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Roger Quilter was a writer of songs, and virtually nothing else (there was an opera, a couple of ballets, and the once well-known A Children's Overture). He composed over one hundred songs, at least half of which remain in the repertoire, loved by performers and audiences alike. This popularity perhaps arose in the first place from the absence of great technical demands being made on the performers (or intellectual ones on the listeners), but the fact that this popularity has never waned owes everything to Quilter's individuality: the addictive qualities of his vocal lines and his uniquely involved accompaniments.
This recital includes three of the four sets of Shakespeare Songs, as well as the perennially popular 'Now sleeps the crimson petal' and Quilter's acknowledged masterpiece, 'Go, lovely Rose'.
In 1900, when Quilter composed his first published songs, the tradition of the drawing-room ballad was still strong, with songs by Liza Lehmann, Maude Valérie White, Arthur Sullivan, Edward German and others selling well. It is true that Parry, Stanford and Somervell were trying to raise the standard of song-writing, but they were exceptional; even Elgar’s songs are mostly in the ballad tradition. At first sight Quilter’s songs appear to be equally devoted to the popular audience. There are no great technical demands on the performers, nor intellectual demands upon the listener. However, a Quilter song is instantly recognizable as such, with an individuality lacking in most of the composers mentioned above, at least in the field of song-writing. The vocal line has a natural flow, nearly always enhancing the rhythm of the words rather than forcing this rhythm into a preconceived melody. The accompaniments are almost unique in their layout; always providing rhythmic interest and snatches of countermelody for the pianist to find, but all without restricting the singer’s necessary rubato. For the songs of Quilter depend on a free use of rubato for their effect as much as do those of Bellini and Donizetti. However, these great Italian melodists gave little more than an Alberti bass as accompaniment, focusing all the attention on the voice. Quilter succeeded in creating a fully realized piano accompaniment which yet allows the singer full freedom. Pianists, as distinct from accompanists, will tend to find Quilter reasonably interesting and Bellini and Donizetti deadly dull to play. The true accompanist will find all three fascinating, needing immense sensitivity to the implications of the vocal line and the rhythmic freedom which results from a true understanding of the relation of words to music.
A third factor which raises Quilter’s songs above the level of most of his contemporaries is his choice of poetry. His favourite poets were Shakespeare, Herrick, Shelley and Blake; he also set a number of anonymous Elizabethan lyrics. Only Parry showed a similar taste in verse yet, like Parry, Quilter’s use of contemporary poetry is rather less understandable. Nora Hopper’s verse is trivial, and Sir William Watson’s not much better, while Ernest Dowson and W H Henley were hardly in the class of Herrick. Peter Warlock acknowledged his debt to Quilter and appreciated his work, as the following quotations from letters illustrate: Roger Quilter’s O mistress mine is ‘one of the very few things that very simply send me into ecstasies every time I play it’ (28 October 1912); ‘best lyrics … remain the sole example of modern English music that one can hear over and over again with enriched pleasure’ (9 August 1919). Warlock also sent Quilter a copy of his song Late Summer with the dedication:
To Roger Quilter,
without whose genial influence
there would have been no songs by
The ‘Three Shakespeare Songs’ were composed in 1905, the first and most successful of Quilter’s seventeen settings of Shakespeare’s words. Come away, death shows Quilter’s ability to adapt the phrases of his music to suit the stress of the words; the two verses are nearly strophic, but not quite, and the climax appears on the word Shakespeare surely designed for the purpose, ‘weep’. Warlock’s comment on O mistress mine is given above and perhaps balances Trevor Hold’s opinion (expressed in his excellent study of Quilter’s songs: The Walled-in Garden, Thames, 1996) that it ‘is the weakest of the set … the worst flaw is the quite unjustified repetition of the opening line of the poem’. A possible justification can be to use this repetition to show the singer’s realization that his light-hearted remarks are only too true, and that ‘what’s to come’ really is unsure. The final cadence, far from being ‘excruciatingly sloppy’ as Trevor Hold would have it, is for some listeners at least an expression of resignation at the transitoriness of joy. The third song is more straightforward, save that the mood of the poem is not. Is it defiant, miserable, cheerful, or what? Quilter manages to make all these interpretations possible in this rhythmically powerful setting.
