Charles Wilfred Leslie (generally known as C. W.) Orr (July 31, 1893 –February 24, 1976), was an English song composer of a handful of songs who has been cited by British musicians and scholars as having significantly contributed to twentieth century English song repertoire. Born on July 31, 1893, in Cheltenham, United Kingdom, shortly after the death from tuberculosis of his father, who was a captain in the Indian Army, Orr learned the piano and studied music theory as a child. He was attracted to the singing of Elena Gerhardt, whom he heard sing in London, and developed an interest in lieder, especially those of Johannes Brahms, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann. After reading Ernest Newman’s book on the composer Hugo Wolf, he determined to become a songwriter, and pursued this occupation through study at the Guildhall School of Music. He was attracted to the music of Frederick Delius after approaching him at a London restaurant in 1915, and Delius became his mentor, helping him with his early compositions. He also came to know Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), who helped him in publishing his early songs.
Orr married in 1929 and moved to Painswick, Gloucestershire, to get away from the busy atmosphere of London, which was detrimental to his health. A vaccination as a child had left him with eczema, and he contracted tuberculosis as an adult. He would remain in Painswick for the rest of his life. His work as a composer was dominated by the composition of songs accompanied by piano. His life’s study was the expressive setting of poetry to music. He wrote more settings of A.E. Housman’s poetry than any other composer and was a particular admirer of Housman. He became acquainted with Housman’ poetry just after World War I, during which time he enlisted but was unable to fight on medical grounds. He undertook research visits to Shropshire, taking photographs, and attended one of Housman’s lectures as Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge University. He asked for permission to translate A Shropshire Lad into German so he could bring his songs into wider circulation, but the request was refused.
Among the admirers of Orr’s songs are a number of notable composers and critics, including: Arnold Bax, Dr. Sydney Northcote, Dr. P.M.H. Edwards, Sir Eugene Goosens, Christopher Le Fleming, Christopher Palmer, Sir Francis Routh, Philip Barford, and Ian Copley, as well as the internationally famous English baritone, John Goss. Orr’s song cycle for baritone, Seven Songs from “A Shropshire Lad,” composed during the years 1927-31 but not published until 1934, is mentioned by both Northcote and Le Fleming as one of the outstanding contributions to English song since World War I. Orr’s piano accompaniments and postludes are an integral part of each song, providing more than bare harmony. Examples of its use for program music include fluttering sixteenth notes depicting aspen leaves in Along the Field and heavy chords in a march to the scaffold in The Carpenter’s Son. His harmonic language is a mixture of English modality and late Romanticism. Orr is regarded as one of Britain’s finest 20th century songwriters. He died on February 24, 1976, at Painswick in the United Kingdom.
My collection includes the following work by C. W. Orr:
A Cotswold Hill Tune (1939).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources