One child of Brighton is honoured while another one is overlooked

The Frank Bridge plaque at 7 North Road
The Frank Bridge plaque at 7 North Road

He already had his name on a bus. Now he has a shiny blue plaque on his birthplace.

He already had his name on a bus. Now he has a shiny blue plaque on his birthplace.

Frank Bridge

Frank Bridge

Frank Bridge - composer, pacifist, teacher, and mentor of Benjamin Britten - was born at 7 North Road, Brighton, in 1879.  The plaque, complete with caricature image by John Minnion, was unveiled two weeks ago. Additionally, Bridge has been flavour of the month at this year’s Brighton Festival and Fringe concerts, with numerous performances of his works.

All credit to the organisation Moot (Music of Our Time) for bringing him this overdue recognition in his home town, and for their efforts to rescue his music from neglect.

The tenth of 12 children, Bridge came from a working-class background. His father was originally a lithographer who, in middle age, changed career to become a peripatetic violin teacher and music director of the Empire Theatre music hall in New Road, where he conducted the orchestra each evening. He taught Frank the violin from the age of six; in his teens, Frank played in the orchestra under his father’s baton, helped arrange music, and even stood in when his father was absent. This gave him a very useful practical grounding - in later years, he was known as the “Ambulance Conductor”, for his willingness to deputise at short notice. Frank was educated at a school in York Place and at the excellent-sounding Brighton School of Music. At 17, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.

His best-known work, the delightfully atmospheric orchestral suite “The Sea” - with its four movements depicting, in turn, a summer morning seascape, sea foam along the shore, moonlight on the sea, and finally a storm at sea - was composed at Eastbourne in 1911. This was the same town, curiously, where Claude Debussy, just six years earlier, had composed his own suite “La Mer”.

Young Britten was so “knocked sideways” when he first heard “The Sea” that he became Bridge’s one and only composition pupil. The work’s influence can be detected in Britten’s own later “Four Sea Interludes” (and the influence of Bridge’s pacifism in Britten’s own anti-war sentiments).

So there is a kind of line of marine inspiration through Bridge from Debussy to Britten. “The Sea” was most recently performed in Brighton on March 30 at the Dome by the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Other works that have had recent Brighton performances include his piano sonata, a string quartet, and works for viola and piano and for piano trio. Another, the cello sonata of 1917, is a searching work in which Bridge evolves from his pre-war English lyricism to a darker, more despairing style. It is one of his undoubted masterpieces. (If you missed the performance at St Nicholas Church, a terrific rendition by Rostropovich can be found on YouTube.) And there is still time to hear his “Three Improvisations for Left Hand” (1918), composed for a pianist who had lost his right arm in the war, to be performed at St Nicholas Church on Sunday (May 25).

Well, that’s Frank Bridge sorted.

Meanwhile, the slightly older Constance Garnett (1861-1946), the great translator of Russian classics, who did so much to bring Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky to an English-language readership, languishes with neither a bus nor a plaque to her name.

Born at 58 Ship Street (currently an Italian restaurant), she went to school in Brighton, married in Brighton, and gave birth in Brighton (at 40 Buckingham Place) to the equally-distinguished novelist and member of the Bloomsbury Group, David Garnett (1892-1981).

Is there anyone out there willing to do for the Garnetts what Moot has done for Bridge?