Betty Roe: The first 80 years
by Iain Snedden
Betty Roe is a prolific composer, best known for her solo songs, church and choral music, revue songs, musicals, and music for schools. The majority of her works are for smaller forces largely because she has not yet had the opportunity to write a concerto or symphony.
Roe’s musical education and love of English early and “light” music give her works a characteristic feel. The music always engaging and melodic and her word setting is instinctive, following the rhythm of the poem/libretto she is setting. This leads to vocal works which are a joy to sing and easy for the performer to communicate directly with their audience.
Photograph by Simone Canetty-Clarke
Eileen Betty Roe was born on 30 July 1930 in North Kensington, London, England, next-door but one to the house in which she now lives. She started playing the piano aged 6 and got her first opportunity to shine at age 11, after volunteering to play the piano for dancing during a rainy school break. Her headmaster, George Pressy, was impressed and sent her home with a letter offering free Saturday Morning tuition as a Junior Exhibitioner at the Royal Academy of Music. For her audition she played In a Monastery Garden by Ketèlby. Margaret Donnington explained that the Royal Academy did not accept that kind of music and asked if she had another piece. In a Persian Market…
Her Junior Exhibitioner scholarship entitled her to a place in a grammar school where learned a great deal playing reductions of symphonies for four hands with her class teacher, Barbara Irons.
Roe could play the popular music of the day by ear and would often find herself playing the accordion for entertainments in her street’s air raid shelter during the blitz.
Although she received a distinction in music, she failed her General School Certificate and went to work as a clerk at the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music. In 1949 Roe returned to the Academy where she continued studying piano, now with York Bowen, and ‘cello with Alison Dalrymple. Learning the ‘cello gave her an insight into bowing and phrasing. Later she studied singing with Jean McKenzie-Greive and Clive Carey.
After the war the popular entertainment of the day became Intimate Revue; short topical sketches, often with music, such as Flanders and Swann. In 1953 Roe started to write the music for satirical material and perform with members of a drama group. These Intimate Revues were very successful and she, lyric writer Maurice Holstock and pianist John Bishop were hired to perform in late night revue at the Irving Theatre in Leicester Square. Holstock would often write a lyric based on the morning news, then post it to Roe for the musical setting ready to perform the next evening. Numbers were also provided for musicals and an All Fools Day concert at the Festival Hall. Some of the songs from this period survive in the Samuel French archive including the collection Openers and Closers and songs from Off the Cuff.
Left to right: John Bishop, Betty Roe and Maurice Holstock
It was during this period that she married John Bishop and had three children; twin girls in 1958, now both musicians, and a son in 1961, now a recording engineer.
In 1962, Roe took part in the Ashwell Festival as a member of the Cunningham Singers, an ad hoc group of London based singers who came together to perform at the festival.. The festival had been set up in 1953 as a summer school for young people and the participants included Peter Naylor, Malcolm Williamson, John Russell and Alan Ridout.
On hearing Roe’s canticle settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis (1962), Malcolm Williamson commented that she had adopted his style. Roe pointed out that she was his senior. Williamson arranged for the Canticles to be published by Joseph Weinberger.
Having heard the Canticles, Roe was approached by John Catterick the Rector of Ashwell Parish Church to set some words he had written. Roe expected a single poem but the five section libretto arrived as ten foolscap sheets covering the story of Christ’s resurrection.
Christus Victor (1964) sets out to express the joy of Easter in song, narration and dance. The piece maximises the participation of both the performers and the Audience including roles for contralto and baritone soloists, mixed chorus, narrators, speaking chorus, dancers and instruments, including organ. Where familiar hymn tunes were used to encourage the audience to sing as a chorale, Roe added unfamiliar harmonisations to heighten the emotional content.
The work prefigured the use of popular music forms in Church music leading Alan Ridout to describe Christus Victor as the “next Stainer’s Crucifixion”. The manuscript was snapped up by Novello for publication. However, the publisher made little effort to promote the piece and it failed to get the recognition it deserved. Recognition was also hampered by Roe being a woman composer in the early 60s and not a part of the old boy network. Roe’s friends joked that she should have change her name to “George”.
The work was particularly original in its “multimedia” use of choral singing, mime, dance and jazz. A reviewer in Music and Letters admitted being shocked at the first jazz influenced section, The Lord is risen from the tomb and noted that the music played during the narrations was “a coherent part of the whole with thematic relevance”.
Roe recently revised Christus Victor, removing some of the jazz elements. A performance of the revised work at St Helen’s Church in 2007 demonstrated that it continues to communicate directly with a modern audience. The librettist’s son, Anthony Catterick played horn in both the 1963 and 2007 performances.