The ‘Four Songs of Mirza Schaffy’ were published in 1903, with translations from the German of Friedrich Bodenstedt by Walter Creighton. They were re-issued, with the accompaniments somewhat revised, and a new translation by R H Elkin, in 1911. Schaffy (Mirza merely means ‘man of letters’) was a schoolmaster in Tiflis, Georgia, with whom Bodenstedt studied languages. The poems were published in 1851 as Die Lieder des Mirza Schaffy, but in later years Bodenstedt confessed they were his own work. It seems Quilter was not aware of this, since he later published a song with the words ‘translated from the German of Mirza Schaffy by the composer’. The poems were immensely popular, reaching a twenty-sixth edition by 1869. Incidentally Bodenstedt made the standard German translation of Shakespeare’s works, used by Parry in his settings of four of the Sonnets. With these songs Quilter was still trying to find his own voice. There are naturally traces of romantic German lieder, so soon after his study in Frankfurt, and the third song is an excellent example of the drawing-room ballad. The 1903 version of the songs is used here.
The next two songs provide a strong contrast. Autumn Evening of 1909/10 is one of Quilter’s finest songs, matching the gentle melancholy of the poem with haunting music. June, published in 1905 significantly without opus number, is a pure ballad, trite music to trite words, which nevertheless has remained popular to this day. The ‘Two September Songs’ were composed in 1916, settings of two out of the three poems Mary Coleridge wrote under the title ‘Chillingham’. These show a more adventurous use of harmony than is usual with Quilter, with many modal touches and hints of Delius, suggesting new possibilities he might have explored in later songs. In fact, Quilter was a composer who, having once found his individual voice, was happy with it for the rest of his life, there being little discernible change of style between Opus 3 of 1904/5 and Opus 32 of 1939. It is perhaps significant that Quilter omitted the third stanza of ‘The Valley and the Hill’:
O the red heather on the mosswrought rock,
And the fir-tree stiff and straight,
The shaggy old sheep-dog barking at the flock,
And the rotten old five-barred gate.
As Trevor Hold argues, these things have no place in Quilter’s world of romantic dreams.
The Arab Love Song of 1927 is one of the composer’s most exciting and dramatic works, only its comparative difficulty for the performers can explain why it is not one of Quilter’s best known songs. Love’s Philosophy sounds equally difficult but is in fact much easier than the less exciting setting by Delius. It was with this song that Quilter found himself as a song writer, and while no one can doubt that Delius was the greater composer, few could argue convincingly that Quilter was not the better composer of songs. Music, when soft voices die was written in 1926.
The 'Five Shakespeare Songs' was Quilter’s second collection of Shakespeare settings, published in 1921. The set of four appeared in 1933 and two more in 1938. As always, they are gratefully written, easy to perform, sing and hear, but they break no new ground, and might be compared to Hollywood’s habit of repeating successful formula films, giving them the same title with numbers attached. It is perhaps unfortunate for Quilter that the first and fourth of these poems have been given unforgettable settings by Finzi and Warlock, respectively.
Now sleeps the crimson petal has been a favourite among singers ever since its publication in 1904. It is a drawing-room song raised to a higher plane by its sensitivity to the words, resulting in flexible barring rarely seen at the time. It has been republished so many times that the revisions which took place have not been dated, and indeed may not have all been made at any one time. They are mostly minor alterations in the accompaniment, but there is one important change for the voice. Originally, as in this recording, Quilter wrote ‘slip into my’ to four semiquavers (ad lib); this was later changed to ‘into my’ to three triplet quavers. As so often when an artist returns to earlier work to improve it he in fact does more harm than good, and the original version of this song is without question better than the new one.
Go, lovely Rose (1922) is Quilter’s masterpiece; a wonderful love song, both words and music continue to yield new beauties over the years. It can hold its head up in any company, being worthy of comparison with the best songs of Schumann or Brahms, yet showing clearly Quilter’s totally distinctive tone of voice. A last year’s Rose of 1910 is a more routine piece.
