Roger Quilter: His Life and Music

Roger Quilter: His Life and Music

Roger Quilter: His Life and Music

Roger Quilter: His Life and Music


The songs of Roger Quilter are a staple of the English art song repertoire, yet little is known of his life, and his popularity suffered an eclipse in postwar years largely through changing musical fashions. Championed by the great English tenor Gervase Elwes, Quilter became famous for songs such as 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal', 'Love's Philosophy' and 'Go, Lovely Rose'. The BBC included A Children's Overture in their first broadcast concert, and the success of his atmospheric music for the children's fairy play Where the Rainbow Ends ensured his immense popularity. Access to numerous sources worldwide, many of them unpublished, and extensive interviews with friends and family, have enabled Valerie Langfield to write a sympathetic and authoritative account of Quilter, the first full-length study. The first part focuses on Quilter's life: she examines his relationships with his friends, particularly Grainger and the de Glehn family, and how his wealth, ill-health, family and homosexuality affected him. Her researches testify to Quilter's quiet philanthropy: his many practical actions included his founder-membership of the Musicians Benevolent Fund, generous and discreet assistance to young musicians, and help to Jewish friends fleeing Germany and Austria before the second world war. The second part of the book discusses and contextualises all his music: songs, chamber, orchestral and theatre music, and his light opera, Julia, performed at Covent Garden in 1936. The CD - which can be ordered separately by purchasers of the book - contains recordings of Quilter himself, either playing or conducting. The 17 songs that Quilter recorded in 1934 with the baritone Mark Raphael are included, together with his own arrangement for piano quintet of the song cycle To Julia with Hubert Eisdell as the tenor soloist. Quilter also conducts a short selection of items of music from Where the Rainbow Ends. Also: Schedule of performances; Catalogue of works; Discography; Bibli


The name of Roger Quilter is one I have known since my childhood; I first came across his music when I heard his Children’s Overture at a Robert Mayer concert, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. I was so taken with it that I persuaded my father to buy me the record, which I still have, but it was rather later that I came to know the songs, when as a singing student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I was introduced to them in the English Song class of Michael Pilkington. So when, one day in May 1996, John Turner, recorderplayer extraordinaire, happened to say to me, ‘And of course, you realise there’s no biography of Roger Quilter, don’t you?’, he started me on a splendid adventure, during the course of which I have met many wonderful people, and have been much enriched by their friendship and kindness.

Quilter was a shy man, perpetually ill, plagued by his wealth, generous, humanitarian and a loyal friend. His taste in all things was exquisite. In comfortable company, he could relax, and he had a quirky sense of humour – he professed to dislike train journeys in Germany, on account of being afraid of the ‘Night Rouchers’, an allusion to the signs on the windows prohibiting smoking: ‘Nicht Rauchen’. In his days as a student at the Frankfurt Conservatory, he would recite the Bible to his friend Percy Grainger, and on one occasion as he was about to go on stage to accompany a singer, he said to her, quoting from As You Like It, ‘Let us clap into it roundly without any hawking and spitting!’, expecting her to maintain some sort of dignity as she continued on to the platform. He was apparently rather a good mimic, too.

He had a superb lyrical gift – his songs are amongst the finest anywhere – but he has been belittled both for writing only miniatures, and also for writing light music. However, he knew where his strengths lay, and he put equal effort into all his work; his light music is as perfect in its theatre and concert environment as his songs are perfect in the drawing room. Those songs have remained firmly in the repertoire for decades, and rightly so. Some are showpieces, some are much more intimate; he knew what he wanted to say, how best to say it, and he did so with complete integrity. Pervading them all is a delicate wistfulness, that continues to haunt long after the song itself is ended.

Quilter’s last years were marred by tragedies, and at the time of his death it was felt that the final details of his life were best left to settle. Fifty years later, it is possible to put those years, and the rest of his life, into perspective. The freedom to do so has given me an extraordinary task: those who knew him wanted to talk about him, and blind alleys of the 1950s were now avenues of . . .

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