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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
from notes by Michael Pilkington © 1996