PETER WARLOCK'S MUSIC
eter Warlock was a fascinating character. In a way (because I admire and sympathise with his output so much) I would like to have met him but from what I’ve read I think that, ultimately, we would have recognised our mutual incompatibility and fallen out; but take the trouble to really get inside the music, to gauge what makes it tick and be sensitive to its nuances, and it will become apparent that here is a remarkable individual who is both intelligent – intellectual even – and basic, down-to-earth. In the first months of the 21st century, as I write this, so much is only too clear. A previous generation attempted an alternative view in which the sensational details of his private life were allowed to overwhelm an appreciation of the considerable impact he made on the musical state of Britain between the two World Wars when (I don’t exaggerate) he was one of its most significant figures. As a composer he is eclipsed by other, better known names (Elgar, Holst, Vaughan Williams, Bax and so on) who wrote big music, with whom he was contemporary but whose respective oeuvres are more substantial; nevertheless such a comparison is simplistic and counter-productive if one wishes to objectively evaluate him. And so, while this essay seeks principally to consider Warlock vis-à-vis his compositional output, my title is deliberately worded. Before going on to examine his pieces, it is worthwhile briefly to consider some other contributions.
First among these must be his work on what we now call “early music”. As well as editing, transcribing and preparing performing editions of, in particular, English lute-songs, he wrote extensively on the subject and his books The English ayre and Carlo Gesualdo were years ahead of their time in terms of subject-matter and perception. To be realistic, it’s worth pointing out that an inherent, iconoclastic tendency probably enhanced his interest in musical styles about which the musical establishment – a frequent bête noire – knew or cared little. But to place too much emphasis on such a negative rationale would be to deny a genuine enthusiasm that resulted, ultimately, in Warlock’s becoming one of the prime-movers of the early-music revival. In this field one tends to think of Landowska, Dolmetsch, Fellowes et al. but Warlock’s importance should not be overlooked because he was not what we would now term an “authenticist”. He transcribed for modern instruments (string quartet, piano etc.) because that was a practical way of disseminating music he considered worthwhile. (And Landowska’s harpsichord was hardly “authentic” was it?)
But Warlock did not write exclusively on matters relating to antique music. Indeed, his perceptive mind and brilliant – at times scathing – wit made him one of the best music-critics of his generation. Dr Barry Smith’s recent gathering together of his writings and their re-issue (by Thames Publishing) is a significant record not only of Warlock’s peculiar abilities but, also, of the contemporary repertoire and his intimacy with it. Warlock’s journalism for The Daily Mail, The Musical Times and other organs is augmented by his truncated editorship of The Sackbut, large chunks of which he wrote himself necessitating the invention of other, increasingly fanciful pseudonyms.
Posterity has validated Warlock’s championing of Gesualdo. The same can also be said of his attitude to Bartók and, to an extent, Delius although other objects of his attention have fared less well. Much energy was spent in promoting – he was a would-be impresario as well – Bernard van Dieren whose work has attracted a degree of interest from other composers and critics but only on a small scale. To Warlock, though, van Dieren was a godsend and that may explain the extent of the former’s proselytising and devotion. For van Dieren, while largely self-taught, had been on the outer reaches of the Schoenberg circle, was familiar with Schoenberg’s music including the “free-atonal” pieces and had been influenced by aspects of it in his own compositions. (Nor was Warlock unfamiliar with Schoenbergian methodology beforehand: one of the first significant articles in English about the composer was written under PW’s given name, Philip Heseltine, and published in 1912 when he was not yet 18.)
In fact, it is all too convenient for the casual observer to misinterpret Warlock’s motivation on the strength of a handful of his songs. Some of these do demonstrate a somewhat wishy-washy, fin-de-siècle quality, a decadence equal to the worst emotional and formal misjudgements of Englishness (Fair and true, The singer). Others portray a heartiness, a contrived jollity which upsets those who affect a refined, aesthetic disposition (Captain Stratton’s fancy, Fill the cup Philip, The cricketers of Hambledon). But one has to look beyond the programme-fillers, the ready-made encore items, to discover work which is otherwise urbane, sensitive and direct, is frequently thrilling and passionate and, occasionally, innovative to the point of being revolutionary. However it is ironic that Warlock, the musicologist who wanted to assail the public with all the delights that the English High Renaissance could offer, had little sense of his own posterity and frequently denigrated his own output. He also understood the importance of vernacular and popular music (he said, and his tongue was not fully in his cheek, that Irving Berlin was a more credible composer than Stravinsky) and recognised that such could possess an intrinsic worth.
