Roger Quilter is by far best known for his song-writing genius. However, a brief glance at the catalogue of his music reveals a relatively small number of works for orchestra, piano and chamber groups.
Yet he was not particularly prolific in composing for chamber ensemble. Granted, there were a number of arrangements of his songs for violin or cello and piano, for example To Daisies and Julia’s Hair. Furthermore, the popular incidental music to Where the Rainbow Ends seems to have spawned a wide variety of spin-offs. However, the present Gypsy Life would appear to be the only ‘original’ work written for the medium. The work is subtitled a ‘Fantasy Quintet’ and was scored for string quintet plus pianist. The work was published in 1935 by Goodwin & Tabb – it was one of the English String Series edited by Alec Rowley. Quilter dedicated the work to the composer and pianist Leslie Bridgewater.
Valerie Langfield, in her excellent biography of the composer, believes that there is little in this music that points to the pen of Quilter. She suggests that it is a ‘strange piece: light music with a mock Hungarian colour’.
However, I must disagree with her when she suggests that the lack of variety is tiring. The slow introduction does have a considerable charm that surely belies the occasional nature of this work. There are a few profound bars before the music begins its extrovert gypsy song. I think that Quilter gets the balance of the parts –both formally and texturally- just about right in spite of the fact that Valerie Langfield rightly notes that the piano dominates the texture.
I think that Gypsy Life is an excellent example of ‘genre’ music that admittedly is more at home in an Edwardian drawing room rather than the concert hall. Furthermore the music is a million miles away from a gypsy caravan on the outskirts of Budapest and is perhaps somewhat idealised of what that music would be deemed to sound like by an urbane Englishman. I suppose that I thought of Florian’s in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square when I first heard this piece. However one has to agree with Rob Barnett at MusicWeb International who suggests that this is a “genre piece with an Irish accent and a zingharese flavour. Dvorák's Slavonic Dances and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances convey some of the same enraptured and volatile dancing spirit." Fantasy Quintet: Gypsy Life on Meridian CDE 84519