Roger Quilter (1877 - 1953)

Dr Langfield is the leading authority on the life and music of English composer Roger Quilter.

Roger Quilter was known primarily as a gentle and gentlemanly composer of elegant songs. What is less well-known, however, is that he also wrote some lovely orchestral music and memorable piano pieces, that are distinctly impressionistic.

Photograph: Howard Coster


His Life

Quillter was born at his parents' home in Hove, Sussex, UK, on November 1st 1877. At that time, his father, a shrewd and extremely wealthy stockbroker and businessman, was still plain William Cuthbert Quilter, but in 1897, Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Year, he became Sir Cuthbert Quilter, Bart. Sir Cuthbert was an art collector (his collection was well-known in its day) and he owned a very substantial estate in Suffolk, England.

Roger was the third of five sons, in a large family. His mother encouraged his artistic inclinations, and he was devoted to her. He attended a preparatory school in Farnborough and in January 1892, he began at Eton College, where, though the emphasis was upon sporting achievement, he was allowed to pursue his musical studies. However, Eton's atmosphere was not congenial for someone of his sensitivity, and in later years, he was reported to have said that he hated his time there. Around 1896 a family friend suggested that he continue his musical studies in Frankfurt. To go abroad to study was still a common route at this time, since the English music academies were not especially well-established. So Quilter enrolled at the Hoch Conservatory at Frankfurt-am-Main; he took composition lessons with Ivan Knorr, as did Balfour Gardiner, Norman O'Neill, Cyril Scott, and the redoubtable Percy Grainger, though they were not all there at the same time. They had in common a dislike of Beethoven, and they became known as the 'Frankfurt Group'.

On his return, he continued to write songs, having begun while at Frankfurt, and in March 1901, his Songs of the Sea were performed by Denham Price at the Crystal Palace. Gervase Elwes, one of the leading tenors of the day, began to sing Quilter's songs, and the song-cycle To Julia - which was dedicated to Elwes - put Quilter firmly on the map as a song composer. Over the succeeding years, Quilter continued to write songs for an appreciative audience. He also continued in poor health (his letters are peppered with references to how ill he was feeling), and consequently did not serve in the First World War. Instead, he organised concerts in various hospitals, and a series of chamber concerts that he was involved with continued after the war.

Gervase Elwes was killed in an accident at Boston railway station, Massachusetts, in 1921. The Musicians' Benevolent Fund, in the UK, was set up in his memory, and Quilter was a founder member, serving faithfully and attending the committee meetings regularly until his death. In 1923, he met a young baritone, Mark Raphael, whom he encouraged and worked with closely. He also had a private secretary, Leslie Woodgate, during the 1920s, and both Raphael and Woodgate remained lifelong and loyal friends.

In 1911, the children's play Where the Rainbow Ends was premiered at the Savoy Theatre, London; Quilter wrote the incidental music for it. Produced by Italia Conti, who subsequently founded the Italia Conti School (now the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts), it was immensely successful, and for many years Quilter conducted the opening matinée of the season. The parties for the cast of children, that he held at his home in Montagu Street, London, were also well-known.

Most of his best work was produced before 1923, though there are some superb songs produced after this time. He collaborated with Rodney Bennett on a number of projects, including the light opera, Julia, which was premièred at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in December 1936. For many years, his songs were broadcast frequently on radio.

He was a nervous, anxious man, cultured, well-read and well-travelled, but not happy with others of his social class unless they shared his love of the arts. His favourite nephew, Arnold Vivian, was killed in tragic circumstances during the second World War; the shock was immense, and was possibly (given Quilter's nature, the pressures on him as a result of his homosexuality, and other events) the final straw responsible for the triggering of his severe mental illness. In his last years, he was undoubtedly extremely difficult to live with, and there are allegations of blackmail; the events of these years are however open to different interpretations.

In 1952, his 75th birthday was marked by the BBC with a celebration concert, conducted by Leslie Woodgate. He died within the year, at his home in St John's Wood, London, on the 21st September 1953, and was buried in the family vault at Bawdsey church, Suffolk. A memorial concert in London was very well attended by family and fellow musicians, and by ordinary people who loved his music.

His Music

Quilter wrote mostly songs, but there are a few piano pieces, some orchestral pieces and some incidental music to theatrical works. There are a few chamber works, too: these are almost always arrangements of his other pieces. His music was superbly crafted, and has an irridescent quality. It is often extremely powerful (particularly the Five Jacobean Lyrics - not a quality usually associated with Quilter. The songs always lie well: this is one feature that made them so popular - there were never any awkward intervals - and the accompaniments are closely integrated with the vocal line. A wistfulness tends to pervade all Quilter's music: it is a very English sound, that we tend to associate with the Edwardian period, but perhaps it stems too from Quilter's own personality.

