Who was Philip Heseltine, also known as Peter Warlock?

| Hes-el-tine |

A peerless song-writer and the craftsman of exquisite carols such as Bethlehem Down, Warlock was not without his dark and dangerous side, as Calum MacDonald explains

Who was Philip Heseltine, also known as Peter Warlock

Who was Peter Warlock?

Strictly speaking, there was no such person. ‘Peter Warlock’ was a persona, a Rabelaisian alter ego, created by the composer, writer and scholar Philip Heseltine – but his name is much more famous than Heseltine’s own, principally for his brilliant output of songs. Heseltine/Warlock may be the most notorious example of a double personality in music. It’s often said that Heseltine, the sensitive scholar, resuscitated Elizabethan music, edited journals and wrote insightful books, while Warlock’s name is surrounded by rumours of involvement with the occult, experimentation with cannabis tincture, and an interest in flagellation. But there was no such neat division. Heseltine published virtually all his music and his editions as Warlock, making Warlock the author of not just ditties like Captain Stratton’s Fancy and Yarmouth Fair, but the deeply expressive Sleep and Late Summer, the miasmic sound-world of The Curlew and the freshness and tenderness of his carols, such as Bethlehem Down. The magic was both black and white.

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When and where was Philip Heseltine born?

Heseltine is surely the only composer to have been born at London’s Savoy Hotel, where his parents happened to be staying at the time. Born in 1894 he was the sole child of the marriage – his father Arnold died when Philip was just two years old – and was raised by his formidable Welsh mother. Arnold Heseltine had been a stockbroker, like his younger brother Evelyn, who went on to make a fortune and built an Arts & Crafts Movement church in Arnold’s memory on his estate in Essex; their elder brother John Postle Heseltine, Philip’s ‘Uncle Joe’, was a well-known painter.

Where did Philip Heseltine grow up?

Philip spent his earliest years in Hans Road, Chelsea (the house is now part of Harrods). As befitted a member of the moneyed classes, his schooling was of the best, and though he had no musical training his voracious interest in the art soon became apparent. When he went to Eton in 1908 his music master, Colin Taylor, introduced him to much contemporary music, and soon he was writing to Strauss, Elgar and Delius for their autographs. Delius (‘whose works I positively adore’) was an acquaintance of ‘Uncle Joe’ in France and rapidly became a special passion. In June 1911 Colin Taylor wangled permission to take Philip to an all-Delius concert where he met the composer for the first time. Within a month Heseltine had left Eton for studies on the Continent. Already he had started an intensive correspondence with Delius, and begun making arrangements of his works. While in Germany he wrote his first published article – one of the first serious studies of Schoenberg in English. He was still only 17.

During a year of cramming for Oxford, Heseltine spent a holiday with Delius and Uncle Joe in France, acquired a pianola in order to study the classics, and also the first of a series of motorbikes, most of which he crashed. Bitter arguments with his mother, who had remarried and returned to her native Wales, came to a head when he found she had sold the pianola in his absence. Heartily disapproving of her son’s musical leanings, his compositions and his friends, she would remain a perennial thorn in his side. It’s hardly wild psychologising to see Heseltine already in revolt against his restricted upbringing. It’s also tempting to see his idolisation of Delius (and later Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren) as a search for the father-figure that had been absent from his childhood. He would remain one of Delius’s foremost champions, tirelessly promoting performances, copying parts, editing and arranging scores.

For Heseltine was no ordinary bright and well-read public-school boy. He was passionate in his commitment to music – the misunderstood new, the unjustly-forgotten old, and his own – and in it he found the whole purpose of his life. As he wrote, ‘All good music, whatever its date, is ageless – as alive and significant today as it was when it was written’. He also said: ‘All old music was modern once, and much more of the music of yesterday already sounds more old-fashioned than works which were written three centuries ago’.


After an unhappy year at Christ Church, Oxford, World War I interrupted his studies. His circle of acquaintance soon included such luminaries as Balfour Gardiner, Sir Thomas Beecham, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, the painter Augustus John and the critics Ernest Newman and Cecil Gray. Gray, who became an especially close friend and collaborator, introduced Heseltine to van Dieren, whose music and personality had almost as significant an impact as that of Delius. Although judged unfit for military service, Heseltine declared himself a conscientious objector.

He spent the war years first in London as a critic for the Daily Mail and then in Cornwall with DH Lawrence, ‘whom I have long venerated as the greatest literary genius of his generation’, and whose books he planned to promote. Here he began a study of the Celtic languages – he would add Welsh, Manx, Breton and Erse to Cornish over the next few years. Around this time he was briefly married to Minnie Lucy Channing, known as ‘Puma’, one of Augustus John’s models. Apparently she had already borne Heseltine a son, though that son, who became the travel writer Nigel Heseltine, later claimed he was actually the son of another of Heseltine’s girlfriends. There were plenty of these throughout his career, and rumours too of other children.

When did Heseltine start using the pseudonym ‘Peter Warlock’?

It was in 1916 that Philip first started using the name ‘Peter Warlock’. He had many other pseudonyms, such as ‘Mortimer Cattley’ and ‘Rab Noolas’ (‘Saloon Bar’ spelt backwards). But ‘Warlock’, with the hint of magic, devilry and the occult, soon became his most significant creative outlet. As his output of songs grew and attained mastery, DH Lawrence repaid his friendship by making Warlock the model for the composer Julius Halliday in Women in Love (and Puma for Minette); Heseltine threatened to sue him for libel, but eventually they settled out of court.

