27 May 2020

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Quilter made more settings of Shakespeare than most others, so Volume 1 in the series focused on his Shakespeare settings, while Volume 2 featured his settings of Jacobean poets. In contrast, this third volume highlights Quilter’s interest in folk-inspired sources. This shows a more informal Quilter than the greatly admired art songs but reveals the intimate side of Quilter’s personality.

The Arnold Book of Old Songs was written for Arnold Vivian. Quilter and his older brother Arnold, for whom their nephew was named, seem to have had very different personalities, though they were very close. Arnold was extroverted, athletic, tall (6 foot 7) and had served in the Boer War. He was also part of the circle around Rupert Brooke, whom he helped bury. Two weeks later, he, too, was killed at Gallipoli. When the younger Arnold joined the Grenadier Guards at the outbreak of the Second World War, Quilter expanded a smaller collection published in 1924, for Arnold to sing when he was away. But yet again, tragedy struck, when Arnold was shot in September 1942 while trying to escape from a prisoner of war camp.

The Arnold Songs are based on songs from earlier vernacular songs, which are so well known that they’ve entered the mainstream almost as popular song. “Drink to me only with thine eyes” is a setting of Ben Johnson, based on Philostratus, the second-century Greek poet, the tune we know now published in the late 18th century. Similarly, “My Lady Greensleeves” was first published in 1600 as a lute song, though there are references to it in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, suggesting that it was well-known long before. “Barbara Allen” was mentioned in Pepys diaries. It is folk song as popular music, a best seller in the ballad-selling broadside trade, enabling its dissemination, with many regional variations, throughout the English-speaking world. Quilter’s version adapts the tune with great sensitivity. Delicate piano figures illuminate the name “Barbara Allen”, suggesting her beauty: perhaps it even suggests a softer side of her nature, which explains her change of heart. Dramatic chords evoke the “dead bell”. Barbara dies chastened and meek: this is no simple love story.

The Irish songs in The Arnold Book of Songs also originate from the end of the 18th century. The text for Believe me, if all those endearing young charms could come from two sources in the mid-17th century, but the form suggest traditional ballad. The jolly, rhythmic “Oh ! ‘tis sweet to think” seems to stem from country dance. All three of the Scottish songs have connections to Robert Burns, who collected and adapted songs as part of his fascination with all things Scottish. Ye banks and braes is now so famous that it’s almost basic repertoire. “Charlie is my darling” refers to Bonnie Prince Charlie. Though the text is by Lady Nairne, the song may have had topical appeal for people who knew the Jacobite cause and its brutal suppression at Culloden in 1746. Quilter’s “Ca’ the Yowes” is very different to earlier arrangements, such as the version by Maurice Jacobsen made famous by Kathleen Ferrier, and the version by Benjamin Britten, much more frequently performed. Jacobsen’s version is gentle, like a lullaby, while Britten’s version is more austere and plaintive, as befits a song which might once have been a lament from harsh times, long ago. Both Britten and Quilter evoke a sense of abandoned desolation, recognizing the context from which the song might have arisen. Quilter’s version is even closer to lament, particularly in favouring a lower, masculine register: the piano part is understated, suggesting, perhaps, the bleak internal landscape. In the final verse, the voice swells in intensity: “I can die but canna part, My bonnie dearie”. The song is attributed to Isobel “Tibbie” Pagan (1741-1821) a colourful character who owned an alehouse where she wrote poems and sang songs for her customers. Robert Burns heard it sung by a clergyman, who may or not have got it direct. Burns himself revised his version of the poem three times. (Please read more here).

Also of interest is Quilter’s version of “The Rose of Tralee” based on a poem from 1846, set in the same period. The song is so popular that it has entered into the canon as “traditional song” and may well have antecedents. Quilter develops the piano part with subtle sophistication: art song without artifice. Although Quilter has been described by some as a “walled garden”, perfect but intensely private, he was well aware of what was happening in the world around him. Marian Anderson and Quilter were friends, and he accompanied her in his own songs at her Wigmore Hall debut in 1928. “I got a robe” was written for the occasion, based on a an arrangement of a spiritual arranged by Harry Burlieigh as “Heav’n, heav’n”. Quilter also worked in musical theatre, partnering Rodney Bennett (father of Richard Rodney Bennnet) in several popular musicals, of which Where the rainbow ends was successful enough to encourage Quilter to write a light opera “The blue boar”, premiered as “Julia”. Two songs from Songs from “Love at the Inn” suggest a more modest, vaguely pastoral theme. More substantial is “The Man behind the Plough”, Bennett’s adaptation of a 19th century French song, which is included among the four French songs in The Arnold Book of Songs, “The Pretty Month of May” derived from a composer at the court of Louis XIII. Quilter’s Four Songs of Mirza Schaffy set poems in German based on an Azerbaijani poet who taught languages in Germany. of these “Die helle Sonne leuchtet” is lyrical, the piano – Quilter’s instrument – radiant, emphasising the glorious crescendo in the final verse.

More personal is “Daisies after the rain” by a contemporary of Quilter’s, Judith Bickle, published in 1951. All his life, Quilter was plagued by ill health, yet survived, unlike his more robust relatives and friends. Like the wild daisies in the poem, humble blooms can defy odds that fell more showy flowers. Thus, it is appropriate that Stone and Barlow conclude this recording with “The Ash Grove”, from The Arnold Book of Songs. The song as “Llwyn Onn” was first published in 1802 in a collection of Bardic songs called The Bardic Museum, which implies that even then it had early origins. Texts vary. Quilter set words by Rodney Bennett who understood very well how their meaning applied to Quilter’s personal life. The piano line is discreet, intensifying the suppressed emotional anguish. Once friends gathered in the Ash Grove “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 in the coming of day!” But memories live on in the song of a lone bird and the whisper of the wind. In 1950, Quilter was nearing his own end, so it mattered to him that “there in the Ash Grove my heart be at rest”.

Anne Ozorio

[Click here for the program booklet.]