I came upon Roger Quilter via a CD of ‘British Light Music’ in the basement of my university library more than 20 years ago. A shiver greeted me as I first heard the ‘Children’s Overature’ to ‘Where the Rainbow Ends.’ Something in the brassy Edwardian era stiffness mixed with tingling and tinkling joyousness swept me back to my childhood in the 70s, dressed as a green bird, flapping in a company of young ballet students on stage during a matinée of Vivian Ellis’ ‘Listen To the Wind,’ in Lower Hutt, New Zealand.
‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ was a Christmas play written by Clifford Mills and John Ramsey. Though the fantastical performance once enthralled almost five decades of theater goers, virtually no one today knows it ever existed.
On December 21, 1911, the play’s debut curtains rose before an audience of squirming children and accompanying adults who heard the orchestral sweetness of Roger Quilter’s incidental music flowing up and over the orchestral pit like a warm spell on a wintry day. The Children’s Overature contained snippets of children’s nursery songs like ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as well as Quilter’s original compositions. I can imagine a chorus of spellbound children sang along back in the day. Quilter conducted the first matinée of the Christmas season for many years and hosted a cast party for child actors, among them Noel Coward, in his own home.
One of the most beloved pieces from ‘Where the Rainbow Ends,’ heard frequently on radio BBC over the years, was ‘Rosamund’, a slow unfolding romantic piece, carried over strings and wind instruments, and punctuated by fairy light crystalline triangle ‘dings.’ Quilter’s music school friend Percy Grainger said of all Quilter’s works, this stood out as his favorite.
To its credit, ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ imaginatively carried children and adults safely away from the horrible realities of two world wars. When the curtain went down on St. George and the Dragon, fairyland and whimsy, the excitement of Christmas just around the corner was certainly dancing in everyone’s heads.
Prior to composing music for ‘Where the Rainbow Ends,’ Quilter had attended Dr. Hoch’s Konservatorium-Musikakademie in Frankfurt-am-Main, a music school where Clara Schumann once taught. A fellow student of Quilter’s, under the tutilage of Iwan Knorr, was the brilliant young Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger. The two members of what came to be called The Frankfurt Group, started out as strangers in Teutonicland and left Germany as musical friends for life. Both had in common not only musical composition and a stint in Germany but also that they were their mother’s favorite child (in Grainger’s case, his mother’s only child).
Described as a gentleman, Quilter didn’t feel at home with other aristocrats, preferrng the company of art lovers, whatever their age or class. His generous nature led him to offer financial support to budding artists. He also supported a number of Jews fleeing Europe during the Second World War. When his nephew, Arnold Vivian, serving overseas during that war, was captured and shot by a Nazi officer, Quilter’s often fragile world shattered. His long secreted homosexuality started to ‘show’ in public when he went about giving flowers to young men on the streets. Concerned friends and famly finally convinced him to seek treatment at St. Andrew’s Hospital. He checked in twice in his lifetime for stays from 1946-47 and again 1951-52.
Here is a narrative poem I wrote, trying to somehow capture Quilter’s sense of lost identity while seeking treatment for his plunge into depression:
Dear Arnold (for Roger Quilter)
After news of your execution,
this old marionette fell into a cumbersome mental slump.
I wandered streets,
pressed pale roses
onto passing London boys.
I’m afraid those beautiful strangers took my meaning all too well.
They call it electroconvulsive therapy.
Humiliating how my Daddy Long Legs dance,
how hours later my dull fingers simply rest on ivory keys.
I can’t remember all the silvery songs
that made us smile and
you wouldn’t know me by my latest compositions,
they hang and drip like rain-soaked velvet curtains
pulled either side of me.
Perhaps, as children, these fresh doctors
reveled in the spectacle of my sparkling make-believe tunes,
but now my thick tongue’s stammer
sends their sharp pens whispering
over my hospital chart.
When that squatty grey pigeon of a nurse
you can find me slung in the over-stuffed sitting room.
I’m the aging dandy,
dressed in elegant evening attire.
I get my glazed appearance from off-white walls,
hourly tides of too much sugar in my milky tea
and boiled dinners of faded vege.
Would you fancy a hand-in-hand journey
over a stretch of hospital lawn?
We could follow the rainbow that skirts the gravel drive,
curves toward Billing Road.
Was it some poor promising musician or
fleeing Jew I helped who said,
“Quilter’s a pot of gold!”?
They were quite mistaken,
as I have come to know,
beyond this wood runs British Rail,
and home, my dear boy, lies where the rainbow ends.
Today it’s rare to meet someone who has even heard of Roger Quilter. In his own lifetime, he was known for his incidental music and for many poignant songs he wrote based upon Elizabethan texts.
As Christmas approaches, I find myself wondering how Quilter would have liked to have been remembered and, having no answer to share with you, have simply written here how I have remembered him, in hopes you might be inspired to explore his life and music too.