offered him his own letters but Britten never got round to collecting them and when she died they were apparently destroyed in the house-clearance. But we do at least have the Bridge letters and they are a wonderful resource: taking the box off the shelves, you can almost feel it fizzing with energy as Bridge cajoles, teases and advises his pupil, launching the young man on the career that he saw coming.