Those of us who believe in Warlock’s music are only too aware of the criticisms levelled against him. It would be as well to get our collective defensiveness out of the way immediately then concentrate on the material: Warlock wrote no symphonies or concertos, in fact he wrote very little orchestral music at all; he wrote no sonatas or studies and his only work for piano – his only work for any solo instrument – is a set of folksong arrangements about which he had strong doubts and which, while it is musicologically fascinating (in that it demonstrates a mind at work), exhibits many weaknesses; he wrote no opera (although he wrote about it) but was one of the finest writers for the voice that Britain has produced. A handful of other pieces apart his oeuvre consists entirely of vocal works, mostly solo-songs with piano accompaniment and, usually, stand-alone pieces at that. There are a couple of dozen pieces for choir (choral songs) although some of these are versions of his solo-songs. As a consequence of all this he is described as a “miniaturist” and there is an element of derogation in the use of the term as if short pieces were inconsequential, ipso facto bagatelles. In reality there is a conciseness about his music akin to the concentration of the sonnet. A comparison with Webern would not be far-fetched despite the stylistic dissimilarities. And it must be borne in mind that his compositionally productive years were few, from c.1915 to 1930, the year of his death.
Little from Warlock’s earliest compositions survives. I have a garden (1924) may be a reworking of another song (no longer extant) written in 1910 but, otherwise, three songs from 1911-12 are the only representatives of the budding composer. Their logic is distinctly chordal and the melodic material is dominated by that; the results are often clumsy. There is little evidence beyond the documentary of what was evolving in his head. He wanted to emulate Delius whose music he had discovered in 1910 while still a pupil at Eton College and which had struck him powerfully. Some of the results were, to use his own words, “clotted and sepulchral” and were presumably destroyed. There is one important account, however, of the aspirant at work. In Cecil Gray’s biography of 1934 a chapter relating Warlock’s time at Oxford was contributed by Robert Nichols, minor poet, fellow student and, thereafter, lifelong friend. Nichols relates a visit to Mr Heseltine’s rooms during which the latter plays over some of Delius’s music on the piano and describes it as a “melody of chords”. This is a description which can be used equally of Warlock’s own music. It applies to The lover mourns for the loss of love, the second section of The curlew, which was probably written at the end of 1915 and it is likely that it was the song Delius referred to simply as Curlew in a letter to PW early the next year. Using a remarkably limited – condensed – harmonic palette it could not altogether cast off the “clotted and sepulchral” tendency but, thereby, it precisely parallels Yeats’s text which tells of the lover’s inability to hide his feelings for an old love from the new and, so, both are lost.
It’s not going to be appropriate to cover even in limited detail more than a sample of pieces in a relatively brief study of this nature. The fact that I make no mention of certain works (Candlelight, Sorrow’s lullaby, Jillian of Berry and lots more) doesn’t mean that they are of little worth; you, the avid listener for whom the name of Warlock has already provoked a curiosity, must search them out for yourself. But, having referred to The curlew, some other features of it are worth mentioning. Not apparent from the music, of course, is the fact that it took an inordinately long time to write, some 6-7 years. This is exceptional; when the mood was on him, Warlock could write a song a day. But, if the section referred to above has Delius as its genius, the first and fourth proclaim the influence of Bernard van Dieren. Don’t infer from this that they sound like van Dieren’s music, rather that Warlock has assumed and sublimated particular aspects of BvD’s methodology, principally the emphasis on motivic and melodic line. I think that some bits sound like Schoenberg, actually (although whether acquired vicariously through van Dieren is hard to tell), and there is also a Bartókian quality in places – where there are semitonal discrepancies between notes within a line, for example. The most important effect van Dieren had on Warlock was catalytic rather than as an example to be emulated. In his earliest efforts Warlock had attempted to regard Delius in the latter manner and the results were . . . well, there aren’t really any results.
