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ROGER QUILTER: His Life and Music by Valerie Langfield, Boydell Press, 2002: xviii, 375pp, plus CD ISBN 0-85115-871-4 £40 hardback
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THIS REVIEW APPEARS HERE COURTESY OF THE BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY

Roger Quilter (1877-1953) is still popular and quite often performed, mainly as a composer of around 150 songs of which maybe a fifth are well known to the general public. It is fair to call him a miniaturist (I try not to as for some that is a term of disparagement) but he is more than just a songsmith. It is good, then, to have a comprehensive, thoroughly researched account of his life and works. Quilter’s life was not as eventful as some others’, partly because of his persistent ill-health, physical and mental, the latter possibly accentuated by awareness of his homosexuality. He studied at Frankfurt at roughly the same time as Cyril Scott, Balfour Gardiner, Norman O’Neill and Percy Grainger (they have been dubbed the Frankfurt five) and it is pleasing to read that Quilter kept in touch with them all, especially the latter two, Grainger being a constant source of encouragement, while O’Neill, for me an under-estimenated figure, was forthcoming with advice on orchestration. Other more or less close friends included the composer/conductors Alfred Reynolds, Anthony Bernard and Leslie Woodgate and the singers Gervase Elwes, Hubert Eisdell, Marian Anderson and Mark Raphael. The biographical narrative is highly readable and full of interest and that 19 black and white photographs illustrate it appropriately.

The survey of Quilter’s music is equally thorough. Every song, solo or choral, is discussed – different versions are compared in detail, often fascinatingly – with the aid of lavish musical illustrations (the book has 177 altogether). Singers of Quilter’s songs, and there are still many of these, will find Miss Langfield’s analyses of the greatest interest. Perhaps wisely, she does consider directly how much these are balladry and how much art song; the melodic lines often remind us of ballads (and we learn that Victorian ballads were an early influence) but his poetic taste – he said that he enjoyed poetry at least as much as music – is far above the normal ballad composer’s. Shakespeare, Herrick and Shelley, more or less in that order, were his most favoured lyricists.

Quilter was a man of the theatre, too, and his children’s play Where the Rainbow Ends, premiered in 1911 and revived almost annually for half a century, and his one opera, variously titled Julia, The Blue Boar, Love At the Inn, Rosme, Love and the Countess and The Beggar Prince, are both exhaustively discussed. Nor are Quilter’s few orchestral works, most notably A Children’s Overture, which still makes welcome concert appearances, and his very distinctive pieces for piano solo (I can testify that Miss Langfield does an excellent lecture-recital on them) forgotten. The appendices – a Quilter family tree, a schedule of Where the Rainbow End performances. Personalia (why were O’Neill and Grainger left out of this?), a detailed Catalogue of Works, a Discography and a Bibliography are both valuable and underline the depth and care of the author’s research.

It has become not uncommon for major books on music to be accompanied by a CD and this makes the case here. We can hear Quilter performance (clearly authentic as he is either pianist or conductor) of songs recorded in 1923 (Hubert Eisdell), 1934 (Mark Raphael) and 1945 (Frederick Harvey), some of them with more than just piano accompaniment, and a selection of music from Where the Rainbow Ends recorded by a salon orchestra in 1930. All are splendidly transferred and are valuable documents which, again, should be studied by would-be Quilter performers of the present day (for example, some modern recordings of that heart-bursting tune Rosamund from Rainbow, take it noticeably more slowly and less magically than does Quilter, is of the greatest interest to all devotees of British 20th Century music. I have great pleasure in recommending it unreservedly.

Philip L Scowcroft

 

see also review by John Talbot and Colin Scott Sutherland

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