Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2003-2004

Roger Quilter: His Life and Music, by Valerie Langfield

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

Probably no-one would rate Roger Quilter (1877-1953) as one of the half-dozen greatest English composers of the twentieth century. The claims of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Delius, Walton and Britten to a place in that select band are self-evident, while competitors for any vacancy would include Frank Bridge, Michael Tippett, Malcolm Arnold, Lennox Berkeley, Arnold Bax and a handful of others.

Certainly, Quilter could not match any of these in terms of the range and quantity of his output. But there is one area in which he arguably outdoes all the others, with only Vaughan Williams and Britten as serious rivals, and John Ireland and Gerald Finzi among the first reserves, and that is as a composer of songs.

It was thus entirely fitting that, when, in 1986, at my urging, EMI issued A Treasury of English Song, a double-LP of historic recordings, it should contain more songs by Quilter than any other composer. It is as a miniaturist that Quilter excelled, like his close contemporary, Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947). For, though each wrote some instrumental and theatre music and the occasional light opera, it is as composers of exquisite songs that both are chiefly remembered. Indeed, the piano introductions to Quilter’s “Music When Soft Voices Die” and Hahn’s “L’heure exquise” are breathtakingly similar.

Is it any coincidence that both were gay?

Hahn was born in Venezuela to a German-Jewish father, and a mother who had Spanish, Dutch and English ancestors. He was only four when his parents settled in Paris, and he became a quintessentially French composer, the darling of the Paris salons, and the lover of Marcel Proust, among others. There was something about the more relaxed atmosphere in Paris that allowed Hahn to become easy and open about his sexuality, whereas Quilter, an old Etonian from a monied, upper-class family, found the English legal and moral climate, in the wake of the Oscar Wilde trials, conducive only to a closeted and repressed existence. His emotional life was thus marked more by unfulfilled longings than by actual fulfilment; and, though there were some discreet sexual liaisons, they tended to be short-lived, unsatisfactory and tinged with guilt, which clearly exacerbated the psychosomatic illnesses, depression and mental instability that dogged him, especially in later years.

He was also deeply affected when his favourite nephew, and chosen heir, was killed in World War Two. Both Quilter and Hahn began writing songs at an early age, and both are most famous for early songs that are not, in fact, among their very best. In Hahn’s case, “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” was written when he was only thirteen, but his later songs, including the Verlaine settings and the Venetian songs, are much better. Quilter’s “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” was first published when he was 26, though an earlier version dates from his student days in Frankfurt.

Once again, some of his later songs – like the first set of Shakespeare songs (Op. 6), Seven Elizabethan Lyrics (Op. 12) and “Go, Lovely Rose” (his masterpiece) – are generally recognised as greater. While a student in Frankfurt, Quilter was one of a group of English-speaking ex-pats, including Percy Grainger, Cyril Scott, Balfour Gardiner and Norman O’Neill, who all had successful musical careers, though only Quilter and Grainger are now often heard.

Quilter and the Australian Percy Grainger both had close and complicated relationships with their mothers; but Grainger’s sexuality, though deeply masochistic, remained resolutely heterosexual. These two had a lifelong friendship, and it is thanks to a well-stocked Grainger archive in Melbourne that so many of Quilter’s letters have been preserved.

It is unfortunate that no central Quilter archive exists, and only a haphazard and widely dispersed selection of his personal papers has survived. Many of these have found their way into the British Library, but others are still held in a number of private and family collections on three continents, which has made the work of his first biographer difficult.

Undeterred by the lack of any central archive, Valerie Langfield, a Cambridge music graduate who has also studied singing at the Guildhall in London, has done a marvellous job in ferreting out public records and numerous private and obscure sources, recording reminiscences of surviving family and friends, or their offspring, and undertaking a thorough analysis of the published music and surviving manuscripts. She has also assembled an impressive collection of photographs, and a compact disc provided with the book contains all the known recordings, made between 1923 and 1945, in which Quilter participated: as piano accompanist to Hubert Eisdell, Mark Raphael and Frederick Harvey in some thirty of his songs; and as conductor of a studio orchestra in selections from his music for Where the Rainbow Ends (in the first production of which, in 1911, there appeared a precocious not-quite twelve-year-old boy named Noël Coward).

The best of Quilter’s one hundred or so original songs, together with his highly individual folk-song settings, are of the finest quality, though there was some falling off after 1929. Three sets of Shakespeare songs, Op. 6, Op. 23 and Op. 30, contain some of the most sensitive settings of our greatest poet in his own language, and the settings of Shelley, Herrick and Tennyson are also among his best.

But what of the man himself? It would be a mistake to regard Quilter simply as a minor composer with an unfulfilled personal life, for he was a man of deep feeling and wide sympathies, kind to animals and extremely generous with his considerable inherited wealth. Several budding composers, including Grainger and Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), might not have got their works published but for his generosity. And, perhaps unusually for one of his time and background, he was extremely generous and helpful to aspiring black musicians, including Lawrence Brown (with whom he probably had a brief fling), Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes and Marian Anderson. He also did much for Jewish musicians, including Mark Raphael, whose studies he financed and whom he regularly accompanied, and he was responsible for securing a future in this country for a number of German and Austrian Jewish artists and scientists threatened by the Nazi terror. He was, in addition, a founding member and lifelong trustee of the Musicians Benevolent Fund, established in memory of one of his earliest champions, the great tenor, Gervase Elwes.

It is sad, however, to read of his last years, when the married couple he had engaged as housekeepers took advantage of his failing powers to manipulate and rob him. There is even a suggestion of blackmail. It is probably due, in large part, to their influence that friends were latterly kept at bay, and that many of his personal papers were lost.

Valerie Langfield is to be congratulated on a great labour of love and a truly magnificent achievement. She appears to have left no stone unturned, though it is possible that the appearance of her book will encourage any others who have significant documents or relevant memories to come forward, and we anticipate further editions in which, perhaps, those parts of the picture that still seem less than clear may come into even sharper focus. Above all, it is a great celebration of the music, which seems once again to be attracting a growing audience.

Besides the invaluable archive recordings she includes, there are several modern CDs, which give a fair representation of Quilter’s art:

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Created : Sunday, 2004-02-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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