Charles Wilfred ORR (1893-1976)
The Complete C.W. Orr Songbook - Volume 2
Five Songs from A Shropshire Lad: With rue my heart is laden,
This time of year, Oh, when I was in love with you, Is my team ploughing?,
On your midnight pallet lying (1924-6) [12:09]
Plucking the rushes (1921) [1:43]
Four Songs: Bahnhofstrasse; Requiem, The time of roses, Since thou,
O fondest and truest, (1932-57) [12:16]
Hymn before sleep (1953) [4:32]
While summer on is sleeping (1953) [2:30]
The lads in their hundreds (1936) [2:51]
The Isle of Portland (1938) [3:30]
1887 (?) [4:38]
In valleys green and still (1952) [3:57]
Three Songs from A Shropshire Lad: Into my heart an air that
kills, Westward on the high-hilled plains, Oh see how thick the
goldcup flowers (1935-29) [11:38]
Mark Stone (baritone); Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 5-6 November 2011
STONE RECORDS 5060192780192 [59:52]
It does not seem long ago since I reviewed Volume
1 of this most desirable CD production. In fact, it was
only March of this year. I am delighted that the second volume
has followed so rapidly: often these projects get a wee bit
bogged down in cash-flow matters and time-scales. However, the
present CD concludes what is an exceptionally valuable and important
programme of English song. Let us be honest: if C.W. Orr had
been called ‘Henri Duparc’ there would probably
have been over a hundred discs devoted to his music. As it is,
there are only odd songs in remote corners of song recital CDs
The ‘Complete Songs of C.W. Orr’ will probably be
the one and only ‘complete’ survey of Orr’s
vocal music in my lifetime. Yet these songs are not only important,
they are often beautiful examples of the genre.
Twelve out of nineteen songs are settings of texts by Alfred
Edward Housman. The disc opens with the important Five Songs
from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. These include ‘With
rue my heart is laden’, ‘This time of year’,
‘Oh, when I was in love with you’, ‘Is my
team ploughing’ and ‘On your midnight pallet lying’.
They were composed between 1924-26 and were published a couple
of years later. However, they were not issued as a collection
until 1959. It is fair to say that they are not a ‘song-cycle’
but a set of songs that benefit from being sung together and
in the order presented.
Perhaps the finest song in this group is ‘Is my team ploughing?’
It is hard to forget the RVW and Butterworth settings of this
text; however, Orr does not try to parody these. There is always
a danger that this poem can sound a little banal - especially
with the line ‘The goal stands up, the keeper/Stands up
to keep the goal’ eschewed by Vaughan Williams. Orr has
managed to create a sound-world that explores the depth of the
poem rather than the detail.
The other song that stood out for me was ‘On your midnight
pallet lying’ which reflects the thoughts of a young man
about to leave his lover and join his comrades setting out for
war. Its mood sums up the depressing thoughts of the soldier.
Arthur Waley (1889-1966) was a well-known ‘Orientalist’
who taught himself Japanese and Chinese. He published many books
including a number of volumes of poetry in translation. ‘Plucking
the Rushes’ was first published in the 1918 collection
of 170 Chinese Poems. The song is remarkable for its
attractive melody and unexpected chromatic twists. The setting
is Orr’s earliest surviving song.
For his ‘Four Songs’ (1959) Orr turned his attention
to a wide variety of poets. The first is ‘Bahnhofstrasse’
by James Joyce (1882-1941). This was the composer’s contribution
to the ‘Joyce Book’ which comprised settings by
various hands of 13 poems from the poet’s volume Pomes
Pennyeach. Joyce suffered from his first attack of glaucoma
on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse. The poem is a reaction to
a realisation that ‘youth was behind him, but that he
had yet to obtain the sagacity of old age.’ This, to my
mind, is one of the best of Orr’s songs: it is an ideal
musical evocation of the poem’s sentiment.
Helen Waddell (1889-1965) is justly famous for her translation
of ‘Medieval Latin Lyrics’ published in 1929 and
still in print. The liner-notes point out that the words ‘Take,
him, earth for cherishing’ are best-known in Herbert Howells’
choral setting in memory of John F. Kennedy. However, Orr’s
1954 song is equally moving and once again reflects on the composer’s
sense of his own mortality. This is a powerful song that is
both introverted and lugubrious. The original Latin text was
written by the Christian poet Prudentius.
Thomas Hood (1799-1845) provides the words for ‘The time
of roses’. It is one of the more optimistic settings on
this CD, although the words can be interpreted as being more
depressing than the music would suggest.
