The Music of Peter Warlock. A Critical Study by I. A. Copley


Born Philip Heseltine in 1894; buried under the name Peter Warlock in 1930, having first turned out the familiar cat and then turned on the releasing gas, thus effecting his own escape. What kind of man and song-writer was he, of what artistic stature, caught in what tragic predicament? There is no dearth of commentary, both factual and fictional. The fullest portrait, in spite of its many disputed and perhaps distorted features, remains that of Cecil Gray (1934). There is also the testimony of both D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley who each saw the young composer through their own characters, Halliday in Women in Love (1921) and Coleman in Antie Hay(1923). Seldom was any personality more split than between these two contradictory depictions, one pliant and feminine, the other rock-hard and virile. But they were both readily recognizable, and they may provide pointers to the still unexplained change of name.

     The name Heseltine is said to derive from "hazel"; hence perhaps a quick switch to "witch" and thence by a corrective sex-change to "warlock". As a potent occult force, full of strong enchantments, music could amend its shape and guise to match any real or imagined constrasts of mood or gender; Warlock's rhythms for example range from a tranced hovering to a brutal stamping. Such contrasts also characterize the great Lied-composers; the cycloid temperament has evident affinities with the song form. Warlock's world was even more closed, not to say hermetically sealed, by his highly insular choice of lyrics; most of the poems he set were either delved from obscure archives or confided by private friends. His music is often as enigmatic as his mind.

     I. A. Copley 's The Music of Peter Warlock is neither disposed to offer disclosures nor designed to explore mysteries, whether psychic or creative. It is addressed to specialist musicians rather than general music-lovers. Of its 300 pages, thirty describe the life and 200 the music (divided into song, vocal chamber, choral and instrumental) with an introduction on style and a final conspectus. The rest is factual, comprising detailed data on the published works and manuscripts, a useful account of the prose writings, editorship and researches, and a comprehensive bibliography. Interspersed in the text are the evaluative comments which justify the subtitle. I found that component full and well-ordered, the musical descriptions always perceptive and generally persausive, and the whole exceptionally well-documented, with 163 music examples.

   The biography and evaluation, however, seem less compelling. The recurring keynote is academic enthusiasm, a modest fanfare on a muted trumpet - there could have been more brass, more puff. The book has not been notably well edited or presented. There are flabby phrases, odd epithets which call for further qualification (why the "festering" heart of the Yeats "Curlew" poems?). Some of the biography is just varying shades of Cecil Gray; too much of the critique consists of fustian patches quoted from earlier commentators; other material is too thin and peripheral to be really serviceable, even as trimming or padding ("arthur Warrell told Cockshott that Warlock had suggested music by Villa-Lobos as suitable for the University of Bristol choir").

    The surest sign that the book has grown out og (and not always outgrown) a PhD thesis is the space devoted to the question of influence. This is treated rather as a strain of influenza. In his youth, Warlock succumbed to a Delius epidemic, which may have sapped his resistance to a near-fatal attack of the van Dieren syndrome. He was also constantly incubating folk-song and early music, with a touch of modern music-hall, while suffering intercurrent acute bouts of Bartok, Grieg, and very many others. The contagion could sometimes be acquired at second hand, as when an Ireland influence was conveyed through the carrier Moerau. But the finale diagnosis, as in all such cases, is that Warlock remains essentially unaffected. No one else could have writtem his music, though it so often sounds as if someone else had. He remains wholly individual (page 46), yet he has no stylistic unity (page 260).

    The aesthetics, not to mention the logic, of such a thesis are bound to arouse doubts; perhaps Dr Copley shares them. His peroration speaks only of "one of the most gifted of song-writers". For such a figure, this book would be a worthy memorial. But those who, like Constant Lambert, rate Warlock as "one of the greatest song-writers" will want a more broadly based and vigorous vindication of his genius. Meanwhile we also await a collected edition of the music in print and on disc, together with a selection of the prose and a definitive biography; the 1980s should see the final emergence of Warlock from the private circle into the public domain. It is fair to add that this transition, whenever and however it comes about, will surely prove to have been greatly facilitated by the dedicated service of Dr Copley.


Times Literary Supplement, 11 July 1980 (p. 790) © the estate of eric sams