march 2011

Basse-Danse from Peter Warlock’s The Capriol Suite

Pleasures of Music

The Idea of a Song

By Philip Heseltine

heseltineKnown as a composer under the pseudonym Peter Warlock, Philip Heseltine (1892-1930) managed in his short life to endow English music with some magnificent songs, to write two scholarly works and to edit a lively periodical, The Sackbut (it published but nine issues between May 1920 and March 1921) to which the following was the Foreword. Herein Heseltine explains why music critics must, inevitably, become obsolete. On December 17, 1930, after demand for his songs had diminished, along with, apparently, his will to compose new works, Warlock/Heseltine put his cat outdoors and gassed himself to death.

Among the Chippewa Indians of North America, we are told, “there is no musical notation; a picture of the idea of a song is drawn upon a bark strip, from which another person who has never heard it can sing it accurately.”

This, like so much in the art of so-called primitive races, puts us all to shame. We cannot draw a picture of the idea of a piece of music from which another person who has never heard the music can get an accurate impression of what it is about. Yet if musical criticism has any purpose in it, that purpose is surely to convey, by words perhaps rather than by pictures, “the idea of a song” to others who have never heard it.

Philip Heseltine’s (Peter Warlock) majestic Capriol Suite was completed in 1926. In music, Heseltine 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 vigor. Heseltine wrote his earliest mature compositions, published to critical acclaim under the newly adopted pseudonym Peter Warlock (which reflected his involvement in the occult), following his sojourn in Ireland of 1917-1918. According to his biography, ‘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.’ Performance by the European Chamber Orchestra conducted by Elvind Aadland

Other chief enemy is Time. We can hold some of a symphony in our hand complete and whole and all at once; but to hold the music signified by that score, the idea of the song, in the mind in a like completeness and wholeness is a very different and vastly more difficult proposition. When listening to music we are subject to all the limitations that time imposes; but when we reflect upon what we have heard, when we try to sum it all up, to distill its quintessence, we have to pit ourselves against time in an effort to transcend its restrictions on the mind.

To see a piece of music whole, like a picture, to grasp its rhythm and design not merely of particular sections but of the entire work--and, as the result of this process, to be able to comprehend and share with its composer the complex synthesis of mental and emotional states the work expresses--such is the task of the writer on music.

This being admitted, it becomes painfully apparent that when we speak or write about music--and here the professional critic is in much the same case as the man who tries to record the impressions of his first encounter--we embark upon a well-nigh impossible task.

Music, for us, begins where words end; how then should we adequately translate music into words? Only the simplest music yields to our attempts to draw a satisfactory verbal picture of the idea underlying it. We have lost the art of the old magicians who could compass the universe in a pentacle.

Music, one may say, is the outward and audible signification of inward and spiritual realities: implying, it would seem, that there is something else behind or beyond the music itself, that is not the music. And yet, some will reply, are we justified in assuming the separateness of the two things? Is it not, in a sense, the expression that makes the thought, the symble that makes the reality, that is--as far as we can ever know it--the reality?

The Curlew, a song cycle composed between 1920 and 1922 by Peter Warlock, is a musical setting of four William Butler Yeats poems. The Curlew and The Capriol Suite are considered Warlock’s classic compositions. This excerpt is from a 1954 recording featuring Alexander Young (tenor), Lionel Solomon (flute), Peter Graeme (English horn) and the Sebastian String Quartet.

The fact is that when we come to the fundamental question of what music really is, we are all--composers, critics, and public alike--very much in the dark. Music’s a rum go. Composers cannot really tell you how or why they write this or that kind of music, and professional critics are inclined to avoid the simpler and profounder problems of the art, taking refuge in technicalities which the ordinary music lover--who is always more interested in music’s relation to life than in its relation to other music--finds more bewildering than the most abstruse specimen of actual composition. Thus the simplest and most natural questions of the non-musician are apt to prove the most embarrassing to the theorist or the critic who has so long taken these elementary problems for granted as already solved, that he has no answer but gibberish and evasion. The plain man is kept perpetually in the position of the child who is “not old enough” for the intelligence he demands. Nevertheless the general public has frequently welcomed and understood the man of original creative genius long before his fellow composers and critics have ceased chattering their protests against his drunken and disorderly conduct.

[Hence] is it to be hoped that something may be done to break down the barrier of unnecessary modesty which so frequently prevents the non-professional music lover from contributing to discussions on musical subjects, by showing him that music is not the esoteric mystery that many of its professors and pseudo-critical jargon-mongers would have him believe, and that the only honorable ideal of the musical critic is so to educate and enlighten his public that he himself, as a professional institution, will in the end become unnecessary.

(Forward to The Sackbut, 1920)

heseltinePeterWarlock (Philip Heseltine): According to his Wikipedia entry, Peter Warlock inspired several characters in English-language literature, among them:
*Julian Oakes, in Jean Rhys's short story "Till September Petronella," in Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968);
*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);
*Maclintick in Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960) by Anthony Powell.
*D. H. Lawrence's use of Warlock as the model for Julius Halliday in his novel Women in Love (1920) led to threat of a lawsuit, followed by an out of court settlement.
*He is used as a character, together with Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, madrigalist and uxoricide, in David Pownall's play Music to Murder By (1976).
*His life was the basis of a highly fictionalized film Voices From a Locked Room (1999). The film starred Jeremy Northam and depicted Warlock as having multiple personality disorder.
*His life was portrayed in the 2005 film Peter Warlock, Some Little Joy

For more information, visit the Peter Warlock Society online.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024