Peter Warlock

philip heseltine, peter warlock
Peter Warlock © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence


Peter Warlock was an English composer, primarily of a large body of songs. He also wrote a number of books on music, including a study of Frederick Delius.

Who was Peter Warlock?

Peter Warlock (born Philip Heseltine) came from a large, well-to-do London family: his mother was from Wales, and he maintained strong ties with the country throughout his life.  Educated at Eton, in adolescence he developed an all-consuming passion for the music of Frederick Delius and, by the time of their first meeting in 1911 (his final year at school), he was totally obsessed with the older composer’s works. 

Early years

After a desperately unhappy year at Oxford he dropped out of university, moved to London and spent a few frustrated months in 1915 as music critic on the staff of the Daily Mail.  Soon after this he met the author DH Lawrence and followed him to Cornwall the following year, becoming involved in an ultimately unsuccessful venture to publish Lawrence’s books.  Alarmed by the possibility of conscription, Philip fled to Ireland in 1917 where he remained for a year.  Now there was a sudden surge of remarkable artistic productivity when, in the space of a fortnight, he wrote ten songs, some of which rank amongst his finest compositions. A number of these were published by Winthrop Rogers under the pseudonym, Peter Warlock.  It was at this point that he also became increasingly involved in a number of public and private quarrels directed at music critics he thought were incompetent charlatans.

Later years

In 1920, Rogers appointed him editor of a new musical journal, The Sackbut, in which he often included material of a controversial nature, for example articles attacking prominent critics like Ernest Newman.  However, just as the journal was beginning to succeed, Rogers, nervous of the implications of this contentious material, withdrew his backing and summarily relieved an embittered Philip of the editorship.  After this he moved back to the family home in Wales where he lived almost continuously for the next three years.  Here he applied himself to completing a book on Delius, making arrangements of Delius’s works, transcribing an enormous amount of early music and also composing a large number of songs, including his acknowledged masterpiece, the song-cycle, The Curlew.

Life in rural Kent

In 1925, he moved to the Eynsford in Kent, sharing a cottage with fellow composer E.J. Moeran.  During these years he wrote a study of Gesualdo, a book entitled The English Ayre and continued with his early music transcriptions, as well as producing a slowly decreasing number of original compositions, including perhaps his best-known piece, Capriol, a suite for string orchestra.  He also wrote a series of entertaining and scurrilous limericks in which contemporary composers and critics were cruelly and often crudely lampooned.

His final years

Having felt the onset of a drying up of his creative abilities, he was more than grateful when Sir Thomas Beecham invited him to assist in the organization of the great Delius Festival in October 1929.  But as 1930 progressed life became bleaker and there was little demand for his songs, if indeed the inspiration or will to compose was still there. Black moods of depression settled more frequently and he was found dead, of gas poisoning, in his Chelsea flat on the morning of 17 December 1930.  At the inquest the coroner recorded a verdict of insufficient evidence as to whether death was suicide or an accident.

Further information about the life of Peter Warlock can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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