After composing Christus Victor, Roe realised that she wanted to take her composition seriously and started having lessons with Lennox Berkeley in Maida Vale. These were often spent discussing Berkeley’s compositions. If he was having trouble working out how to write the endings, Roe suggested he composed the ending first. Roe recalls that they had lovely evenings together with their spouses when Roe played cocktail bar music, which Berkeley loved.
Roe was appointed Director of Music at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art from 1968 to 1978 and during that time also worked extensively as a session singer. She was seen on TV conducting the Two Ronnies in The Plumsted Ladies Male Voice Choir and sang on the concept albums of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Roe’s most popular song is probably “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” a setting of Charles Causley’s poem and was also Roe’s first formally commissioned piece. The song started life in a group of three settings for children’s voices, “Union Street” after the title of the volume of Causley’s poems. The pivoting of the music before the sailor’s return perfectly reflects the child’s disillusionment at having grown up.
Roe considers theThree Herrick Songs (1969) for Solo Soprano and Wind Quintet “Undoubtedly one of the best things I have written and bits have stayed in my memory.” The work was written for Derek Smith, a horn player and another Ashwell Festival encounter. Roe and Smith had been co-opted into a scratch choir and had to suppress giggles at the conductor, leading to a lasting friendship.
The work sets three advent poems by Robert Herrick, each song leading seamlessly into the next with a short interlude linking the fist and second songs. The Star Song has a strongly contrapuntal accompaniment but Roe’s sensitivity to the vocal line ensures that there is always space for the voice to be heard clearly within the texture. On Heaven alternates 2/2 and 3/2 bars to give a lilting feel leading to the ecstatic “amens” over a rising flute. A Christmas Carol provides a joyous finale to the work.
Roe sang the solo at the first performance in Maida Vale and recalls that she had just learned to drive but had to walk to the performance following an accident in her car. The piece was performed several times and is currently being prepared for publication.
Derek Smith recognised that Roe had the talent and John Bishop had publishing experience as house journalist on the Shell magazine. Smith put up £200 to enable Thames Publishing to be born with a little round Song at Christmas (1970) to a lyric by Jean Kenward. This later became the couple’s 1973 Christmas card. The company was named “Thames” because of Roe’s love of the river and London. The fish logo, designed by Malcolm Potter, arose because Roe’s father was a fishmonger and the associations with her surname.
Noble Numbers (published 1972) are also some of Roe’s most enduring songs and they were lyrically sung by countertenor Tim Travers-Brown on his 2009 recital CD of Warlock, Howells and Roe (SIGCD161).
The five Robert Herrick settings are dedicated to five countertenors. The earliest song to be composed, My God, was written for James Bowman, whom Roe met via the Cunningham Singers. The remaining four songs were composed by the river in Sunbury. John Honeyman, the dedicatee of Roe’s Two Jazz Songs (1972) for Soprano and Double Bass, invited her to stay for short periods of time to escape the pressures of London, three young children and ailing parents.
Each of the songs was influenced by the singing of its dedicatee, who included musical colleagues David Ross and Ian Hunter, as well as Owen Wynne, who sang the whole cycle on the radio. Although written over a long period of time, the songs exist in a consistent tone world reflecting both the religious fervour of the text and the pervading feeling of being unworthy.
The Catipoce - Edward Ardizzone 1957
Prefabulous Animiles (1973) was commissioned by Colet Court Boys School for a Purcell Room recital in 1973. Roe selected the five poems from the 12 Prefabulous Animiles (1957) by James Reeves, and two additional poems are suggested to be recited in performance.
The harmony conjures up a mysterious sound world for James Reeves’ uncatalogued creatures to inhabit. Coupled with strong melodic and rhythmic elements, this piece both appeals to the children performing it and is musically satisfying. The 1977 recording of the work (Pearl SHE 542) is performed with great enthusiasm by the trebles. Roe places The Catipoce’s devouring smile sinisterly in the final piano chords;
and The Nonny gleefully explodes in a dissonant clash between the singers and pianist.
In 1975 Roe was introduced to librettist Marian Lines, a partnership which has, so far, produced six operas, twelve musicals, many choral works and a pantomime. Their first collaboration, The Barnstormers (1976), is now in its third edition, published by Novello.
For the operaGaslight (1983) Lines’ libretto was closely based on Patrick Hamilton’s play. Roe’s word setting is very direct allowing the tension to quickly build between the two main characters. The role of the Detective, created by Richard Suart, was introduced as a humorous character to alleviate the tension and bring the work to a satisfying conclusion.
Felix Aprahamian reviewed the premiere at Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in London;
“Miss Roe's score speaks an unequivocally clear, tonal lingua franca, in which opposites like Britten and Menotti rub shoulders; here and there a piquant cluster, but, more often, sequences of deliciously sugary modulations, a touch, perhaps, of Sondheim.” (Sunday Times March 1983)
The first production was staged with assistance from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust and the Mayor of Camden but run was restricted to seven performances by the rights holder of the play. A group in Germany expressed interest but the work is still overdue a second production.