Robert Bridges (1844-1930) is a poet who is largely ignored
today, in spite of the fact he was Poet Laureate. ‘Since
thou, O fondest and truest’ was Orr’s final song.
I must admit that it is hard work to listen to: I would love
to be able to appreciate and enjoy this work being the composer’s
last ‘word’ on song-composition; however, I find
it too miserable and dirge-like.
Two other settings from Helen Waddell translations are included
on this CD. The first is the withdrawn ‘Hymn before Sleep’,
also translated from Prudentius. ‘While summer on is sleeping',
taken from the Benediktbeuern Manuscript, is the easiest on
the mind in this present collection. The text is drawn from
the same source as Carl Orff’s well-known Carmina burana.
It is a simple, if passionate, love song that does not end in
tragedy or too much despair.
It is difficult to get George Butterworth’s setting of
‘The lads in their hundreds’ out of one’s
head when reading Housman’s text. It is a problem that
Orr faced when he wrote this song some twenty-five years later.
The liner-notes point out that Butterworth’s is a strophic
setting whereas Orr has applied melodic development. I prefer
the earlier number.
‘The Isle of Portland’ is a ‘sea-scape’
for singer and piano. The accompanist plays a rocking barcarolle
that suggests the ‘star-filled seas are smooth tonight’.
However, the song does become more animated as the singer reflects
on the fact that ‘Far from his folk a dead lad lies.’
It has to be recalled that prisoners were sent to Portland to
quarry stone as penal labour. It was a dangerous occupation.
I am baffled by the inclusion of a song called ‘1887’.
OK, it is a confection. C.W. Orr’s only offering for the
orchestra is the short but near-perfect Cotswold Hill Tune
This was originally composed for string orchestra in 1937. In
this present CD it has been ‘arranged’ as a song
compassing the words of A.E. Housman’s poem From ‘Clee
to heaven the beacon burns’. It is a great poem - there
is no doubt about that. The poet contrasts the celebrations
for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, with thoughts
about the fallen in a variety of ‘colonial wars’.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this ‘song’
it just appears to my mind to have been forced into the mould
of the little tone poem. I guess that it only appears as a makeweight
to bring the CD duration up to nearly the hour mark. It should
be promptly forgotten.
‘In valleys green and still’ was the last of C.W.
Orr’s Housman settings. In many ways, I feel that it is
one of his best. Like much of the poet’s output, this
poem meditates on the theme of soldiers going to war. It is
an involved number that sounds just a little bit awkward for
the voice. The piano part is quite minimalist, creating an unfocused
The final three tracks on this CD are settings of Housman’s
poems. These ‘Three Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’’
were published as a group in 1940. However, they were written
over a period of some five years. The first, ‘Into my
heart and air that kills’ was composed in 1935. It makes
an interesting song-form being a set of variations on the melodic
phrase from the first line. It is a deeply moving setting that
expresses the mood of anyone ‘away from the place they
The liner-notes explain that Orr’s setting of ‘Westward
on the high-hilled plains’ reflects the composer’s
yearning for his ‘old life’. The poem itself is
construed as an elderly man looking at someone much younger
and reflecting on the dichotomy between ‘plus ça
change’ and the continuity of existence between generations
(vide ‘On Wenlock Edge’). It is not a setting that
immediately appeals, but repeated hearing reveals the song’s
character and ultimate strength. The piano part is powerful
and essential to the song’s success. The final song in
this group ‘Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers’
was composed in 1939. It is another example of Housman meditating
of the transience of time and the need to ‘seize the moment’.
With the exception of ‘1887’ (noted above), I relished
this CD. As I noted in my review of Volume I it is great to
hear a number songs by Orr that have eluded me for many years.
The two soloists give a sterling performance of all (most) of
these numbers that is both sympathetic and enthusiastic. It
is obvious to any listener that Mark Stone and Simon Lepper
both have a deep understanding of the words and music of these
As with the previous volume, the liner-notes are helpful and
are required reading before approaching the music. The format
of each song having its own little mini-programme note has been
maintained. The text of the song is included. Part II of the
essay Charles Wilfred Orr: The Unsung Hero of English Song
is presented as a preface to the notes.
I guess that I would have enjoyed a little bit of variety in
these songs - a mezzo-soprano perhaps. However, this is an album
to sample - not to through-listen. Much of the music is melancholic
and could become a touch depressing if listened to end-to-end.
These songs need to be approached no more than three or four
at a time. However, there is much here to listen to, to think
about and ultimately to enjoy.