Musings on Roger Quilter and Procol Harum
The name Roger Quilter, (1877-1953) familiar mostly to those who have studied classical voice in a university music department, deserves to be recognized by a far larger music loving public. Procol Harum admirers, historically among the most sophisticated and discerning fans in pop music, whose penchant for classical music rivals their enthusiasm for rock, would seem a natural audience for this most English of composers, whose relatively small output consists mainly of short songs for voice and piano.
A cursory inspection of Quilter’s songs reveals no obvious similarities with the music of Procol Harum, and some rock fans, who might enjoy classical instrumental music, may have difficulty getting beyond the barrier of the operatic style of singing that these classically constructed songs require. Quilter’s languid melodies are conceived not with the choppy, abbreviated phrasings of pop music, but with the sustained legato and bel canto of so-called ”legitimate” singing technique. Of course, no tortured electric guitar solos, idiosyncratic drum parts, or even stately organs appear anywhere in Quilter, so one must seek other, subtler connections to link his music with Procol’s.
There is no evidence to suggest that Gary Brooker (b.1945) is familiar with Quilter, much less influenced by him, but there is no mistaking the quintessentially English quality of both men’s music, nurtured perhaps by the geographical fact of having both been raised near the sea on the east coast of England: Brooker in Essex; Quilter in Suffolk. Notwithstanding Brooker’s passion for American blues and R&B, and Quilter’s debt to French music - particularly the chansons of Faure - the music of both composers is imbued with that sense of land (and sea)scape, character, and culture which is unique to English art.
Both Brooker and Quilter are skilled pianists who have expertly selected and set extraordinary English verse: In Quilter’s case – Shakespeare and the 19th century Romantics; in Brooker’s - Keith Reid. Both men are acutely sensitive to harmony and take great pains to ensure that their carefully crafted melodies are supported by just the right chord progressions.
A word of caution might be in order here for the person coming to Quilter’s songs for the first time. Owing to their formidable technical difficulties, the songs demand the highest level of artistry in doing justice to their many expressive details, and while they are regularly sung by countless music students in various stages of training, a less than masterful rendition could potentially turn-off a prospective Quilter fan. Therefore, at this time, I would like to recommend three excellent recordings of Quilter’s songs:1. Songs of Roger Quilter: John Mark Ainsley, tenor; Malcom Martineau, piano. Hyperion,U.K. 2. Roger Quilter Songs-O Mistress Mine etc,: Lisa Milne, soprano; Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor; Graham Johnson, piano; Naxos. 3. Quilter Songs: Benjamin Luxon, Baritone; David Willison, piano; Chandos.
To quote Quilter’s biographer, Dr. Valerie Langfield: “Quilter (sic) 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.” One could say almost the same about Gary Brooker.