There is one specific device in The curlew that is a Delian acquisition, though. The cor anglais figure that opens the whole work is a linear form of a chord that becomes a favourite of Warlock’s. It is the Tristan-chord in that it contains the right notes although Warlock inverts it freely so it rarely appears in the Wagnerian configuration. Play a dominant 9th and then take away the root or, conversely, construct a 7th chord on the leading note (in a major key in both cases). Either way it is tonally ambiguous and has a sense of being incomplete. It punctuates, for example, Delius’s song Twilight fancies (Abendstimmung – which Warlock refers to, much more successfully, as Evening voices).
The curlew was performed in an embryonic form in 1920 but, as a result, two shorter songs were expunged to be replaced by a single, longer one of three stanzas (The withering of the boughs) and the final version was given in 1922. Because of the protracted nature of the work’s production, The curlew can be seen as a chronicle of PW’s progress and development. The fact that he persevered with it when he wasn’t unwilling to give up on and discard other, unsuccessful pieces suggests that he regarded it as special himself in some way. The satisfaction he expressed with the finished product reflects this too, especially in the context of someone who voiced a low opinion of his ability and usually belittled his own work. In fact it is not too far-fetched to consider The curlew as a piece of autobiography. It may be less contentious, though it has not been universally recognised, to consider the piece as a work of English expressionism, a modernist piece that anticipates the third quartet of Frank Bridge and its own treatment of the tritone by several years.
It was during the long composition of The curlew that Warlock spent some time in Ireland. The reasons for this sojourn were various: the cultural atmosphere in London was stifling and, during wartime (this was 1917-18), dominated by the military; although exempted from war-service on medical grounds, PW was a conscientious objector in spirit if not in fact; his marriage, entered into because of his girlfriend’s pregnancy, was a burden to him and, although “Puma” visited him during his stay, he really wanted to escape from that and fatherhood too; more positively, he would be able to examine at first hand another aspect of Celticism, a subject he had already encountered as a result of his mother’s remarriage into the Welsh squirearchy and which would become a long-term fascination. So he lived in Dublin and – as Dr Rhian Davies has recently discovered – on Achillbeg, a remote community at the southern tip of Achill Island, where he learned both the Irish language and, less successfully perhaps, the bagpipes. Compositionally the experience bore fruit after his return to England for it was only then that his first published songs appeared.
Before going on to examine the implications of these pieces I think that it is important to dispose of another myth. If you read easily accessible texts – musical dictionaries, standard encyclopædias and any other work which uncritically cannibalises others – you will no doubt read of Warlock’s compositional indebtedness to Renaissance masters. Such a viewpoint is at best naïve; at worst it perpetuates the biographical fallacy, something that all commentators worth their salt would seek to avoid. Just because Warlock was a Renaissance enthusiast and scholar does not automatically suggest the rationale behind aspects of his compositional output that appear, on the surface, to have been inspired by old stylistic practices. Metrical flexibility, regulated by the syllabic stress of the verbal text, may be as readily ascribed to the influence of Bernard van Dieren as any Elizabethan or Jacobean paradigm; and the modal content can be described in terms of the effects of Delius and Bartók on Warlock (and the ways he idiosyncratically modified them) as those of any ancient model.
It was after what Gray called the “Irish year”, then, that Peter Warlock emerged as a compositional voice. This is not the place to discuss the choice or use of a pseudonym beyond the fact that it had already been used to conceal Heseltine’s identity from the editor of a journal to which he had sent an article on the chamber music of Eugene Goossens and now it would do the same with Winthrop Rogers, the publisher of these songs. The inexperienced investigator, led astray by descriptions of Warlock’s stylistic importations such as those refuted above, will be confused but in one respect the influence of past generations is nonetheless evident in these songs: the chosen texts are by (in no particular order) Ford, Sydney, Peele, Shakespeare, Dekker, Charles d’Orléans and, inevitably, Anon. The musical language of the Shakespeare setting, Take o take those lips away, however, could hardly be less Elizabethan: a chromatically lethargic F sharp minor employs a heavy, late-romantic, abstracted, superDelian dialect.
