Roger Quilter: Songs

For Roger Quilter (1877 – 1953), the music was the vehicle for the words: it was always the text that inspired him – perhaps a captured moment of emotion, perhaps an image from nature. The character of his inspiration determined his approach to the composition of the song – on the whole, a simple lyric about nature became a simple song, and one from the Jacobean poets, with many layers of meaning, became a complex setting. That is in itself a simplification, however – what runs through all Quilter songs is a wish to make something of beauty. His style is iridescent and fluid: a perceptive review in a local newspaper of the 1920s explained that the speed of a Quilter song is just the speed at which one would say the words. The music emerges from the text; it is never imposed upon it. In a field of British contemporaries that includes Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Parry, Stanford, Elgar, Somervell, and Bax, Quilter composed songs that stand proud, and are recital staples.

Many of the songs performed here are familiar. Quilter wrote about 150 songs, however, and the programme explores many of the less well known, traversing most of his song-writing career, from the early Now sleeps the crimson petal, originally written in 1897 but honed through performance by the great champion of English song, the tenor Gervase Elwes, and eventually published in 1904, to the exquisite folksong settings Drink to me only, Barbara Allen, My Lady’s Garden, and The Ash Grove, the last two to new texts by Rodney Bennett, Quilter’s friend, and librettist for his opera, The Blue Boar (this was subsequently revised, first as Julia, then as Love at the Inn). The first two were originally published in 1921 (with three others), but when Quilter’s favourite nephew, Arnold Vivian, went off to war in 1942, Quilter wrote eleven more, to make a collection for him to sing on his return. Arnold was killed in Italy in 1943 following a failed escape attempt; Quilter did not find out until after the war had ended, and the sixteen settings became Arnold’s epitaph, The Arnold Book of Old Songs, published individually in 1947 and as a set in 1951, with the new words for ‘The Ash Grove’ all the more poignant:

How little we knew, as we laughed there so               lightly,

And time seemed to us to stretch endless     away,

The hopes that then shone like a vision so   brightly

Could fade as a dream at the coming of day.

Quilter does not dress these songs in fine clothes, but lets them speak for themselves. ‘Barbara Allen’ opens very simply, but as the tension in the story builds, so does the texture; it is one of Quilter’s most chromatic settings and, its bass hammering out the ‘clang’ of the bell, one of the most dramatic.

Herrick was one of Quilter’s favourite poets, and the three songs included here from the song cycle To Julia, of 1905 (The Maiden Blush, To Daisies, and Julia’s Hair), the only cycle Quilter would compose, together with his first set of Shakespeare settings (Come away, death, O mistress mine, and Blow, blow, thou winter wind) show a Quilter growing in confidence; the lines lie very well in the voice and there is an increasing complexity in the composition. The Shakespeare set, Op. 6, was published in the same year as To Julia, but within a few months had been lightly revised with richer accompaniments, surely in the light of performance experience. Quilter was a fine pianist, and was often the accompanist in early performances of his songs: he had studied piano as a student at the Hoch’sche Konservatorium, Frankfurt, though even he had some difficulty with the accompaniment to Love’s Philosophy.

That was a setting of a poem by Shelley, another favoured poet – Quilter relished Shelley’s wayward imagery, and his 1926 setting of Music, when soft voices die is especially evocative. It is one of six songs constituting the Op. 25 set, but as is very often the case in Quilter’s groups of songs, there is no particular link among the six, and indeed, The Fuchsia Tree, the second in the set, dates from 1923, three years earlier. That is an apparently straightforward setting, but one which allows great freedom of expression.

When a poem is very familiar, as a consequence of having been set frequently, a composer can sometimes feel a greater freedom than if it is being set for the first time. All Quilter’s Shakespeare settings are of familiar texts: two of those from Op. 23, the second Shakespeare set, date from 1919 and were written in anticipation of a production of As You Like It, at the Old Vic, London, in 1921. Under the greenwood tree is cheeky, and It was a lover and his lass (composed as a duet in 1919 and arranged as a solo in 1921) gives a nod to a perceived madrigalian style. Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, from Cymbeline, is thoughtful rather than raging. The setting of Orpheus with his lute, of 1938, is a late flowering and shows Quilter’s sensitivity to the precise meaning of the words, the grammar of which can confuse.

