Bridge - Berceuse
Frank Bridge's Berceuse is set for the ABRSM Grade 7 Piano examination 2013-2014.
This beautiful piece was originally composed in 1901 for violin and piano, subsequently arranged for various combinations of instruments as well as for solo piano. The version heard here is for cello and piano, played by Penelope Lynex and Alexander Wells (The Complete Music for Cello and Piano - 2001 SOMM Recordings).*
Berceuse means Lullaby and the lovely melody with gentle broken chord accompaniment would soothe and delight the most restless baby!
*E-MusicMaestro streams music under PRS licence.
Pupil Match & Suitability
This piece is ideal for those students who love a beautiful melody and who are able to project a cantabile line.
The ability to play twos-against-threes is essential for the Poco piu mosso section, so preparatory exercises might need to be done beforehand.
Style & Tempo
This piece is Romantic in style and gently wistful in mood, beginning with a charming simplicity but becoming rather more agitated in the Poco piu mosso section.
The (editorial) tempo marking of crotchet = 72 should be regarded as an 'average' pace since the style demands rubato as well as the marked tempo changes, as heard here in a performance by Jacobs.
Bridge was a composer who clearly set out in the score what he wanted in a performance and if the detailed performance directions are adhered to, the interpretation will be stylistically sound.
Phrasing & Articulation
The first four bars are an introduction, without any particular tune, the purpose of which is to build a sense of anticipation. They may be played quite simply, with a suggestion of a ritardando in bar 4.
Thereafter the music is in simple four-bar phrases until the very last chord, easy to follow because of the clear tune.
Tone & Texture
The melody begins at bar 5, where a singing cantabile starts to be essential. A slight tenuto on the first beat will make the entry of the main tune sound positive.
A change to 'piano' when the tune repeats at bar 9 will emphasise the plaintive mood that is created by one small change - the A instead of the G! What a difference that small change creates, particularly if the pianist observes the 'tenuto' performance direction at this point.
Listen to how Jacobs plays this section, with some lovely expressive detail, noticing the balance between the melody and the accompaniment particularly in bar 20, where the top notes C and C# are the important ones.
A technique needed here is the ability to keep the LH supple for an evenly controlled accompaniment. Students should be discouraged from attempting to span all the notes in the LH arpeggios, as if by stretching to try to cover them all they will not play any wrong notes.
Students could be taught a good hand position here by playing the bass note and second quaver, then stopping to consider how easy this feels, then playing the F to the D and stopping ... and so on - the point being that these arpeggios are only as difficult as each move from one note to another and we do not need to do any uncomfortable stretching or unnatural bending of the wrist.
The fingering given generally works extremely well. Using finger 4 in bar 5, LH may feel a little uncomfortable for students with small hands; however it does keep the hand in a good position, whereas using finger 3 on the F tends to make the hand bend unnaturally to the side. A viable alternative to both these is to use the thumb on the F and simply jump to the Bb/D - although this does not give complete legato, use of one pedal per bar will cover the gap successfully and indeed this has to be the case when playing bars such as 13 - 15.
Students might need an explanation of the finger change at bar 77, where the LH moves to finger 5 to allow smooth legato to the next note.
At bar 76, the upper part of chord might be divided between the hands - after playing the bass note F, the LH could take the A and E, with the RH playing the tied G and the A below it. Care should be taken to pedal the LH bass note F. There is plenty of time here without feeling rushed as the music itself suggests a pause on this chord.
There are no trills but there are some grace notes and arpeggiated notes.
The grace notes should never sound rushed, but should be played before the beat and caught by the pedal, taking time to achieve a poised sound.
The arpeggiation speed will vary according to context. Those arpeggiated notes in the middle section, bars 45 - 48, will need to sweep upwards quite rapidly, whereas the ones near the end, bars 85 - 88, may be taken at a much more leisurely pace, actually slowing the tempo as the phrase unfolds.
Pedalling need not be complicated in this piece. Because of the extensive use of pedal notes and harmonies that change once per bar, it is possible to change the pedal at the start of each bar for much of the time in the outer sections.
The harmonies of the middle section mean that these phrases need to be pedalled twice per bar until the tempo change beginning at molto ritard, bar 58, where the pedalling is specified.
The pedalling at bar 73 - 74 works effectively by leaving the RH notes to sings clearly and simply while the LH holds onto the minim G.
At bars 75 - 76 the RH minim G should sound alone for the second beat, but do not release the pedal too abruptly - just allow a little moment before pedalling the the next bar. Be careful to catch the LH F in bar 76 - the stretch will be too wide for many pianists to manage without playing the bass note as a grace note, followed by the rest of the chord.
Playing the piece without expressiveness or without a singing cantabile would be unforgivable, but listening to a performance several times before starting the piece can help to give a clear understanding of the style.
Conducting the music whilst listening could help to give the student a feel for rubato and for the tempo changes.
Lots of preliminary work on twos-against-threes could enable a more musical performance, as could beginning this section early in the learning of the piece rather than starting at the beginning.
Lack of performing practice can be a problem. Most students need to have performed a piece several times before they gain the confidence that comes from knowing they have learned it securely enough for nothing to go badly wrong on the big day.
The best performances of this piece will reflect the beauty of the music and the simplicity of the main melody line. There will be meticulous attention to expressive detail, in terms of tempo changes and dynamic variety. A singing cantabile will be complemented by a poised, unobtrusive LH accompaniment and pedalling will be managed with care.
Less accomplished performances might have some of these qualities but could perhaps lack a completely poised and balanced tone. It should not be difficult to achieve a convincing pace, however some performances might not make enough of the tempo changes.
A complete performance is heard here by Jacobs and might be compared with the performance by Bebbington.
Teaching & Learning the Piece
If there is any doubt about whether a student is going to manage twos against threes it may be a good idea to teach the middle section first. That way the section will feel secure instead of feeling like the 'difficult section'. Also if the student really cannot, at this stage in their playing, manage that section convincingly then a different piece could be started instead. Work would eventually need to be done on this technique, of course.
The first section will present few difficulties to the reasonably competent student so this might be learned and practised without too much help. The teacher may need to explain that the bass notes are to be sustained by the pedal, not the fingers in bars such as 17 - 20.
The teacher's role will be to support the student in exploring the development of the music as from bar 21, where the textures thicken. Care needs to be taken to balance the chords here and to hold onto any long notes where appropriate, such as in the RH at bars 27 and 28.
The piece lends itself to being taught and practised in sections, which then need to be joined fluently and musically.
It could be useful in lessons for teacher and pupil to take either RH or LH and play as a duet, both for balancing the textures and for considering the rubato and tempo changes.