Saturday, 7 July 2012

A Warlock and his Spells

Philip Heseltine (1894-1930) was born in the Savoy Hotel, London, and died in mysterious circumstances (probably suicide). He is said to have dabbled in the occult, and known to have practised sado-masochism and smoked cannabis. He also absolutely loved strong drink. Quite a character. (There's more besides). He's much better known under the pseudonym Peter Warlock.

Are his works as intriguing as his life? Well, here's a short survey to help you judge.

Warlock stood apart from most of his contemporaries in refraining from basing his music on English folk song. There are exceptions which prove the rule, including his only work for solo piano, the Folk Song Preludes - five early pieces with a tinge of Grieg but also many unexpected, dissonant harmonies - and his arrangement of a Norfolk folksong, Yarmouth Fair, where the harmonies get ever more surprising. Even they sound nothing like Vaughan Williams or Holst.

No, Warlock was much more at home basing his pieces on 16th Century French dances than English folksongs. One of his best-loved pieces, the Capriol Suite for string orchestra, takes five such tunes and gives them harmonies appropriate to the age but with added unexpected, dissonant harmonies. The scholarly Mr. Heseltine would have noted that some (but only some) of those dissonances echo the 'false relations' of composers like Tallis and Byrd. The Basse Dance (a transcription of which I return to like a happy dog with a huge bone from time to time when I'm seated at the piano) the Pavane and the Pieds-en-l'air are my favourite movements. (The other movements are Tordion, Bransles and Mattachins).

In preparing this survey I was surprised to find some further orchestral pieces that even the Warlock Society website doesn't mention - his Six Italian Dances. Like the Capriol Suite, these are Warlock's take on music of the 16th century. Though they aren't as sharp as the famous suite, they are certainly likeable pieces.

Warlock wrote few instrumental works, being essentially a song-writer. The few we have, however, are (as you will have heard from the Capriol Suite) of considerable value. The string orchestral Serenade was written as a birthday tribute to a composer whose music has a key influence on him, Frederick Delius. The influence of Delius is certainly felt in this lovely piece, with more than a few Delian slippery chromatic progressions and the presence of that lilting triple-time rhythm which runs through many a work of Delius. Gently undulating like the green and pleasant hills of England, it is a hidden classic of the English string repertoire. Another orchestral piece is the early An Old Song, where shades of Grieg and Delius mingle delectably. 

If you enjoyed those short but magnificent orchestral scores, I'll help ease you away from them and towards the choral pieces with a gorgeous arrangement (by that master arranger of buried British treasure, Philip Lane) of one of the composer's most magical choral miniatures, Bethlehem Down. Now please take a listen to the original, for four part chorus: Bethlehem Down.

Even though it's the height of summer here in the United Kingdom (not that you'd know it, with rain and flooding galore!), I'll stick with Christmastide Warlock and present some more of his carols. By the wonders of YouTube, you can savour a delightful old BBC recording of Warlock's Cornish Christmas Carol, 'In dark December', with its echoes of The First Nowell. Also to be relished are the lullaby BalulalowAdam Lay YboundenThe First Mercy (here arranged most beautifully for string orchestra by Mr. Lane) and, if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by all this slow-moving beauty, that remarkable foretaste of late Poulenc, Benedicamus Domino. (The Poulenc piece I have in mind is his Hodie, Christus natus est!)   

This sort of thing isn't the kind of music most typically associated with the name of Peter Warlock - a man who, as mentioned before, liked to live on the wild side and who loved nothing more than getting very, very drunk. That side of Philip Heseltine ("the old, bold mate of Henry Morgan") is most famously represented by Captain Stratton's Fancy - one of his "Two True Toper's Tunes to Troll with Trulls and Trollops in a Tavern". Though I prefer wine to rum, I'll gladly toast Warlock for writing that peach of a song! "And Always to be merry" why not also try The Lady's Birthday, for baritone and male voices? 

With Captain Stratton's Fancy we finally arrive at Warlock songs, which comprise the bulk of his output. Philip Heseltine first became 'Peter Warlock' when publishing a set of songs, including The bayley berith the bell away. Early English poetry was a particular love of his, with Anonymous taking his fair share of the writing credits - as with the lyrical Rest, Sweet Nymphs or the jolly ale-swigging Jillian of Berry. Examples include a setting of John Fletcher, Shakespeare's successor - one of Warlock's most admired songs, Sleep, a piece where the melodic spirit of Dowland seems to live again, albeit with the addition of impressionist harmonies. A less familiar Elizabethan poet, John Philips, was the lyricist behind Cradle Song - one of my favourite Warlock songs, with its beautiful melody and its harmonies that fuse Delius, Tudor modality, impressionism and dissonance into a winning package. Shakespeare was a natural choice, of course. Of Mr. Heseltine's settings of the Bard, you might like to try Sigh no more ladies from Much Ado About Nothing.

Warlock also set modern poetry. Captain Strattons' Fancy, for example, was a setting of John Masefield. Hilaire Belloc was a particular favourite, and his The Birds became one of Warlock's most beautiful songs. Another fine Belloc setting is My Own Country, a nostalgic song that hymns my own "pleasant land".

His best-known song-cycle was the deeply introspective The Curlew. This set four poems of unrequited love by W.B. Yeats (my poet of choice as a teenager!), scoring them for tenor, flute, cor anglais and string quartet. The poems themselves are bleak affairs and Warlock matches their mood with music of unremitting sadness, desolation and beauty. They are a world away from Captain Strattons' Fancy and you might find them a much tougher listen than any of the songs we've met so far. The cor anglais evokes the song of the curlew itself and the flute is said to imitate a peewit. The flute part is unusual in that it tends to remain in its lowest registers throughout. The strings help paint the scene. Yes, at heart Philip Heseltine was a melancholy man. (Yeats' poems can be read here).

The Curlew wasn't Warlock's only song-cycle. For something more cheerful to finish on you could perhaps try Candlelight, a Song cycle on Nursery Rhymes - a set of songs in his lighter vein, in miniature.

I hope you give this composer some time to cast his spell on you.

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