The unsophisticated Four Songs of Mirza Schaffy link directly with the period, roughly between 1896 and 1901, when Quilter was studying in Frankfurt. They are settings of poems, not by Mirza Schaffy but by Schaffy’s student Friedrich von Bodenstedt (1819 – 1892), who only later claimed them as his own work. First published in 1903, without an opus number, annotated ‘In remembrance of Frankfurt days’ and composed to translations by his close friend Walter Creighton (who at one time was taught violin by Elgar), the songs were revised and republished in 1911, as Op. 2, to new translations, by R.H. Elkin. This set, despite the revision, retains its earlier simplicity but offers hints of the Quilter to come.

Many of the people whom Quilter met while a student at Frankfurt became lifelong friends, in particular Cyril Scott, Percy Grainger, Balfour Gardiner, and Norman O’Neill, composers all. Each stood out in his own way – Quilter was born in Hove, Sussex, but his father acquired very substantial lands in Suffolk and was made a baronet in the 1897 Diamond Jubilee honours; the Australian Grainger was a fine concert pianist; Gardiner was also wealthy and supported other composers (notably Holst); Scott was a superb pianist and prolific composer (often of ‘pot-boilers’ in order to support himself, but his large works are of increasing interest); and Norman O’Neill wrote a good deal of incidental music for the theatre (including that for Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird). The five were known as the ‘Frankfurt Group’, though they had little in common other than Frankfurt and a dislike of Beethoven. His teacher, Iwan Knorr, clearly gave Quilter a thorough grounding without imposing his own style on him, and the compositional styles of all five are very different from one another. The ever-vocal Grainger thought very highly of, and had great respect for, Quilter’s song writing.

Once back in England, Quilter set up home in London, and remained based there for the rest of his life, though making many excursions to friends (less so to family) around the UK and Europe. On the concert platform, he frequently accompanied singers in his own songs: in the early years, Walter Creighton or Gervase Elwes often gave first performances, and after Elwes’s untimely death, in 1921, in an accident at the railway station in Boston, Massachusetts, Mark Raphael became the leading champion of Quilter; the seventeen songs they recorded in 1934, in definitive performances, show Quilter as a sensitive accompanist. Creighton is an unknown figure now, though he was far from unknown in his day, and he gave the first performance of Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel, in 1904, at what was then the Bechstein, now the Wigmore Hall. Creighton’s cousin was Wilfrid de Glehn, the artist and friend of John Singer Sargent, who painted the oil portrait of Quilter now hanging at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Quilter was well-read, and the songs on this CD encompass the subjects that interested him the most – nature, love, death: these gave him most inspiration. An air of sweet melancholy pervades much of his work, and the world-weariness of the fin-de-siècle poets appealed greatly, notably in A Last Year’s Rose, to a poem by W.E. Henley. It is one of the Four Songs, Op. 14, from 1909 – 10, a set that also includes Autumn Evening, to a poem by the Australian poet Arthur Maquarie; the composer’s choice of poets was eclectic and it is by no means obvious where Quilter discovered some of these poems. Waller’s Go, lovely rose is a well-known poem, which Quilter set to music in 1922. Unquestionably one of his finest songs, it epitomises his way of setting words – the natural way to recite them matches the notated rhythm exactly. He does the same in an arguably even finer song, Drooping Wings, to words by another Australian poet, Edith Sterling-Levis, published in her volume of poetry Thorns Have Roses. This is a late gem, from 1943, and in its heartfelt despair is surely a response to the horrors of war, though a different response from that of Dream Valley, a Blake setting, from 1917. Blake’s simplicity and directness drew a comparable style from Quilter, but there is a sense of the scene being mist-covered; it is one of a set of Three Songs of William Blake, Op. 20, and, published separately, became very popular.

Quilter had substantial private means and never had to work for a living, but he was immensely proud that – at one time at least – he could have lived off his earnings as a composer. His father, an extremely wealthy businessman, thoroughly disapproved of his profession, though the rest of his family were more supportive. His later years, after the death of his nephew, were marred by mental illness and, possibly because of some of the treatments he underwent, he became overtly homosexual – this was at a time when it was still illegal to be so, and his valet often had to rescue him. But the musicians’ church, St Sepulchre’s Church, in Holborn, was packed at his memorial service – not just with fellow musicians, but with ordinary people, who simply loved his music.

Quilter never delved into longer forms – he made his one brief foray in 1907 with the highly attractive Serenade for Small Orchestra, which he promptly withdrew, as if lacking confidence to present it to the world; and his substantial incidental music to the extraordinarily successful children’s fairy play Where the Rainbow Ends, which ran annually from 1911 to 1959, did not require symphonic treatment. Within the miniature world of the song, however, he knew exactly what he was doing: the small and beautiful was what he understood, and what he made, so exquisitely.


© 2024 Valerie Langfield

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