While the ‘Four Child Songs’ (1914), with poems taken from R L Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, may not be up to the standard of Edward German’s excellent Just So Song Book, the publication of a revised version in 1945 suggests that many have found these songs attractive. In line six of A Good Child Quilter has altered Stevenson’s original words from ‘sleepsin-by’ to ‘sleep again’. The 1914 version has been used for this recording.
‘Seven Elizabethan Lyrics’ of 1908 is not a true song cycle but a well contrasted set of individual songs, probably the best single volume of songs the composer ever produced. In view of the popularity of the last of the group it is hard to understand why the others are so seldom performed. Weep you no more has words from John Dowland’s Third Book of Ayres, 1603. Dowland’s own setting is memorable and has led to at least eight twentieth-century settings of the same words; Quilter’s version stands up to the competition well. My Life’s Delight comes from Thomas Campion’s Third Book of Ayres and conveys the enthusiasm of the poem with great success. Damask Roses and Brown is my Love are both miniature gems, once heard never forgotten. The words of the first are an anonymous translation from an Italian poem by Angelo Grillo, published in 1589, the English version being set twice in John Wilbye’s First Set of Madrigals, 1598. The faithless shepherdess again started life as a madrigal, in this case by William Byrd, the poem then being published in the famous collection England’s Helicon, of 1600. Quilter took two of the four stanzas to make a lively song similar to Blow, blow, thou winter wind. The other two stanzas would not have fitted his simple scheme, being much too cynical; however, they show why the editor of England’s Helicon found them worth reprinting:
Another shepherd you did see,
To whom your heart was soon enchained.
Full soon your love was leapt from me,
Full soon my place he had obtained.
Soon came a third your love to win,
And we were out and he was in.
Sure you have made me passing glad
That you your mind so soon removed,
Before that I the leisure had
To choose you for my best beloved.
For all my love was past and done
Two days before it was begun.
By a Fountainside comes from Act I Scene 2 of Ben Jonson’s masque Cynthia’s Revels of 1600, though Quilter may have found the words in Henry Youll’s Canzonets to Three Voices published eight years later. This is a fine song, musically the most elaborate of the set, with a magical move to the major key half way through. The last song of the set, Fair House of Joy has taken on a life of its own, being a perennial favourite at music festivals throughout the country. It would be interesting to know how many of the performers understand the meaning of the first two lines, which could be paraphrased thus: ‘I wish I could sing according to the rules, for I think singing love songs is harmful.’
The next three songs are arrangements by Quilter, published in 1921 in a collection of Old English Popular Songs and reissued in 1947 as part of The Arnold Book of Old Songs. Quilter’s approach to arranging old melodies is exactly the same as that of Benjamin Britten and in each case the melody may be old, but everything else is unmistakably the work of the composer concerned. Here the result is a set of three gorgeous songs, worthy to be ranked with the best of the composer’s work. Barbara Allen, in particular, is the nearest Quilter came to a truly dramatic song. (In line 4 of Drink to me only Quilter has ‘ask’ for Jonson’s ‘look’.)
It must be admitted that the ‘Four Shakespeare Songs’ of 1933 are rather routine Quilter. Who is Silvia? has charm, but little excitement, and cannot compare with Finzi’s setting. When daffodils begin to peer is a reasonably cheerful spring song, though with no suggestion of Autolycus, the ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’, about it; nor does it appear that Quilter understood the implications of ‘me and my aunts, while we lie tumbling in the grass’! Sigh no more, Ladies is appropriately cheerful, though with little individual character. How should I your true love know? is a different matter, its gentle modal inflections conveying the mood of sorrow shared with an emotional depth only matched by Quilter in his earlier setting of Autumn Evening. It is worth noting, in relation to the first verse, that cockle-shells were worn by pilgrims to the shrine of St James of Compostela, and that ‘sandal shoon’ are sandals, also worn by pilgrims.
Michael Pilkington © 1996