Another setting of the same words appeared in the set of three songs called Saudades, written a couple of years earlier but not published until 1923. Here the influence is obviously Bernard van Dieren and the last of them, Heraclitus, was described to me by Professor Stephen Banfield as “the best song that van Dieren never wrote”. This piece even looks like a van Dieren song in the way that it is set out on the page. Indeed, there are several early pieces that will come as a shock to anybody who thinks of Warlock purely in terms of the “jolly” songs previously listed. How the intensely chromatic harmonic vocabulary of these pieces becomes transmuted into the more diatonically motivated rationale of the Winthrop Rogers songs is too complex to be related here although I have written about it extensively elsewhere . . . In fact (and this is not a poorly contrived advertisement for my book) many of the points I raise now about specific works, in addition to references to pieces not mentioned here, are covered much more fully and in far greater detail in Peter Warlock the composer (see elsewhere on this site).
Following the flurry of activity surrounding the appearance of the Rogers songs there was something of a compositional hiatus. This was the time (1920-21) of Warlock’s involvement with The Sackbut; the regular demands of editing, writing and otherwise producing this periodical led to the inevitable financial débâcle that saw it wrested from PW’s responsibility and hastened a retreat from London to mid-Wales where, at Cefn-Bryntalch – the home of his mother and stepfather, Walter Buckley Jones – he found solace and the inspiration for what is generally agreed to be the most productive period (1921-4) of his life. 1922 proved to be an annus mirabilis, the year in which he completed The curlew, wrote his book on Delius, prepared performance editions of 21 English ayres and composed a substantial cluster of songs including Sleep, possibly his most well-known vocal work (with some justification given its qualities), and the ravishing Autumn twilight which is hardly known at all to non-believers (without any justification whatsoever). Sleep provides the best example of stylistic misattribution in the whole of the Warlockian canon: its metrical freedom certainly parallels Renaissance practice but the counterpoint, chromatic word-painting and, especially, the dissonant coda proclaim the sublimated influence of Delius and, particularly, van Dieren.
The curlew is often cited as Warlock’s “masterpiece” and the term is pressed into service all too often. It is, undoubtedly, his most extensive and, in terms of volume, his most substantial piece. But another product of 1922 was the song-cycle called Lillygay, initially the title of the anthology of poems from which he drew the texts. On one level, Lillygay demonstrates Warlock’s interest in folk music, a fact which is not universally acknowledged because, unlike Grainger, Moeran and Vaughan Williams, he was not a collector and the style has little overt presence in his output. (The Folk-song preludes for piano, alluded to earlier, used melodies gathered from other people’s garners.) It was written only a few months after Bartók had visited Britain and spent some time in Wales with Warlock. There is angst in all of the five constituents but it usually avoids the self-consciousness evoked by Yeats’s words in The curlew. Now we have a facility that some could interpret as inconsequence. To do so would be to miss the point: The distracted maid suggests obsessive behaviour by means of a simple scalic motif that regulates the piano-part (not an “accompaniment”) and infects the vocal melody, and the eventual cessation of this device – a few bars before the end – clouds the distinction between the narrator’s and the girl’s words; Johnnie wi’ the tye – the only one of the cycle’s texts that has not been identified – is motivically adroit in that the anacrusic rising 4th that characterises folksong tunes (and figures elsewhere in the cycle) is here transmuted first of all by being positioned firmly on the beat (piano opening), then by being stretched into a rising 5th (an inversion) then, by further extension, into a rising 6th that heightens the cry “And o (as he kittl’d me)”; The shoemaker rattles along at such a pace that its semitonal distortions – oxymorons and double entendres – can be lost but the most blatant, a knowing wink of a falling major 3rd that denies the G flat of the key signature, is startlingly delicious; in Burd Ellen and young Tamlane the modality of The distracted maid, which had begun to semitonally disintegrate in the following two songs, is further abstracted here both in the melodic modification to the end of the last verse and the chordal choice which denies the true note-centre.
