The Walled-In Garden – The songs of Roger Quilter
By Trevor Hold.
64 pages; Paperback. Thames Publishing 1978 and 1996. £7:50
ISBN 0 905210 99 9
This is not a new publication. I picked it up, from
the publishers’ stall at the memorable Finzi Friends event, ‘A Weekend
of English Song’ at Ludlow this year, knowing that I would find it useful
when lecturing on English song.
"Ask any singer and he or she will tell you that
a Quilter song is a delight to sing. Find any pianist who does not admit
that his accompaniments are exactly calculated and a delight to play."
So summarises Trevor Hold in this valuable short appreciation of the
English songwriter whose songs appealed to the leading singers of his
day including Gervase Elwes, Ada Crossley, Plunket Greene, Muriel Foster
and John Coates.
Trevor Hold is himself a composer and poet and is
therefore eminently qualified to assess Quilter’s songs – and although
he is quick to sing Quilter’s praises he does not pull his punches.
One might wonder why Hold has chosen one of Quilter’s lesser songs as
the title of his book. Hold explains: "Quilter’s greatest limitation…is
his lack of vision. The title of one of his later songs, ‘The Walled-in
Garden’ could aptly serve as a metaphor to summarise his career. He
is content to cultivate a small plot of ground with neatly-trimmed lawns
and a variety of exquisitely fragrant flowers. One wishes at times,
that he would look over the wall and describe to us the countryside
Yet, as Hold admits, when Quilter was at the peak
of his creative powers (between 1905 and 1910), "...if Elgar was
the symphonic master of Edwardian age, then Quilter was its most typical
and representative songwriter." Before Quilter, aspirations of
English songwriters were "pathetically low…drawing room fripperies…[with
music and lyrics] sententious and self-pitying, banal in language and
false in sentiment." "Quilter showed great care in word-setting
and was very conscious of the needs and limitations of the singers.
Of paramount importance, as he declared, was "keeping the musical
As Quilter was influenced by Maude Valerie White, who
had shown a modest attempt to raise the artistic level of the drawing
room ballad, so would Quilter influence the succeeding generation of
songwriters particularly Peter Warlock.
The opening pages give a brief survey of Quilter’s
life. As a young man he seems to have been vivacious and high spirited
but later shy and withdrawn. A botched operation blighted his career
and tragically he suffered a severe mental decline in his later years
and died completely insane. We still await a definitive biography of
Hold assesses all the songs, dismissing rather peremptorily,
all the songs written in the composer’s later years and the Four Child
Songs Op 5 as smug and patronising. The charm of The Lamplighter has
clearly not disarmed him. Of the extremely popular ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson
Petal’, Hold has mixed feelings – "…within its modest aims this
is deserved, though one wishes that Quilter had set the poem as Tennyson
had written it. In fact he sets only the outer stanzas of the poem omitting
the three central couplets. In doing so he not only ruins the subtlety
of Tennyson’s exquisite lyric but also misses the musical opportunities
that the original verse-form give. The song is also flawed by some commonplaces
towards the end." Amongst Hold’s short list of Quilter’s finest
creations are: ‘Come Away Death’ from Three Shakespearean Songs;
‘The Night Piece’ and Julia’s Hair’ from To Julia, ‘Go, Lovely
Rose’ and ‘By a Fountainside’ from Seven Elizabethan Lyrics.
A much-needed and balanced assessment of Roger Quilter’s art.