Charles Wilfred ORR (1893-1976)
The Complete C.W. Orr Songbook - Volume 1
Seven Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad: Along the field, When I watch the living meet, The Lent lily, Farewell to barn and stack and tree, Oh fair enough are sky and plain, Hughley Steeple, When smoke stood up from Ludlow (1927-1931) [22:05]
Silent Noon (1921) [4:35]
Tryste Noel (1927) [3:23]
The Brewer’s Man (1927) [1:36]
Two Seventeenth Century Poems: The Earl of Bristol’s farewell, Whenas I wake (1927-28) [3:38]
Slumber Song (published 1937) [2:26]
Fain would I change that note (published 1937) [2:09]
When the lad for longing sighs (1921) [2:43]
The Carpenter’s Son (1921-22) [5:29]
When I was one-and-twenty (1924) [2:01]
Soldier from the wars returning (1928) [2:57]
When summer’s end is nighing (?) [3:31]
Two Songs from A Shropshire Lad: ’Tis time, I think, by
Wenlock town, Loveliest of trees, the cherry (1921-22) [5:25]
Mark Stone (baritone); Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 22-23 December 2010
STONE RECORDS 5060192780123 [62:07]
I have had to wait a long time for this project to be realised.
Certainly, I heard my first song by Charles Wilfred Orr some
forty years ago. It was a setting of A.E. Housman’s great poem,
‘When I was one-and-twenty.’ Over the years I have heard other
songs included in recitals and featuring on records, tapes and
CDs. With the publication of Jane Wilson’s excellent study of
the composer, C.W. Orr – the unknown song-composer,
the complete extent of the song-setting has become clear. Conventional
wisdom, up to that point, suggested that Orr had only chosen
to set Housman’s poems. However, it soon became clear that although
that poet did feature often in his song settings, there was
a wide variety of other texts and poets. There are some 36 songs
listed in the catalogue. Out of these there are some 22 settings
of Housman. Other writers include Helen Waddell, Arthur Waley,
D.G Rossetti, James Joyce and Robert Bridges. Additionally,
the catalogue listed three choral settings and two instrumental
works – one the Cotswold Hill Tune for string orchestra
and the Midsummer Dance for cello and piano. More about
that Dance and the choral pieces below.
It is not really necessary to give a biography of the composer
in this review. However one or two brief points may be of help
to someone coming to these songs for the first time. Charles
Wilfred Leslie Orr was born in Cheltenham in 1893. He studied
the piano privately. Unfortunately, the Great War interrupted
his plans for a formal musical education. After the war he entered
the Guildhall School of Music and studied composition. The second
point of importance is his meeting with Delius, who was impressed
with Orr’s music and acted as a mentor to him. He also met Peter
Warlock who helped get his first songs published. Most of Orr’s
setting were written before the Second World War, a few were
composed in the forties and fifties, however he was musically
silent between the Midsummer Dance of 1957 and his
death some nineteen years later. Orr lived in Painswick, in
Gloucestershire with his wife from 1929 until his death in 1976.
In later years the composer was somewhat bitter at the lack
of recognition he had received. In 1974 he wrote that ‘… I have
always been more or less ignored by the BBC … so it is nothing
new … to be regarded as not worth performing, but all the same
it is a bit disheartening to be cold-shouldered in one’s own
C.W. Orr’s musical style not unnaturally owes much to Delius.
However, as a young man he had studied and enjoyed the songs
of Hugo Wolf and Johannes Brahms: these influences are never
far away. Yet, as one critic put it, Orr was ‘no slavish imitator
of any man’s work.’ Each poem that he chose to set established
a mood in the composer’s mind that allowed him to create a perfect
partnership between words and music. There is a huge difference
in style between the lyrical beauty of Rossetti’s ‘Silent Noon’
and the dramatic, almost violent, sound of Housman’s ‘The Carpenter’s
The present CD, which is Volume 1 of a projected two-disc set,
has 21 song tracks. So I wonder what will be on the second volume.
It may be that there are a number of other songs that have been
discovered since Jane Wilson’s book was published.
The recital opens with what is probably Orr’s best known song-cycle:
Seven Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad. These were composed
between 1927 and 1931. ‘Along the Field’ is impressionistic
in its effect. ‘When I watch the living meet’, is a meditation
by someone looking forward to the calm of death. It is a brooding
song. ‘The Lent Lily’ has a romantic ‘exuberant’ piano part.
