On April 8, Chameleon Arts Ensemble’s Up Close series presents a viola-centered program including a rarity: Benjamin Britten’s 1932 viola-and-piano arrangement of his teacher Frank Bridge’s 1927 orchestral tone poem “There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook.”
The connection between Bridge (1879-1941) and Britten (1913-1976), composers and violists both, was close. Britten continued his private studies with Bridge even after matriculating at London’s Royal College of Music; Britten’s first international success was a set of string-orchestra variations on one of Bridge’s themes. When Britten left England for America in 1939, Bridge gave the younger composer his viola as a going-away present.
“There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook,” too, was a gift; Bridge gave Britten the score (along with that of Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini”) for Christmas, with Britten returning the favor, via his arrangement, soon after. But the effort was not just an homage. Avant-garde developments on the European continent — in particular, the atonal expressionism of Arnold Schoenberg and, especially, Schoenberg’s student Alban Berg — had made the young Britten eager to explore similar chromaticism in his own work. One path to that was a technique suffusing “There Is a Willow”: polytonality, the use of traditionally triadic harmonies, but circling two or more competing key centers simultaneously. One suspects that Britten’s engagement with “There Is a Willow” was as much training as tribute.
Bridge took his title from “Hamlet”: Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s drowning. Responding to the scene’s inherent dualities — divided loyalties, reality and madness, life and death — Bridge built the score around one of his most characteristic harmonies, a stacking of two triads: C-sharp minor and D-sharp major, in this case. The chord seethes with unsettled dissonance, packed with half- and whole-step clashes and anxious tritones, yet its triadic backbone lends stability.
The chord informs nearly every corner of “There Is a Willow.” If Britten reworked Bridge’s tone poem as, in part, a self-directed seminar in such harmonies, then he learned his lessons well. Similar types of bitonality would inform Britten’s music throughout his career. The friction between F-minor and E-major drove his first opera, “Peter Grimes,” inaugurating a dramaturgical pattern Britten would utilize again and again. The “War Requiem,” even in many of its most benedictory moments, keeps competing centers of C and F-sharp in nervous suspension. Like his mentor, Britten made dramatic virtue of being harmonically here and there.
Violists Mark Holloway and Scott Woolweaver, with pianist Vivian Choi, perform works of Bridge (arr. Britten), Hindemith, Benjamin, Bax, and Brahms, April 8 at 4 p.m. at Old South Church. $47. 617-427-8200, www.chameleonarts.org