All of these songs prepare for the last, Rantum tantum, the weakest of the lot if it is foolishly sung on its own; it is the only one of the five to modulate, which it does in the most unsubtle way, but only to make key changes and centre-shifts symbolise sexual abandon, something denied to the subjects of the preceding songs. They are all about lost love but, in Rantum tantum, the tensions of the preceding songs give way to hedonism and promiscuity. Let it be understood, though, that Lillygay is no mere aggregation of disparate songs (which could be said not unjustly about other sets of Warlock’s songs such as the two groups of Peterisms and the Seven songs of summer) for there is a formal, structural relationship that binds the pieces together and warns against performance of anything but the complete cycle. Not only does Rantum tantum declare its relationship to the other constituents by quoting (bar 31) the introduction to The shoemaker but the note-centres of the songs emphasise the rôle that the semitone plays as a regulating device: The distracted maid is centred on B flat; Johnnie wi’ the tye has B natural; The shoemaker reverts to B flat; Burd Ellen and young Tamlane drops to A. Rantum tantum appears to break the rule by starting in D flat but, as has been noted, it modulates and the achievement of A flat in bar 6 completes the note-centre logic.
From the foregoing it is clear that two particular features of Warlock’s style are manifesting themselves: modality and semitonal adjustment. They are, in fact, interlinked aspects for one mode is easily converted to another by semitonally adjusting one or more notes. It would be too easy to attribute the use of modes exclusively to Warlock’s knowledge of early music; in fact I prefer to see the modes as horizontal forms of the family of chords that pepper his piano-parts and other chordal writing, the harmonic vocabulary that springs from Delius and is subject to the modifications inspired by Bartók and van Dieren. Warlock’s chordal palette, triadic shapes apart, mainly comprises four chords that are, themselves, semitonally altered versions of each other. This whole aspect is one that would demand an extensive essay in its own right so you’ll either have to take what I say on trust or get in contact with me for a fuller explanation complete with pseudo-Shenkerian graphs (or, of course, read The Book).
Warlock may be principally known for his suite Capriol (of which more later) and as a writer of piano-songs but it probably less well known that a number of pieces for unaccompanied choir forms an important part of his oeuvre. Because his methodology derives from an essentially chordal approach these pieces are more consistently successful than his works for solo voice. He started writing them at much the same time as the Winthrop Rogers songs and, from the outset, they are startling. The persistent C major of Benedicamus Domino (1918) proclaims a naïvely unquestioning statement of faith (“Glory, Praise, God is made both man and immortal”) that is remarkable for a composer who openly declared his unease both with Christianity and the Christmas season itself. In a similar vein, I saw a fair maiden was written nine years later but eschews the chromaticism that is so much a feature of much of Warlock’s writing; as with Benedicamus Domino the result is uncomplicatedly poignant, a hymn to the Virgin by atheist Warlock.
Among the most outstanding of Warlock’s choral songs are three settings of John Webster, the English metaphysical dramatist. They are known collectively as the Three dirges; written between 1923-5, they demonstrate marked technical similarities. All the flowers of the spring, the first written is for a mixed chorus that must be capable of withstanding both the demands of the part-writing as well as the sub-division of those parts. Webster’s text is about a common path of life over which we have no control and Warlock wraps it up in a slow processional that begins with assured homophony and ends with insecure melisma. Rhythmically the emphasis is on long notes; minims (half-notes) dominate a tempo marked “Very slowly/Adagio assai”. This texture is only broken once – by imitative polyphony at the imprecation to “Survey our progress from our birth” – otherwise it depends principally upon homorhythms. The long central section, which verbally elaborates on the transience of us living things, is in rhythmically unadventurous simple-triple metres (3/4, 3/2) and possesses the same sense of inexorability as, say, Messiaen’s Les Mages. Although there is much chromaticism everything is held taught by the basses’ pedal G, the fragile tonic. The pianissimo ending, 21 bars exclusively setting the monosyllable “wind” (please let it rhyme with “behind” of bars 39-40 – it’s how Webster would have known it and it’s easier to sing than the modern way) is fiendishly difficult but worth the effort. The solo soprano’s “Ah” at the end can be ironic, fatalistic or a microcosm of all that has gone before.
