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
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.
from notes by Michael Pilkington © 1996