It is my favourite song of this group. The disturbing subject
matter of fratricide is reflected in the powerful musical setting
of ‘Farewell to barn and stack.’ The gentler, but equally troubling
song ‘Oh fair enough are sky and plain’ is actually quite positive,
bearing in mind the subject matter is suicide. ‘Hughley Steeple’,
in spite of the fact that the church had a tower and not a steeple,
is a reflective number that matches the thoughts of the Shropshire
Lad in the graveyard. The final piece in in the cycle is the
bouncy ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’: there is almost a
folksy feel to this song. All these poems have been set many
times by English composers; however, Orr’s ‘takes’ are effective.
I believe that these are some of the finest settings in the
‘Tryste Noel’ is a thoughtful number that is really a little
parody on a medieval carol. This is one of the darker songs
in the present collection. The Two Seventeenth Century Poems
are particularly memorable: these love songs are expressive
and a little gloomy. The Earl of Bristol’s Farewell is sad and
reflective, with some interesting chromatic harmonies. ‘Wheneas
I wake’ is a short song that again considers the emotions induced
by absence. It builds to an impressive climax before a short
piano postlude brings an end.
Orr’s first Housman setting was ‘When the lad for longing sighs’.
It was one of six songs, which the composer sent to Peter Warlock
for his approval. This is well-written and fuses the poet’s
words with the music. It is not surprising that Warlock was
impressed with it.
‘When I was one and twenty’ is one of Housman’s less disturbing
poems. In fact it is really quite amusing. This setting balances
folksong in the first and art-song in the second verse. This
is one of the most effective settings of this poem in the repertoire.
The CD concludes with Two Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. These
were composed in 1921/22 when the composer was on holiday in
the south of France. However, images and recollections of the
‘Land of Lost Content’ were never far from his mind. These epitomise
that connection between landscape and music that has proved
so elusive to many composers but was achieved by Orr. The first
song is ‘’Tis time, I think by Wenlock Town’ which is a celebration
of the arrival of spring. Orr makes use of a bell-like motif
throughout. My favourite Housman lines are delightfully set
– ‘Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time/Who keeps so long
away’. Delius is never far distant from this song with its delicious
Many composers have set ‘Loveliest of Trees’, including Muriel
Herbert, Graham Peel and Janet Hamilton. However, the musical
touchstone must be George Butterworth’s masterpiece. It is not
appropriate to suggest that Orr’s setting is better or worse:
it is another excellent addition to the repertoire. This song
is contemplative, ideally fitting words to music and communicating
the poet’s sense of transience.
I am not sure what the point is of providing Orr’s Midsummer
Dance for cello and piano with words from Housman’s Last
Poems. I do not care if the result of ‘When summer’s end
is nighing’ is effective or not: it is just that it seems odd.
I would much rather they had recorded the original piece, even
though it would if been outside the remit of this CD. The Dance
was written in 1957 and was dedicated to the cellist Penelope
Lynex, the daughter of the composer’s friend Richard Lynex.
All things said, I think this setting is awful: it just does
not work. I believe that it does no justice to Orr’s genius.
Neither am I convinced by the inclusion of the three songs that
are usually classified as choral music: ‘The Brewer’s Man’,
‘Slumber Song’ and ‘Fain would I change that note’. It could
well be that Orr produced versions for baritone and piano, however
they are not included in the catalogue of his music provided
in Jane Wilson’s biography of the composer. ‘The Brewer’s Man’
was a big gutsy song written for the baritone John Goss. However
the original version included a two-part choir. It is a setting
of a poem by the Plymouth-born poet Leonard Alfred George Strong.
The second choral piece is ‘Slumber Song’ to a text by Noel
Lindsay. This time the work was written for choir and piano.
It is a lovely reflective tune that complements the atmospheric
words and imagery of moon, millwheel and dreams of yesteryear.
Finally, ‘Fain would I change the note’, was originally conceived
for three-part choir and piano. This a powerful four-square
tune that fits surprisingly well with the thought that ‘Love
is the perfect sum/Of all delight.’
I enjoyed this CD –with the caveats noted above. It was good
to hear a number of songs by C.W. Orr that I have never heard
before. Mark Stone, baritone and Simon Lepper, pianist perform
all these songs with feeling and enthusiasm. They have a deep
sympathy for the composer’s style and the texts, which he has
The liner-notes are excellent and include the first part of
an essay about the composer which explains ‘the creation of
a song-writer.’ It is essential reading and I suggest that it
is read before putting the CD into the player. Each song has
a short programme note and includes the text.
This disc will appeal to all lovers of English Song. It is an
important release that will encourage more performances and
further study of these beautiful songs.