The other two Dirges, Call for the robin redbreast and the wren and The shrouding of the Duchess of Malfi, both date from 1925 and are for women’s and men’s voices respectively. The first of these continues the technique of homophonic declamation heard in All the flowers but, since this is very much a Warlockian feature anyway, it doesn’t need further comment except that, here, there is a much greater rhythmic diversity to create a sense of agitation proper to the macabre text. A stronger link back to the earlier work is the wordless melisma given to the contraltos, this time in parallel 3rds, which constitutes the short coda. The dramatic content is really provided, though, by the sinister, repeated Gs sung by both soprano lines. Once more there is a sense of relentless inevitability.
The shrouding of the Duchess of Malfi is probably the most technically demanding piece that Warlock wrote, hence its infrequent outings. In nearly 40 years’ listening to Warlock’s music I have only heard two live performances of it although there are also a couple of recordings. (But it is a fact that I could say the same about some of his other pieces too.) It starts with the Curlew-chord but in its Tristan shape. The device that fastens this work to its fellows is the G pedal in the top tenors between bars 31-44, an echo of the long bass pedal in All the flowers and the repeated Gs that close Call for the robin. In fact all three pieces inhabit a loose C/G tonality that the final chord of The shrouding does nothing to resolve, a demonstration that Warlock could sympathise with the philosophy behind the convolutedly meditative texts that he chose to set.
It is this very introspective and contemplative aspect that characterises a large proportion of Warlock’s output. It does not profess an overt religiosity, even when the subject-matter of the words set deals with a Christian topic. (It may be the case that Warlock was unable to shake off the strong Church background that his mother, a pillar of the community who took her rôle as parent and local dignitary very seriously, instilled into him – but that is a matter for the biographers.) In this respect Corpus Christi presents a perfect example. The words are mystical and Jesus and the Virgin are there only by allegorical association. To evoke the wounded knight and the sorrowing maid – they sound as much like figures from an alternative Tarot set than the Saviour and his Mother – Warlock employs a (largely) wordless chorus that acts as a static and hypnotically repetitive foil to the two solo voices who convey the narrative via devices that are, by turns, lyrical or declamatory. The first version dates from as early as 1919 and it is a remarkably assured piece from a composer who, in other respects, was still finding his feet. He made an arrangement of it eight years later with a string quartet in place of the choir but – a personal view – it doesn’t have the same impact. The choral version does make big demands on the singers but I directed it with a scratch choir at an Open University summer school in 1997; I was working with a particularly motivated group of people, admittedly, but they gave their all and made an excellent fist of it on just a few hours’ rehearsal. If you have the resources go and do thou likewise. You’ll need to practise the ostinati, their associated dynamics and their developed forms in order to achieve just the right kind of neurotic tension.
After the security of Wales Warlock moved to the village of Eynsford in Kent. It is now perilously close to Greater London and only a stone’s throw from the M25 motorway that – for the benefit of those unfamiliar with it – encircles the capital. But in the 20s it was remote from the demands of the city and Warlock must have found the place invigorating because his stay there (1925-8) proved almost as fertile as his time in Wales. The second and third of the Dirges were written there as were wonderful solo-songs such as Robin Goodfellow, Away to Twiver, Cradle song and the remarkable Mockery. If you don’t know this last-named piece please take the trouble to seek it out. The words are those of the cuckoo- (or cuckold-) song from Shakespeare’s Love’s labours lost and the vocal line, itself intervallically and tonally wild, seems frequently to be at variance with the piano’s mixture of pointillist eccentricity and bombastic chords. Mendelssohn’s Wedding march makes a disguised appearance to comment ironically on the words “Mocks married men . . .” and, while the throwaway ending finally achieves the G that had been threatened from the start, it appears to get there as much by luck as by judgement: there is no perfect cadence; the chord before the final, isolated tonic is an augmented triad on C flat with an added major 7th. The whole thing has to be performed terrifically fast and should only be attempted by habitués of a musical gymnasium.