During the war he had started planning a new and radical-minded musical journal to promote contemporary music from Britain and abroad. This became The Sackbut. In 1920 Winthrop Rogers, who had published ‘Warlock’s’ first songs, agreed to finance it, and Heseltine was appointed editor.
For a man who led such a disordered life, he was capable of meticulous scholarship. Havergal Brian, probably the only British composer even more active than Warlock as a critic, recalled in an obituary how at the Sackbut he marvelled to see Heseltine ‘working at the analysis of a complex orchestral score whilst dictating business letters to his stenographer’. He was a trenchant writer, polemical in crusading spirit and devastating in his critiques of hidebound orthodoxy. After five issues Winthrop Rodgers was concerned about the controversy he was creating; Heseltine produced four more issues at his own expense before The Sackbut was taken over by Curwen, who dismissed him as editor. Neither publisher ever paid him a penny.

What is Heseltine’s most famous piece?

He returned to the family home in Wales, where apart from visits to London he passed three years, probably his most prolific period for writing and composition. He applied his boundless energy to completing his long-planned book on Delius; writing one on Carlo Gesualdo with Cecil Gray, as well as a ground-breaking volume on The English Ayre; engaging in vigorous music journalism; and writing a respectable amount of his own songs. Among these was the cycle The Curlew, settings of WB Yeats for tenor, flute, cor anglais and string quartet (1920-22). This very remarkable and overwhelmingly atmospheric work, considered Warlock’s masterpiece, clearly reflects his abiding interest in the music of Bartók (who visited him in Wales) and other European contemporaries; it won a Carnegie Award and represented Britain at the 1924 ISCM Festival in Salzburg. He also turned his attention to English music of past eras, which he determined to rescue ‘from the besmirching paws of antiquarians’, editing a vast amount of it (Elizabethan lute songs, for example) for modern publication.

What happened to Heseltine?

In 1925, with his friend and fellow-composer EJ Moeran, Heseltine moved to the village of Eynsham, in Kent. The next three years have been described as ‘basically a three-year-long party, notable for the intake of prodigious quantities of alcohol’. A stream of fellow artists – other musicians, painters, sculptors – would drop by for an evening, a week or longer. Constant Lambert and Lord Berners would turn up in a Rolls Royce. Heseltine’s drinking was by now causing problems, and he had several run-ins with the police. The creative spark seemed to be burning lower, and in his last few years he produced little, though of high quality.

Money gave out in Autumn 1928, and Heseltine moved back to Wales for a while. He was desperately short of money, and unable to find a job, though he began helping Beecham plan the 1929 Delius Festival, and conducted his Capriol at the Queen’s Hall Proms that year. Beecham appointed him editor of the Magazine of the Imperial League of Opera, but the whole enterprise folded in January 1930 and Heseltine was out of work again, and drinking heavily. In April 1930 his uncle Evelyn died, leaving an enormous fortune to be divided among various Heseltines: since Philip had taken the name Warlock, he received nothing. After another blazing row with his mother, he moved back to London, taking rooms in Tite Street. His latest songs were turned down by the publishers he approached, but he was full of plans.

When did Philip Heseltine die?

Early in the morning of 17 December Warlock’s landlady phoned the police because of the smell of gas emanating from his rooms. He was found dead on the sofa: the inquest returned an open verdict, there being insufficient evidence to decide whether his death by gas-poisoning was an accident or suicide; the latter seems far more likely. In his later years he had manifested many of the classic symptoms of depression, and they had probably caught up with him. He had put his cat out of the room before turning on the gas.

What is the legacy of Heseltine or perhaps that should be Warlock?

It’s easy to regret a life cut so short. Yet Warlock had made an indelible mark on British music. His friend and drinking-companion Constant Lambert said in 1938, ‘It would be an easy matter for me to write down the names of at least 30 of Warlock’s songs which are flawless in inspiration and workmanship. It is no exaggeration to say that this achievement entitles him to be classed with Dowland, Musorgsky, and Debussy as one of the greatest song-writers that music has known’. Not such a bad epitaph for such a brief, disordered life.   

The best recordings of Peter Warlock’s music

A Peter Warlock Christmas

Allegri Singers, Louis Halsey, Rosamunde Quartet

Somm SOMMCD 011 

Warlock wrote many carols (two of them in Cornish), and this complete collection is well worth knowing.

Choral works

Finzi Singers/Paul Spicer

CHAN 9182 

Excellent unaccompanied performances of some of Warlock’s more introspective works for choir.

Vaughan Williams and Warlock

Dame Janet Baker, Ian Partridge, Music Group of London, King’s College Choir

EMI 968 9392 (2 discs) 

This superb collection of songs and choral works features tenor Ian Partridge and mezzo Janet Baker.

Capriol suite etc

John Mark Ainsley; Nash Ensemble/Martyn Brabbins

Hyperion CDA66938 

Warlock’s best-known work is coupled with his Serenade for Strings and songs for tenor and string quartet.

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Illustration by Risko