The Kennedy Center

Peter Warlock



Biography


 Troubled English composer, critic, and author Peter Warlock (real name, Philip Heseltine) was born in 1894 and died in 1930, a suspected suicide. His musical compositions consist largely of solo songs with piano accompaniment, with some choral music and a handful of works for orchestra or piano. Warlock was influenced not only by certain composers of his day but by music of the Elizabethan age, which he admired. He became a transcriber of that music and published more than 570 of that period's works. His own masterpiece is the melancholy song cycle, The Curlew (1920–2).
 
Warlock's interest in music began at a young age and was encouraged by a sympathetic piano teacher he met while studying at Eton College in England. In 1911, the teacher arranged for Warlock to attend a concert of British composer Frederick Delius's music, an event that was to have a lasting effect on Warlock's life. After meeting the composer at the concert, a close friendship developed between them. For the next seven years, Delius was Warlock's mentor, and he was a regular correspondent for the rest of Warlock's life.
 
After leaving Eton, Warlock led a rather restless, bohemian existence, with abortive studies in Cologne, Oxford, and London, followed by a brief and frustrating job as a music critic with the London Daily Mail. After leaving that employment, he turned to spending time in the British Museum editing early music and absorbing that musical idiom. As noted, he would come to transcribe a large number of these compositions. At a time when musical scholarship was still in its infancy, Warlock made an immense contribution to the rediscovery of early English music. His strict editorial practice was to present only that which the composers had written without revisions or additions.
 
In 1916, Warlock met the Anglo-Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren, whose complex, lyrical counterpoint and abundance of chamber music textures would come to have a profound influence on Warlock's music.
 
The next year, to escape possible military conscription, Warlock left for Dublin, Ireland where he remained for a year. This "Irish" year was a very positive and productive one, notable for a sudden surge of artistic productivity for Warlock: in a two-week period, he wrote 10 songs, some of which rank among his best compositions. When he returned to England the following year, he sent seven of the songs to a publisher, using the pseudonym Peter Warlock. At that point, he had come to realize the London musical fraternity was already regarding his real name with suspicion and hostility.
 
After a brief period as editor of a magazine with controversial material, Warlock moved to his mother and stepfather's home in Wales. Here he completed a book on Delius, made a number of arrangements of that composer's works, transcribed an enormous quantity of early music, and composed a large number of original songs, including The Curlew.
 
At the beginning of 1925, Warlock decided to move back to England. During this period, he wrote a study of late Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, a book called The English Ayre, and continued transcribing early music. He produced a  number of original compositions, including some fine songs and perhaps his best-known piece, the Capriol Suite. His output was decreasing, however, and he was grateful when English conductor Thomas Beecham invited him to edit a magazine as part of a new operatic venture and to help organize the Delius Festival held in 1929. The festival was a great success, but by the beginning of 1930, Beecham's enterprise had collapsed, and Warlock was again out of work.
 
Life became bleaker as that year progressed, and there was little demand for his songs. Warlock became more depressed, and he was found dead of gas-poisoning in his rooms. It was deemed there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the death was accidental or suicide.
 
Warlock's musical style has several dimensions. The early lyrical influence of Delius is evident in the magnificent partsong, The Full Heart (1916) and in The Curlew. Van Dieren's influence can be seen in the somewhat austere Saudades (1916–17). As a result of that composer's impact, Warlock's style became more disciplined, less harmonic, and more contrapuntal in texture.
 
Another powerful effect, however, was Warlock's love of early music and of medieval and Renaissance art; the latter interest showed musically in his wonderful carols (for example, Corpus Christi and Balulalow of 1919), the songs Sleep and Rest sweet nymphs (both 1922), and the more exuberant sets of Peterisms (1922–3) and the Capriol Suite (1926).
 
This idiosyncratic harmonic language with its unlikely and disparate mixture gives Warlock's music a strongly personal voice.
 
Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Music
               Oxford Companion to Music
               Grove Music Online
 
Peter Warlock