Roger Quilter ‘A Children’s Overture’: “Old Rhymes with New Dresses”

Happy Wednesday readers – here we are at day Q in my August Alphabet Challenge! After conducting some research I am certain that Q was the most difficult to find a composer for. I am really happy with the outcome for today’s blog however, and it shall be on Roger Quilter’s A Children Overture. So without further ado, let’s get to it!

Roger Quilter was born in Hove, Sussex in 1877. In contrast to his older brothers, Roger was the quiet, shy of the group. In the mid-1880s Quilter was sent to a new prep school in Farnborough, where he was able to nurture his love for music, poetry and drama. Throughout his school like he flourished as a singer, pianist and violinist, and by the time he left the school he was very proficient on all three. After this, Quilter enrolled at Eton college in 1892. At the time that Quilter studied at Eton, there was a high acclaim for any one who would be capable in joining the army. Thus, an emphasis on physical tasks and sports were what lots of young men thrived from. However, Quilter’s shy and reserved nature made him stand out somewhat to his peers. Due to this he was excused from sport, and was allowed to pursue his interests in music. Both his older and younger brothers went to Eton also, and sadly Roger Quilter became overshadowed by Arnie and Percy. It has been documented that Roger did not enjoy his time at Eton, and when he left in 1895, he moved straight back home to Bawdsey.

Quilter had no clear career prospects, unlike his brothers who were going into either the army or business. He was beginning to become quite ‘bogged down’ with both his future and his own physical demeanour. He was 6’3 in height and was very slim, which made him hate photographs of himself (which is why there are none in existence anymore of him when he was younger). He decided that the best pathway for him would probably be music, and so with some advice he decided to apply for a place at the Conservatory at Frankfurt-am-Main. It is intriguing that Quilter did not go to a conservatory in Britain, as the foundations of the Royal Academy and Royal College were one of the best in the continent. However, he felt that going abroad would help his musical training the most, and Germany was the most appealing to him. Quilter then spent the next four and a half years in Frankfurt.

Around the middle of 1897 (within his first semester at the conservatory), he began composing short songs based on poems. He composed a short song based on two verses from Tennyson’s poem Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, which, after being altered, has now become one of Quilter’s most popular songs. Quilter became popular in the conservatory for his songs and cycles of songs. He did, however, write some orchestral music, although most of it is now sadly lost. Quilter studied piano and composition over the four years he attended Frankfurt Conservatory. Whilst there he also met fellow English composers Percy Grainger and Norman O’Neill (to which they all studied composition under Ivan Knorr). The mix between these flamboyant students and Knorr, created a highly-strung atmosphere to work in, although Quilter seemed to quite like that! It has been documented that Knorr was incredibly argumentative and had a vicious sense of humour. Quilter came from an extremely wealthy background and usually used his money to help and support other composers. However, this did not stop him feeling inferior to the bigger characters of the group, such as Percy Grainger. His teacher, Knorr, also did not think he would be that much of a composer, saying his work was charming, yet lacked conviction. This stopped Quilter from composing any large-scale works, and instead he stuck with what he knew. He became part of a group called the ‘Frankfurt Five’ which comprised of, Balfour Gardiner, Percy Grainger, Norman O’Neill, Cyril Scott and Roger Quilter.

From the start of the 1900s, Quilter was perhaps the most unknown of the five students in Frankfurt. He basically just wrote some nice charming songs, instead of pushing boundaries like his peers. He found word setting incredibly important, which meant he reworked his songs a lot more than the average composer. After moving back to England, he became working with chamber groups at the Crystal Palace. It was here that Quilter started to grasp the attention the some of his earliest audiences. His work Four Songs of the Sea became quite popular. He further composed a wealth of other short songs.

Quilter had always struggled with his health, and had been ill for a large part of his life. He never displayed the same amount of energy like his peers, and he was always very quiet. This led to Quilter suffering from depression and this led to a complete flood of self-doubt within him until he died. Thankfully, Quilter pushed himself to compose as much as he could manage, and also attend lots of concerts so that he could see his friends (as his life revolved around his friends). Quilter wrote songs that were dedicated to singers that he would like to perform his work (this was a traditional thing to do), and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Within the next 10 years, Quilter composed some his best-known songs such as Three Shakespeare Songs and To Julia. Sadly, Quilter became seriously ill around 1906, and after suffering from a bad case of the flu, his immune system was not ready for what was to come. The supposed stomach ulcer brought him much physical and emotional distress, which left him bedridden for a long period.

