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Born at Hove, Sussex (a commemorative blue plaque is on the house at 4 Brunswick Square), Quilter was a younger son of Sir William Quilter, 1st Baronet, who was a wealthy noted landowner, politician and art collector. Quilter was educated first in the preparatory school at Farnborough, then moving to Eton College and later becoming a fellow-student of Percy Grainger, Cyril Scott and H. Balfour Gardiner at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where he studied for almost five years under the guidance of German professor of composition, Iwan Knorr. He belonged to the Frankfurt Group, a circle of composers who studied at the Hoch Conservatory in the late 1890s. His reputation in England rests largely on his songs and on his light music for orchestra, such as his Children's Overture, with its interwoven nursery rhyme tunes, and a suite of music for the play Where the Rainbow Ends. He is noted as an influence on several English composers, including Peter Warlock.
In November 1936, Quilter's opera Julia was presented at Covent Garden by the British Music Drama Opera Company under the direction of Vladimir Rosing.
Quilter enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with the tenor Gervase Elwes until the latter's death in 1921. As a homosexual, he found it difficult to cope with some of the pressures which he felt were imposed upon him, and eventually deteriorated into mental illness after the loss of his nephew Arnold Guy Vivian during the Second World War.
Roger Quilter's output of songs, more than one hundred in total, added to the canon of English art song that is still sung today. Among the most popular are "Love's Philosophy", "Fair House of Joy", "Come Away Death", "Go, Lovely Rose", "Weep You No More", "By the Sea", and his setting of "O Mistress Mine". Quilter's setting of verses from the Tennyson poem "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" is one of his earliest songs but is nonetheless characteristic of the later, mature style.
He also published the Arnold Book of Old Songs, a collection of 16 folk and traditional songs to new accompaniments, dedicated to his nephew Arnold Guy Vivian.