Peter Warlock

1894 1930

Peter Warlock



Warlock was an early 20th century English composer, editor and music critic. His most significant contributions include his contributions to musical academics and his songs.

Peter Warlock, born Philip Heseltine, was born in the Savoy Hotel in London to a wealthy family. His father died when he was just two, and his mother moved the family to Wales after marrying Walter Buckley Jones in 1903. Warlock’s life proved to be one full of disappointment and lacked stability.

Warlock’s interest in music was sparked by the piano in preparatory school. His musical interests were encouraged at Eton by the piano teacher Colin Taylor. Around 1909, Warlock became increasingly interested in the music of Delius and with Taylor’s help he was able to attend a concert featuring Delius’s music in 1911. After meetingDelius at the concert, the two developed a strong lifelong friendship and Delius mentored Warlock for the next seven years.

Warlock’s family pressured him to follow family tradition and work in the Stock Exchange or the Civil Service. Warlock was indecisive and first went to Cologne for a few months to study German and piano. These studies were a failure and Warlock decided to pursue a non-musical career, studying classics at Oxford. At Oxford he was also unsatisfied and left to study at the University of London, also unsuccessfully.

In 1915 Warlock was appointed music critic of the Daily Mail, though he was again displeased and left after just four months. During his unemployment, he spent much time in the British Museum editing early music. He also met the author D.H. Lawrence during this period. Warlock went to Cornwall with Lawrence in an unsuccessful attempt to publish Lawrence’s work. Though the two initially had a strong bond, the friendship later became volatile and they went their separate ways.

Warlock returned to London, where he met the composer and critic, Cecil Gray. The two created many schemes to ‘regenerate’ music in England. Another composer, Bernard van Dieren, also had a significant impact on Warlock at this time. The two met in 1916 and Warlock became a great supporter of his work. Shortly thereafter, his pseudonym, Peter Warlock was used for the first time, for a musical article. His family name, Heseltine, was regarded negatively by the musical circle of London. His new name also openly revealed his interest in occult practices.

Above: the Savoy Hotel in London, birthplace of Peter Warlock

After returning to Cornwall in 1917 for a brief period, he maintained cordial relations with D.H. Lawrence. In 1921, he threated to take legal action after discovering that Lawrence’s new bookWomen in Love presented Warlock and his wife Minnie Lucy Channing (‘Puma’) negatively. Lawrence was forced to rewrite specific passages of his book.

Later in 1917, Warlock fled to Dublin to avoid being drafted for the military. In Dublin he became involved in psychologically damaging occult practices. He also produced a significant amount of work in Dublin. Within two weeks, he completed ten songs, some of which are among his greatest works. In 1918 he returned to England, and using his pseudonym, he sent seven of the songs to the publisher Winthrop Rogers.

Rogers was also the owner of several magazines and launched the magazine The Sackbutin 1920, appointing Warlock as editor. Nine issues appeared, featuring much controversial material, which made Rogers nervous and led him to relieve Warlock of his position.

An embittered Warlock moved back to his family home in Wales, distraught by yet another failure. He stayed there for three years and completed a book on Delius and arranged many of Delius’s works. He also transcribed much early music and composed many songs. In 1922 he completed his greatest masterpiece, the song-cycleThe Curlew.

In 1925, Warlock moved to Eynsford where he ran an open house. There he continued to transcribe early music and also composed some songs and the book The English Ayre about Gesualdo. He also completed his most well-known work, Capriol Suite (1926, 1928)

For financial reasons, he returned to Wales briefly and then to London. He was appointed editor of a magazine for a new operatic project and was enlisted to help with the organization of the Delius Festival in 1929. The festival was a success, but the operatic project was a failure and Warlock was, yet again, without work in 1930.

Life did not improve for Warlock after this most recent disappointment. Demand for his songs was low and his bouts of depression became more severe. He was discovered dead in his flat on 17 December 1930, of gas-poisoning. Though the coroner stated that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the death was an accident or suicide, his state of mind at the time leads one to believe it have been suicide.

Warlock’s music was influenced greatly by Delius and later by van Dieren. His earliest settings show his interest in the Victorian and Edwardian drawing-room songs, especially those by Quilter. Delius’s harmonic language entered Warlock’s music but these colours were not yet fully developed when he came into contact with van Dieren’s style, resulting in more discipline and a contrapuntal texture in place of harmonic colours. This is particularly notable in hisSaudades (1916-7)

Further influences include the music of the Elizabethans which can be heard in Sweet content(1918-9). An interest in folksong led to Yarmouth Fair (1924) and Milkmaids (1923) while his raucous pub behaviour is represented in Captain Stratton’s Fancy (1921) and Good Ale (1922). Warlock also became intrigued by the music ofBartók, which is especially eminent in The Curlew. Some of his best carol-settings include the choral works ‘Bethlehem Down’ and ‘Balulalow’.

The combination of Warlock’s musical inspirations gives his music a unique and personal voice. Also worth mentioning in his music is the distinct contrast between his extrovert and gentler works. This is comparable to his Warlock/Heseltine personality. In Gray’s memoir about Warlock, he is portrayed as schizophrenic, but this is an unfounded accusation. More likely is that he was thoroughly frustrated by his many failures, lack of permanent employment, family pressure and extreme mood swings.

Warlock’s compositional output is small and he was never able to develop new harmonic techniques of new forms within his own unique harmonic language.