Peter Warlock

Peter Warlock

Peter Warlock was a pseudonym of Philip Arnold Heseltine (30 October 1894 - 17 December 1930), an Anglo-Welsh composer and music critic. Although he used his own name when writing as a music critic, he composed under the pseudonym "Peter Warlock" and is now better known by this name.


Philip Heseltine was born in London and lost his father as a child. His mother remarried and returned to her native Wales, living at at Cefn Bryntalch Hall, Abermule, near Newtown, Montgomeryshire, the family home of her second husband, Walter Buckley Jones. Philip's education was mainly classical, including studies at Eton College, at Christ Church, Oxford (for one year), and at University College London (one term). In music, he was mostly self-taught, studying composition on his own from the works of composers he admired, notably Frederick Delius, Roger Quilter and Bernard van Dieren. Nevertheless, one of the masters at Eton, Colin Taylor, had introduced him to some of the modern masters which made a marked impression on him. He was also strongly influenced by Elizabethan music and poetry as well as by Celtic culture (he studied the Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Manx, and Breton languages). It was the move to Wales, occasioned by his mother's remarriage, that was the spark for this; only the working classes spoke Welsh but Philip, never one to shy away from the unconventional, set about learning it with vigour.

Heseltine wrote his earliest mature compositions, published to critical acclaim under the newly adopted pseudonym Peter Warlock, following his sojourn in Ireland of 1917-1918. They were followed by a period of concentration on musical journalism; for a while, he was the editor of the musical magazine "The Sackbut". His most prolific period, both as a composer and author, was in the early 1920s when he withdrew from the financial and social pressures of London to his mother's and stepfather's house, "Cefn Bryntalch", in Montgomeryshire, mid-Wales, where he wrote some of his finest songs, finally completing his song-cycle "The Curlew" to poems by W. B. Yeats. During this period he also met Bartók, who visited him while returning from a concert in Aberystwyth arranged by Professor Walford Davies, and whose influence can perhaps be seen in "The Curlew".

Between 1925 and 1929, following a quiet period, Warlock and his colleague E. J. Moeran led a wild, boozy life in Eynsford, Kent, having to deal with the local police more than once. For Warlock, however, this was one of the most fruitful periods of his life, but by the end of the 1920s his creativity was on the decrease and he had to support himself with music criticism again. He was suffering from severe depression, but whether his death from gas poisoning at the age of 36 was suicide or an accident is not known for certain. His cat had been put out of the room before he died, perhaps to spare it. There is a third possibility: Warlock had made Bernard van Dieren his heir in his will, inspiring claims by Warlock's son Nigel Heseltine that van Dieren had murdered his father.

An intriguing figure, Warlock has served to inspire several characters in English-language literature, among them: Coleman in Aldous Huxley's "Antic Hay" (1923), Roy Hartle in Osbert Sitwell's "Those Were the Days" (1938), Giles Revelstoke in Robertson Davies' "A Mixture of Frailties" (1958) and Maclintick in "Casanova's Chinese Restaurant" (1960) by Anthony Powell. D. H. Lawrence's use of Warlock as the model for Julius Halliday in novel "Women in Love" (1920) led to a threat of a lawsuit, followed by an out of court settlement. His name is surrounded by rumours of involvement with the occult, an interest which he shared with others in the bohemian world of the early 20th century - for example the novelist Mary Butts asserted that it was Warlock who initially introduced her to these subjects. Other less conventional aspects of Peter Warlock's life include experimentation with cannabis tincture, a gift for the composition of obscene limericks and a marked interest in flagellation.

His life was the basis of a highly fictionalized film entitled Voices From a Locked Room. The film starred Jeremy Northam and depicted Warlock as having multiple personality disorder.


Warlock's compositions are nearly all songs and most of these are for solo voice and piano. There is a smaller, but still significant, number of pieces for voices - choral songs - although a few of these are arrangements of his solo songs.

He wrote little instrumental music, although the "Capriol" (October 1926) is probably his best-known work and exists in versions for string orchestra, full orchestra and piano duet. (There are arrangements for other combinations but these are not by Warlock himself.) His only composition for solo piano is a set of arrangements of Celtic melodies, the "Folk-song preludes". He had a deep affinity for poetry, especially that of Yeats and his friends Robert Nichols and Bruce Blunt (1899-1957), and he always chose texts of high artistic value, many of them from the Middle Ages, as basis for his songs.

Many people consider his greatest work to be the song-cycle "The Curlew", for tenor and chamber ensemble, in which he sets four linked poems by Yeats. It is certainly his most substantial piece and was written over a long period of time - some seven years - taking in many stylistic changes along the way from the neo-Delianism of "The lover mourns for the loss of love" to sections within the longest song, "The withering of the boughs" that suggest Bartók and Schoenberg as influences before achieving a more idiosyncratic, modal, and genuinely Warlockian vocabulary.

Warlock is also known for his many carols, such as "Adam Lay Ybounden", "Tyrley Tyrlow", and "Bethlehem Down", the last a setting of words by Blunt.

Warlock's musical tastes were wide, from Renaissance music to Bartók. In his own works, we hear a development from emulation of the Victorian and Edwardian drawing-room style to a more contrapuntal, strongly personal idiom characterised by the relationship between modal lines and a distinctive palette of chords. He was unusual amongst composers of his generation in being largely unaffected by the folksong movement, either as an arranger (the above-named piano pieces being an exception) or a composer. He only wrote one folksong-oriented work, the cycle "Lilligay" and it might be more appropriate to look to Bartók as an influence here rather than any paradigms from his own country.

Apart from original works, Warlock edited and transcribed many lute songs by Elizabethan and Jacobean composers in addition to music by Purcell and other Baroque composers. He also did much to promote the music of Delius, especially by organizing the successful Delius Festival of 1929 with Thomas Beecham. He wrote the first biography of Delius as well as, with Cecil Gray, a book about Carlo Gesualdo. His book on "The English ayre" was a groundbreaking study but he also wrote about contemporary music including an article that was probably the first substantial study in English of the music of Arnold Schoenberg. In 1925, Warlock rediscovered the music of sixteenth century composer Thomas Whythorne, releasing a book of his compositions and poetry.

Warlock also edited, under the pseudonym 'Rab Noolas' (to be read backwards), an anthology on drinking 'for the delectation of serious topers', entitled 'Merry-Go-Down' (Mandrake Press, c. 1930).

elected bibliography

*Collins, Brian, Peter "Warlock: The Composer" (Aldershot, 1996).
*Copley, Ian, "The Music of Peter Warlock: A Critical Survey" (London, 1979).
*Gray, Cecil, "Peter Warlock: A Memoir of Philip Heseltine, with contributions by Sir Richard Terry and Robert Nichols" (London, 1934).
*Smith, Barry, "Peter Warlock: The Life of Philip Heseltine" (Oxford, 1994).
*Smith, Barry, "Frederick Delius and Peter Warlock: A Friendship Revealed" (Oxford, 2000).
*Smith, Barry (ed.), "The Collected Letters of Peter Warlock" (4 vols.) (Woodbridge, 2005)

External links

* [ The Peter Warlock Society website] , including a more detailed biography and a complete list of works.
* [ Peter Warlock's Songs] in the Schubertline (online) edition.
* [ The UK branch of the Peter Warlock Society website] , with UK events and the music hire library lists.
* [ The Warlock Singers] A chamber choir based in Kent, UK named after Peter Warlock, specialising in British music of all periods.

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