Because of his early fame as a song-writer, there appears to have been little call for him to write in any other genre. But his other music, though light in nature (he never attempted any long forms), is a delight to listen to, and a joy to play. His piano music in particular is freed of the restrictions of having to write comfortably for singers and their pianists; it is effective and atmospheric, and owes much to Debussy. 'At a Country Fair' (from Three Pieces for Piano) has a percussive timbre with hints of Stravinsky's Petrushka. The Three Studies are still in print, in an excellent volume available through Boosey & Hawkes; the Three Pieces, Two Impressions and Country Pieces are also available from Boosey's as authorised photocopies.


I have compiled an extensive catalogue of Quilter's works, which is given in my book. Here, to tempt you, I mention a few very select items: either representative of his output, or ones that I particularly like.


O Mistress Mine, from the first set of Shakespeare Songs, Op. 6 No. 2
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, the second of Three Songs, Op. 3
I Arise from Dreams of Thee, Op. 29
Go, Lovely Rose, the third of Five English Love Lyrics, Op. 24
Drooping Wings

Chamber music

Three Poor Mariners, for piano trio

Piano Music

 From Three Pieces for Piano:
        Summer Evening Op. 16 No. 2
        At a Country Fair, Op. 16 No. 3
The third Study, from Three Studies for Piano, Op. 4

Orchestral, Theatrical and Incidental Music

A Children's Overture, Op. 17
Suite from the Incidental Music to Where the Rainbow Ends
Love Calls through the Summer Night, from the light opera Love at the Inn which is included in its duet version on both the Naxos CDs mentioned below.


There have been many recordings made, over the years. Here's a very selective list:
A Quilter Compendium (EMI Classics 5 85149 2) which contains a wide selection of songs, duets, choral music, A Children's Overture, the Suite from Where the Rainbow Ends and Stephen Hough's exquisite piano arrangements for good measure. As with the Naxos CDs, this is unbelievably good value. 

Song Collections

Philip Langridge, David Wilson-Johnson, Amanda Pitt and Joanne Thomas, with David Owen Norris (Naxos, The English Song Series, volume 11, 8.557495).  This contains the complete folksong arrangements, with many of the songs not recorded before.

John Mark Ainsley and Malcolm Martineau (Hyperion CDA66878)
David Wilson-Johnson and David Owen Norris (Hyperion A66208) - this is only available on LP, alas.

Benjamin Luxon and David Willison (Chandos CHAN8782)
Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Lisa Milne, with the Duke Quartet and Graham Johnson (re-released on Naxos, The English Song Series, volume 5, Roger Quilter)

Chamber music:

The Primrose Piano Quartet (Meridian CDE 84519), playing the piano sextet ‘Gipsy Life’. 

Orchestral music:

The Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper (Marco Polo 8.223444).

Older recordings (on 78s) to look out for are those that Quilter made with Mark Raphael, on the Columbia label - seventeen songs, and definitive performances; numerous recordings were made of A Children's Overture and I particularly like George Weldon's performance, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

My own especial favourite is a very old recording, of William Brownlow singing Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal; it is a very moving performance. All Quilter's recordings (which of course include the Raphael performances, and Quilter himself conducting a selection from Where the Rainbow Ends) have been re-mastered and are on the CD included with my book.

Further Reading

For different viewpoints on his songs and English art song of the period, I strongly recommend Trevor Hold's The Walled-In Garden, 2nd edition, Thames Publishing, London 1996 ISBN 9780905210995; and Stephen Banfield's superb Sensibility and English Song, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1985 ISBN 9780521379441.

I can also thoroughly recommend Nicola Harrison's book The Wordsmith's Guide to English Song: The Songs of Roger Quilter, Compton Publishing, ISBN 978-1-909082-08-3 This gives an altogether different, and refreshing, viewpoint on the songs.

My PhD thesis on Quilter's life, music and times is unpublished but is available for download in pdf format. I suggest though that you’ll be better off getting a copy of my book. The biographical part is much fuller, and is altogether more accessible and useful.

Click to Read...

Roger Quilter Biography

I began my research into Quilter's life and music in 1996, and my book (written with the approval of the Quilter family and the literary estate) was published by Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, Suffolk, in 2002. It is a study of all aspects of Quilter's life and music, drawing on substantial unpublished sources; it includes a catalogue of all his work, and a discography, and most usefully includes a CD of Quilter's own recordings. One chapter is devoted to Where the Rainbow Ends and another to his light opera Julia, which was heavily revised and published as Love at the Inn.

Click the book's image to read more about it, or purchase a copy.

Contact Me

I invite you to click here and e-mail me. I always respond to requests for information about Quilter, and will reply to you just as soon as I am able - but if you don’t hear back within a couple of days, do please email again!