After his illness, Quilter was left in a vulnerable situation, and he soon began composing incidental music for theatre works, such as The Merchant of Venice. He also wrote a lot of light music for orchestra, such as Children’s Overture and Where the Rainbow Ends. Around this time he also came to terms with his homosexuality, which he had struggled with over many years. Quilter also lived through both World Wars, so his mental health was forever on the decline. Music, however, kept him going. He was inspired by the works of Peter Warlock and Ralph Vaughan Williams. In 1953, Quilter fell ill again, although this was for the last time. He became very week and passed on September 21st 1953.

For this blog I’m going to be looking into his 1914 orchestral work, Children’s Overture, which is a light work that combines lots of different nursery rhymes and memories of childhood. I find this an excellent piece, so I hope you do to!

Children’s Overture was composed in 1914 and it depicts the innocence of childhood. Quilter cleverly takes famous nursery rhymes and neatly links them together, creating the ultimate reminiscent piece. The overture is based on a music book by Walter Crane called The Baby’s Opera. The aim of both the book and the overture are the same: to appeal at many levels. On one sense a child would enjoy the novelty of hearing what melody will come next, on another an adult would enjoy hearing familiar tunes. Crane describes it as “old rhymes with new dresses.” Quilter uses generally the same keys for the nursery rhymes that Crane does in his book, however Quilter creates some slight differences with use of pivot notes, modulations and transitions. Out of the 36 songs in Crane’s book, Quilter uses 12 of these to compile his overture, and these are (in order of appearance in the overture):

Baa! Baa! Black Sheep

Girls and Boys (A major)

St. Paul Steeple (D major)

Xmas Day in the Morning (F#minor)

I Saw Three Ships (F# major)

Ye Song of Sixpence (Bb major)

There was a Lady (Eb major)

Over the Hills and Far Away (G major)

The Frog and the Crow (Eb major)

The Frog’s Wooing (C minor, ending in C major)

Baa! Baa! Black Sheep (E major)

The Mulberry Bush (E major)

Oranges and Lemons (A major)

Girls and Boys (A major)

Oranges and Lemons (A major)

The piece begins with a single bar which hints at Baa! Baa! Black Sheep, although this doesn’t go any further until the end of the work. The rest of the ensemble takes over, led by the strings, and the whirling and swirling of the sounds creates a sense of naivety – perfect for the target audience. The time signature changes from 4/4 common time to 6/8, which gives a bouncy feel into Girls and Boys. The strings and upper wind lead us into a lovely melody, which is embellished throughout by the flutes. The constant change in tempos makes this piece very exciting. The bassoons play the initial Girls and Boys melody, which is then passed around the whole orchestra. The trumpet and strings also play this melody, whilst the clarinets play a counter-melody. A dominant modulation to D major takes us into St. Paul Steeple. This section has a grander feel to it, and the mix between the muted upper brass and oboes creates a raw timbre. Different wind instruments take over the main melody in this section.

The next modulation is to F# minor and it’s an obvious one to hear. Xmas Day in the Morning is the next nursery song, and the tempo has slowed down somewhat here. The strings are very melancholy and the sound is warm and friendly. The cellos play a beautiful counter-melody also. A quick change to F# major takes us to a transitional section which then lead us to a variation of the last nursery song. Again, there is such a friendly and welcoming atmosphere in this section, its screaming “listen to me!”. I Saw Three Ships is next and its very nautical! First led by the flutes, the brass and strings take over and the snare drum gives us that drive we know from this song. A compositional trait I have seen in Quilter is his use of upper winds to embellish the main melodies.

Ye Song of Sixpence is our next rhyme and it is led by the winds once more. The main theme is spread around the whole orchestra, with the strings acting as an accompaniment. This rhyme is short-lived and we move on to There was a Lady. There is a much heavier bass section here and the piccolo also makes a more prominent approach within the ensemble. This section is very dance-like and the to and fro between the winds, brass and strings is really interesting. Over the Hills and Far Away is next and its played with a luscious tone from the strings, with a wonderful counter-melody from the horns. I absolutely love this section, it’s really nostalgic and a pleasure to hear. A short transition takes us into The Frog and Crow and then quickly into The Frog’s Wooing. The next transitional section extends the themes from I Saw Three Ships and Baa! Baa! Black Sheep. This brings us nicely into The Mulberry Bush, with its elongated melody and charming effect. This is in 3/4 and the bounce of it speeds up to bring us a dance-like effect. From this point we hear Oranges and Lemons twice and a reprise of Girls and Boys. The ending is thick in texture, which is highlighted by the scalic runs and grand ending led by a timpani roll and then a dominant-tonic chord from the ensemble.

This is a wonderfully charming work which takes something familiar and turns it into something new, yet still incredibly nostalgic. I hope you have enjoyed what this work has to offer, I find it very easy to listen to and a joy to research into. Quilter is certainly a quintessential composer, whose work is highly underrated in my opinion! Tomorrow is day R…I wonder what it’ll be?!

Happy Reading!

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