More accessible to us mortals is the sublime Cradle song for which, I must confess, I have a special weakness. The insomniac infant is there in the introductory E flat/E natural discrepancies, a vain attempt to rock it asleep. It’s a strophic song, verse and refrain three times, and as such is an example of a frequent Warlockian structure. Melodic repetition is a vehicle for harmonic change, PW’s principal developmental technique. (If this is getting uncomfortably near to saying that, in Warlock’s music, what the piano does is structurally more important than what happens in the vocal line then so be it. It does explain why the piano often carries the vocal line as well; the melody is an extension of the chordal flow, not the other way about.) Melodically a Dorian mode centred on G gives way to a Mixolydian on D; the piano’s initial E flat negates the former, though, suggesting Aeolian, vying with the true, Dorian E natural to create the restlessness referred to. But the piano quickly moves outside this scenario; the C sharp at the end of bar 3 anticipates first the D flat colourings in the next two bars and then the D flat chord, a constituent of a circle-of-5ths procedure (it crops up many times in Warlock’s songs) in bar 7. Similarly the modulation to D in bar 8 and the appearance of F sharp prompts the G flat chord at the end of bar 9. Cradle song also employs chords based on pentatones, another important device in Warlock’s compositional armoury (listen to the beginning of – and elsewhere in – Rantum tantum). A hexatonic mode in The curlew (bars U8-V7) was constructed from two pentatonic modes a 5th apart, a process to be refined in The frostbound wood. The penultimate chord of the song is an astonishing fusion of these disparate elements; widely spread, it has an F sharp 7th at the bottom (with enharmonic D flat and B flat as well as E natural, the Dorian 6th degree) and an E flat chord at the top (built on the Aeolian 6th degree).
The origins of Warlock’s best known work, Capriol (that’s the title on the score, not “The Capriol suite”, please) were fortuitous. Amateur biographers will no doubt tell you that it sprang from his work on early music as though he sought out the tunes from Arbeau’s Orchésographie himself. In fact he was approached, as an authority on the music of the Renaissance, to write the preface for a new translation of the work which was being prepared by the English balletomane, Cyril Beaumont. In the end Warlock not only wrote the Preface but also notated the musical examples. The tunes that he used were not written by Arbeau but were actually popular dance airs of the day. Dr Ian Copley listed the names of the tunes selected in his book; Warlock imbues them with his own harmonic ideas and does not necessarily follow the structure that would have regulated them. Thus the movement called Pieds-en-l’air has very much the feel of Delius about it and the last movement, Mattachins, evokes Bartók. Only the Pavane retains its original form, a song about a beautiful lover “ . . . who holds my life captive in your eyes”; Warlock’s contribution is a poignant counter-melody. In the book, Capriol – the pupil who is learning the dances from his master – says that a pavane “ . . . is too grave and solemn to dance alone in a room with a young girl.” The six movements are very much a composition, not a reconstruction or an arrangement. In this way the suite stands alongside Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis and Bartók’s Mikrokosmos as explorations of a cultural background.
Financial difficulties forced Warlock’s having to quit Eynsford. The return to London was not beneficial as far as his creativity was concerned. It is curious that, while we in the Peter Warlock Society celebrate his London associations, particularly the times that he lived in the Chelsea area, these were not the really productive periods of his life. He claimed that he stopped writing songs because the market no longer supported that kind of activity but it may be more truthful – if also more cruel – to say that he had dried up. Nevertheless there were two gems left in him.
One of the last pieces he composed, in the summer of 1930, was The fox. Perhaps its writing was again stimulated by the surroundings for he was temporarily out of London, staying with his friend, Bruce Blunt, in Hampshire. The song – both words and music – was written rapidly (see Copley p.143) and, while its musical language is stark, the falling semitones are once again a legacy of the early infatuation with Delius. How moving it is that a harmonic device that had thrilled the young Heseltine by its momentary sensuousness is now stretched and otherwise abstracted to create an atmosphere of decay and death. It wasn’t quite to be his last work; that dubious distinction must go to a new version of his carol Bethlehem Down, originally written three years earlier for choir but now arranged for solo voice and organ. Nevertheless it is another song, The frostbound wood (1929), that must attract our attention. Once more it is a setting of words by Bruce Blunt (as, indeed, is Bethlehem Down); while Blunt is probably little known in any capacity, least of all as a poet, he had a direct way of writing and a sense of image that Warlock obviously found inspirational. It is a daring statement to make – and I speak from a particular and not unbiased standpoint – but I don’t think that there is another song by a contemporary British composer that comes anywhere near The frostbound wood for its motivic daring.
