Charles Wilfred Orr (1893-1976): An English Craftsman Revisited

By Rawlins, Joseph | Journal of Singing, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Charles Wilfred Orr (1893-1976): An English Craftsman Revisited


Rawlins, Joseph, Journal of Singing


CHARLES WILFRED ORR (b. Cheltenham, July 31, 1893; d. Painswick, February 24, 1976) was an English song composer who has been cited by British musicians and scholars as having significantly contributed to twentieth century English song repertoire.1 Among the admirers of Orr's songs are a number of notable composers and critics, including: Arnold Bax, Frederick Delius, Philip Heseltine (pseud. Peter Warlock), Dr. Sydney Northcote, Dr. P.M.H. Edwards, Sir Eugene Goosens, Christopher Le Fleming, Christopher Palmer, Sir Francis Routh, Philip Barford, and Ian Copley, as well as the internationally famous English baritone, John Goss. Orr's song cycle for baritone, Seven Songs from "A Shropshire Lad," composed during the years 1927-31 but not published until 1934, is mentioned by both Northcote2 and Le Fleming3 as one of the outstanding contributions to English song since World War I. Christopher Palmer, in an article celebrating the composer's eightieth birthday, remarked that "it is indeed unfortunate that C.W. Orr, the composer of a handful of songs which rank among the finest produced in Britain-perhaps anywhere in the world in this century-has not received more acclaim for his very personal and significant accomplishments."4

Paradoxically, although Orr's songs received acclaim from these distinguished musicians, his music remains relatively unknown outside of his native country, and it has been largely misunderstood and overlooked even in England. This is due in large part to the fact that his music contains numerous "international" influences, and does not extensively employ the British folk song (ballad) style that was in vogue in Britain during Orr's compositional career. In truth, this ballad style was one that he never wished to emulate. Although some of his compositions in fact do reflect this influence through their use of modality, it is an "unconscious" influence indigenous to his true English roots, roots that can be traced back as far as John Dunstable.

As a young man, Orr had shown an affinity for lieder and had made an extensive study of them, especially those of Hugo Wolf. As a result of this interest and subsequent translations of many of Wolf's songs, several aspects of Orr's compositional style were firmly established. Traits such as the recognition of the close relationship of music to poetry, dramatic aspects of the text reflected in the music, and, especially, a highly developed use of chromaticism, are attributable to his close scrutiny of the music of Wolf. Orr's songs represent the apogee of a hybrid form resulting from indissoluble qualities of the German lied and English art song. In my opinion, and for lack of a better appellation, Orr's songs can be considered to be "English lieder" because, as in the lieder tradition, every textual suggestion finds a corresponding nuance within the phrase, and his songs are a paradigm of melodic-harmonic interplay. With reference to lieder, Orr wrote:

[T]here is often some crucial word or phrase in which the whole significance of the verse or even the whole poem depends. The composer will give this special prominence, either by prolongation of the vocal line or by some harmonic colour in the piano part...5

Orr's affinity for unexpected harmonic colors pervades his songs. This influence seems to have come from his study and admiration of Wolf's works, and a close personal association with Delius, as well as a personal fondness for Delius's compositional style. Delius was an English composer who spent much time in Germany, moved to Florida, and eventually settled in Grez-surLoing, Bourron, France in his later years. (His music was even more appreciated outside his native England than in his homeland.) Consequently, Deliuss style is more cosmopolitan and "international" in scope, rather than reflecting solely his native English traits. Many of Orr's early songs were definitely influenced by Delius; for example, in "Silent Noon" he even uses a musical quotation from Deliuss instrumental opus, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. …

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