QUILTER: Folk-Song Arrangements / Part-Songs for Women's Voices (Complete) (Amanda Pitt/ David Owen Norris/ David Wilson-Johnson/ Joanne Thomas/ Philip Langridge) (Naxos: 8.557495)
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Roger Quilter (1877-1953)
Complete Folk-Song Arrangements
Complete Part-Songs for Women's Voices
Three Songs from 'Love at the Inn'
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries itseemed that every English composer wrote songs, andthe result was a particularly rich musical legacy. Parry,Stanford, M.V. White, Elgar, Woodforde-Finden,Lehmann, Somervell, Vaughan Williams, Quilter,Ireland, Bax, Butterworth, Gurney, Howells, andWarlock were but a handful of those who, whether ornot song-writing was their normal metier, madememorable contributions to the art-song repertoire.
There are those who disparage the composer who onlywrites songs, and does not attempt large-scale works,but this ignores the special gift of writing theminiature, a form in which everything is exposed andin which every detail matters. It was a form in whichRoger Quilter excelled and for which he is best known:his songs, rooted in the sound of the Victoriandrawing-room ballad, are elegant, refined, oftenprivate, always exquisite.
Quilter was born in 1877 into a wealthy upperclassfamily. His father, Sir Cuthbert Quilter, had an8,000 acre estate at Bawdsey in Suffolk, and took theattitude, usual for the time, of regarding music asmerely a fashionable accomplishment. As a youngman, Quilter himself to an extent lived the life of atypical Edwardian gentleman, visiting friends andsocial acquaintances at their country houses, andsightseeing around Europe. In spite of his father'sdisapproval, however, he determined to go his ownway, and a year or so after leaving Eton, he went to theFrankfurt Conservatory to study the piano. He alsobegan to study composition privately with Ivan Knorr,who taught many of the English-speaking students,amongst them Cyril Scott, Balfour Gardiner, NormanO'Neill and Percy Grainger; the five together becameknown as the Frankfurt Group, an informal group oflike-minded composers. Quilter found Knorr a hardtask-master, but was grateful for the rigorous training,and his earliest songs were published in 1897, whilestill at Frankfurt.
Quilter did not draw on English folk-song as amusical resource in the way that Vaughan Williamsand others did, but he was very well aware of theheritage, and said, of setting folk-songs, that it is 'oneof the most delicate and dangerous undertakings: butoccasionally people have a genius for it, such as PercyGrainger': he had great admiration for his friend'sability to do so. Despite the danger, he himselfarranged a variety of songs, calling them 'old popularsongs' or just 'old songs'; he had a way of presentingthem simply and without undue embellishment, butwith inimitably Quilter-esque accompaniments. Five,dedicated to singers and friends, were published in1921, Drink to me only, Over the Mountains, BarbaraAllen, Three Poor Mariners and The Jolly Miller.
Many years later he began working on morearrangements for his favourite nephew, Arnold Vivian,his sister Norah's son, who often sang his songs andwhose gentle personality was much in sympathy withhis own. When Arnold went to serve with theGrenadier Guards in 1942, Quilter began to compilesixteen songs, including the five from 1921, into analbum for him to sing on his return. In 1943 Arnoldwas captured in Tunisia, and a few months later he andhis friend, Lord Brabourne, escaped from a train whilebeing transported to Germany from an Italian prisonerof-war camp; on being recaptured, they wereimmediately executed. The news did not reach Quilteruntil after the war had ended; it completely devastatedhim, and the album, The Arnold Book of Old Songs,thus became an epitaph, each song dedicated toArnold's memory.
The Arnold Book assembles English, Scottish,Irish, French and Welsh songs, the countries providingthe framework for the programme on this recording.
The songs range from the dramatic, the descriptive (asin the piano mimicking the pipe and drone in Charlie ismy Darling), and the hearty and rollicking, to the fickle,the delicate (L'amour de moi, more delicate thanVaughan Williams's setting), the wistful, and thepoignant. In 1942 Quilter collaborated with the Irishpoet John Irvine on a duet version of My LadyGreensleeves: it preceded his more familiar solo versionand is the one heard here. In these extraordinarilyinventive arrangements Quilter raises the artlesssimplicity of the originals to the level of art-song.
There were other arrangements besides thoseintended for Arnold: Quilter took Harry Burleigh'sarrangement of I got a robe and arranged it further forMarian Anderson, the black American contralto, for herdebut recital at the Wigmore Hall in London in 1928.
Quilter's voice, harp and string quartet arrangement ofSt Valentine's Day, from d'Urfey's Wit and Mirth, isnow lost but his piano reduction survives. The Rose ofTralee is the well-known melody by C. W. Glover; andthe manuscript of What will you do, love is marked 'ForArnold'; to Samuel Lover's melody there wereoriginally three verses, but here Quilter simply, andtellingly, repeats the words of the first verse. It is a verypersonal setting, as is The Ash Grove, the last in theArnold book, whose words are not the usual ones, butwere specially written by Rodney Bennett, with whomQuilter collaborated on his light opera.
The original opera, The Blue Boar, was neverperformed in its entirety, though a shortened versionwas broadcast by the BBC in 1933. Little Moth and thewaltz Love Calls through the Summer Night, its gloriousViennese lilt in the same vein as the waltz song fromGerman's Tom Jones, were both in it, and survived intothe revised versions, Julia, performed in full in a shortseason at Covent Garden in 1936, and Love at the Inn,the only published version. If Love Should Pass me by, asweetly melancholy song, was certainly in these twolater versions. Quilter loved light music, music thatsimply entertained, and all three songs have a sure butdelicate touch.
Quilter wrote part-songs throughout his life. Thosefor women's voices (they are variously for two-partchoirs or two single voices, and all are accompanied)date from his middle years onwards, and althoughunpretentious, they can be deceptive, an occasionalsinister undercurrent in the text, as especially in ThePassing Bell, giving an edge to what might otherwiseseem superficial. The texts are usually by hiscontemporaries, but the words for Summer Sunset wereQuilter's own: Romney Marsh was a pseudonym, aprivate joke between him and Arnold, and My HeartAdorned with Thee, this one arranged specifically for amale and a female voice, from the solo song, usesQuilter's translation of a text by Friedrich Bodenstedtwho used the alias Mirza Schaffy. Four other duets werearranged from their solo versions: Weep You No Morefrom Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, and Daisies after Rain,which have distinct differences from their originals,(and both versions of the latter are included here),Blossom-Time and Where go the Boats from Four ChildSongs. It was a Lover and his Lass was first a duet,written for Lilian Baylis's 1921 production of As YouLike It at the Old Vic, and was then adapted as a solosong. All the songs are a delight, and some areparticularly effective: Quilter's sparkling setting ofWindy Nights, for example, is arguably more vivid thanStanford's better known version.
Many of these songs are unknown; they areinnocent, and infused with freshness and beauty. Here atlast is a chance to hear another aspect of Quilter'sinimitable art.Valerie Langfield
Valerie Langfield is the author of Roger Quilter, his lifeand music (Boydell and Brewer, 2002)