To fully understand the mechanics behind this extraordinarily dramatic piece one has to have more of an understanding of Warlock’s use of pentatonic material than it has been possible to relate here. Although it is an extreme example of his use of it, it’s by no means the only one (and Cradle song, mentioned above, is just another). The melodic figure is closely related to a three-note motif used extensively in another song, And wilt thou leave me thus (1928); all of these three solo songs provocatively suggest how Warlock’s style could have developed had he lived. In fact the vocal line is built on a specific note-pattern, D-E-G-A, the four notes common to two pentatones a 5th apart. Thus we have a tetratonic mode that has already been used vertically in the harmony of some of Warlock’s songs. I’ve described these elsewhere as “Frostbound wood-chords”. The tetratone is employed pentaphonically (E-D-E-G-A) and contains two forms of the And wilt thou-motif, what we could term a prime and a retrograde inversion; because of the way the line is manipulated there is an occasional retrograde (but no inversion). Should such a concise use of motif invite comparison with other pieces and composers: inter-relationships in the note-row of Webern’s Op.24; the limited note-row of Stravinsky’s In memoriam Dylan Thomas; melodic repetition (of a three-note motif) in Cage’s Wonderful widow of eighteen springs? You may think these parallels contrived or otherwise far-fetched but I’d like to get you to think of Warlock not as some conventional composer of cosy English parlour-songs but an inventive, imaginative musician who, partly as a result of his eclectic tastes and unusual musical education, produced work that challenged the norms. Because of his background Warlock is extremely difficult to categorise: he fits into no comfortable grouping of composers, no clearly defined school; and he left no real following either – we can see with the benefit of distanced observation that, despite any protestations otherwise, there are no post-Warlockians.
Both of these two practices are standard procedures whereby we evaluate composers. If, even 70 years after his death, it is hard to objectively define a niche for Peter Warlock, I wonder what tantalised Cecil Gray, so soon after PW’s death, when he came to write his biography of the composer in 1934? All in all he paints a pretty gloomy picture of his friend; it is as though Gray started with a death and then sought to relate everything else to it. Did he truthfully think that Warlock suffered from some kind of split-personality, symbolised by the names Heseltine and Warlock, or could he not accept the creative diversity? Did Gray fully understand the psychiatric implications of split-personality or was he only applying a buzz-word from a relatively new science? I resist the temptation to go down the biographical road and turn to the music.
Warlock wrote Sweet-and-twenty in 1924, a setting of the Clown’s song (“O mistress mine . . .”) from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It is one of the more remarkable features of Warlock’s technique that he was able to tackle different emotional contexts within a piece and yet change the material remarkably little. Bethlehem Down provides, in the first version for choir, the most extreme example of this for, with only very small changes to the harmonic emphasis, the security of a maternal embrace can be converted into a lack of certainty about the future – just like real life, in fact! In Sweet-and-twenty there is already a duality of intent in Shakespeare’s poem: an amorous statement (verse 1) becomes more urgent and comments on the fragile transience of time (verse 2); from the music it is obvious that Warlock recognised the change of mood and incorporated it into his peculiar version. I remarked earlier that a strophic approach with harmonic growth from verse to verse is a significant feature of Warlock’s style but in this setting his modifications are more extreme. To begin the second stanza he radically changes his emphasis in thicker chords over a different pitch-range for, after all, “What’s to come is still unsure”. Two songs in one, two different sentiments expressed, instability? No, just different reactions to the same situation. As in art so let it be in life.
These notes © Brian Collins 2001
"Created by Richard Valentine - Peter Warlock devotee"