Roger Quilter: A Children’s Overture


Roger Quilter was born in Hove, Sussex in 1877. In contrast to his older brothers, Roger was the quiet, shy sibling 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.

During the  Quilter studied at Eton, there was high acclaim for anyone 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. Sadly Roger became overshadowed by his siblings, 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 decided to pursue a career in music, and he applied for a place at the Conservatory Frankfut-am-Main. During 1897, whilst Quilter was in his first semester of studying, he began composing short songs. The young composer became known around the conservatory for his song cycles. Whilst studying Quilter also met fellow English composers – Percy Grainger and Norman O’Neill. These three young composers all learned under the tutelage of Ivan Knorr. It has been recorded that Knorr had a vicious sense of humour, as well as being incredibly argumentative with his students.

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 but 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.

Within the next 10 years, Quilter composed some of 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. 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.


Genesis & Nursery Rhymes

Children’s Overture was composed in 1914. It aims to depict the innocence of childhood. Quilter takes famous nursery rhymes and neatly links them together, creating the ultimate childhood 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. Walter Crane described it as “old rhymes with new dresses.”

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 Music

The piece begins with a single bar which hints at Baa! Baa! Black Sheep. The rest of the ensemble takes over, led by the strings, and the whirling of the sounds and textures creates a sense of naivety – ideal for the target audience. The time signature changes from 4/4 to 6/8, which gives a bouncy feel into Girls and Boys. The strings and upper wind lead us into a charming melody, which is embellished throughout by the upper winds.

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.

Xmas Day in the Morning is the next nursery song, and the tempo has slowed down. The strings are very melancholic and the sound is warm and friendly. The cellos play a beautiful counter-melody. A quick change to F# major takes us to a transitional section which then lead us to a variation of the last nursery song.

I Saw Three Ships is next on the bill. First led by the flutes, the brass and strings take over and the snare drum gives us that drive we know from this song. Quilter’s extensive use of upper winds as the embellishment to the main melody is seen again throughout this nursery rhyme.

Ye Song of Sixpence is our next rhyme and 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. This section is very dance-like and the to and fro between the winds, brass and strings is prominent

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. 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 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.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

Jacquin Wilford-Brown · 24th August 2017 at 7:42 pm

Heard this piece on Radio3 this morning and couldn’t quite identify all the nursery rhymes……… your post was perfect, and interesting, thank you!

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