Roe’s Divertimento for Trumpet and Strings (1984) was commissioned by Janet Canetty-Clarke, the conductor of the Frauen Kammerorchester von Österreich (the First Women's Orchestra of Austria) with Carol Dawn Reinhart as the soloist. At a time when the major Viennese orchestras would only admit male performers, the Divertimento’s premiere was an opportunity to demonstrate that women could write and perform music on a par with men. A reviewer described it as a “Serious, well constructed, attractive, Divertimento”.
The Divertimento was premiered at a concert in Vienna, on 28 November 1984, which included Holst’s St Paul’s Suite and Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. All of which hopefully dispelled the Austrian misconception that England was an unmusical nation as the audience demanded several encores.
Roe met Ursula Vaughan Williams via John Bishop’s involvement with the Vaughan Williams Trust. Thames Publishing had also published a book of Ursula Vaughan Williams’ poems. East Midlands Opera, an ad hoc company formed by Barry Collett to perform operas in the Northampton area, had commissioned Roe to write an opera for them. Ursula Vaughan Williams had already written a libretto and the result was the one act opera Canterbury Morning (1986), premiered at the Elizabeth Theatre, Oakham, Rutland.
The opera takes up Chaucer’s story the morning after the pilgrims’ arrival in Canterbury. Matching the structure of the libretto Roe’s music ties the piece into a consistent whole without breaks in the action for arias.
Roe’s association with Ursula Vaughan Williams also resulted in the song cycles The Silver Hound (1986) for Tenor, Horn and Piano and the cycle of three songs, Man Without Myth (1990).
The one act opera A Flight of Pilgrims (1993) with a libretto by Marian Lines was written as a companion to Canterbury Morning, portraying the pilgrims in an airport transit lounge and preceded Jonathan Dove’s airport-set opera “Flight” by six years. The two operas were performed as a double bill at St James, Norlands in March 1993, directed by Marian Lines.
A Flight of Pilgrims is written for the same performers as Canterbury Morning and each of the characters is paired with their equivalent in the earlier opera. For this piece, Line’s libretto included opportunities for the characters to be reflective, increasing the emotional content of the piece. Roe’s music is particularly effective in Thomas’s aria where recurring themes underlie the character trying to rationalise paralysis from Polio. The piece concludes with a stunning orchestral sunrise as the various crises of faith are resolved.
The most striking of Lines and Roe’s musical entertainments is the Storm Hound (1996). Commissioned by the tenor Gordon Pullin as a companion piece to Britten’s Golden Vanity, the score evokes a chilling Suffolk landscape with the looming presence of the spectral dog, Black Shuck. The piece concludes with the chilling sound of the chorus panting in unison.
Among Roe and Lines’ most successful community pieces are their Pantomime, Dick Whittington (1996) the Children’s opera Brunel: The Little Man in the Tall Hat (2006) and Songs for City Children (2003).
In Dick Whittington the composer was very much aware of the abilities of the performers and many of the pieces were tailored to their strengths whilst not affecting the integrity of the work as a whole. The work contains some marvellous music and the first production succeeded in getting the entire community involved.
Roe and Lines’ Brunel opera was commissioned and performed in Swindon by the Janice Thompson Performance trust to mark the 200th anniversary of Brunel’s birth. The work is set after Brunel’s death with a group of railway workers from Swindon reminiscing on a works trip to St Ives. Again the music succeeded in being accessible but engaging and children as young as six were singing with gusto processing round the church where it was premiered.
Betty Roe and Marian Lines wrote two operas for performance at the Edinburgh Festival fringe. Lunch at the Cooked Goose (1999) is a comic one act opera for four sopranos. Four college friends meet up after 20 years to compare careers. The musical centrepiece is the quartet of Five Feasts each from a different period - renaissance to Britten - and set with an appropriate musical pastiche.
© 1999 - Betty Roe and Marian Lines
Two new productions are planned for later this year to celebrate Roe’s 80th birthday.
Welcome to Purgatory (2003) imagines that Mary Queen of Scots has been waiting in purgatory for her cousin, Elizabeth I to join her. The ensuing battle of words is refereed by a baritone who is also required to play the piano/harpsichord.
Betty Roe is still composing prolifically having completed six commissions in the past 18 months and is currently working on her third comic song for soprano Elizabeth Connell. She also hopes to have time to write a string quartet.
Betty Roe’s works are always engaging and tuneful and a joy to both listen to and perform. The range of her work is broad enough to ensure that there is something to please and satisfy every performer regardless of their ability. This is evidenced by the fact that she continues to have her own section at Chappells of Bond Street.
Roe’s works that were published by Thames Publishing continue to be available from Music Sales/Novello. Her recent compositions are published by Robish Music and available via tutti.co.uk.
I hope you will join me in wishing Betty Roe a very happy 80th birthday.