Friday, 22 August 2008

C. W. Orr: An early appreciation

I recently found this unsigned article in The Chesterian introducing the readership to the works of Charles Wilfred Orr. This was penned in October 1924 and probably represents the first ‘major’ review of his output. The first overview of his works was Northcote’s ‘The Songs of C.W. Orr’ in the 1937 Vol. 18 edition of Music & Letters. Of course C.W. Orr is still regarded as a minor player in the annals of English Music. However, his small output is perfectly proportioned and is always of the highest standard. Unfortunately there is little of his music currently available on CD.
When, some time ago, a sheaf of six songs by Charles W. Orr appeared, the composer’s name conveyed nothing to the musician who is content to gather his information from publisher’s announcements and catalogues. To the more enterprising music-lover, however, who is not daunted by an unfamiliar name in his search for new experiences, the songs even at a first glance suggested a good deal. Curiosity was at once aroused in a new composer who had suddenly emerged with a handful of small works of such outstanding quality without the usual accompaniment of a vigorous propaganda. His reticence as not abated since; although the songs were issued in 1923, the public is still ignorant of any particulars concerning the personality of their author.

Little information can be given even now. Charles W. Orr was born at Cheltenham in 1893. He studied the piano privately in his native town, but the war for a time frustrated his plans of completing a serious musical education. It was only after the cessation of hostilities that he was able to continue his studies. He then entered the Guildhall School of Music and immersed himself in composition.
No student works, no youthful indiscretions, no tentative experiments by Charles W. Orr are known. The six songs appeared not only as a first work, but as that of a mature and complete musical personality. They are not free from influences. The composer freely confesses to a preference, among modern masters, for Elgar and Delius, and his work shows traces of these predilections. Certain phases of Orr’s work, in fact, reveal an unmistakable allegiance to Delius, while his admiration of Elgar betrays itself not so much in the actual idiom as in a certain care for close and sterling workmanship and in the broad and lofty dignity of the constructive proportions.

But Chares W. Orr is no slavish imitator of any man’s work; he pays tributes, but owes no unquestioning allegiance. He is an independent personality, and what is more, a personality with more that one side to it, with a large outlook and a sufficient range of views to respond to a variety of different stimulants on a variety of ways. Each poem he sets not only creates a definite mood in him, but actually affects the whole flavour and texture of his work. He can find music redolent of the English countryside for a poem from Housman’s “Shropshire Lad,” but he has also harsh accents of bitter indignation for the “Carpenter’s Song” from the same collection. Of a little Chinese song he makes a neatly-shaped thing of ineffable grace, and in a setting of Rossetti’s “Silent Noon” he rivals one of the finest living English composers in lyrical beauty. Orr is a subtle harmonist and a weaver of rich and shimmering musical fabrics. His future must be watched with the closest of attention.

The Chesterian December 1924 p62.


Philip Wilkinson said...

I've only just seen this post. It's pleasing to see Orr mentioned – his songs are so good and so little known. A few appear on Hyperion's 2-CD set of Shropshire Lad settings with Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson. But no 'In valleys green and still', alas, a setting of one of Housman's Last Poems, which has stuck in my mind since I heard it years ago. Do you know of a recording of this song?

mathias-richter said...

Orr does crop up in every history of English song but he remains the great unknown.
His output is so slim, so why has no enterprising record company produced his complete songs?
I must confess I have never heard a single one.