Sue Young Histories

Philip Arnold Heseltine 1894 - 1930

December 18, 2008

Philip Arnold Heseltine 1894 - 1930 an Anglo Welsh composer and music critic. Although he used his own name when writing as a music critic, he composed under the pseudonym Peter Warlock and is now better known by this name.

Peter Warlock was a friend of Thomas Beecham and Frederick Albert Theodore Delius, who recommended him to see homeopath John Moorhead Byres Moir.

Philip Heseltine was born in London and lost his father as a child. His mother remarried and returned to her native Wales, living at Cefn Bryntalch Hall, Abermule, near Newtown, Montgomeryshire, the family home of her second husband, Walter Buckley Jones.

Philip’s education was mainly classical, including studies at Eton College, at Christ Church, Oxford (for one year), and at University College London (one term). In music, he was mostly self taught, studying composition on his own from the works of composers he admired, notably Frederick Albert Theodore 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 vigour.

Heseltine wrote his earliest mature compositions, published to critical acclaim under the newly adopted pseudonym Peter Warlock, following his sojourn in Ireland of 1917-1918.

They were followed by a period of concentration on musical journalism; for a while, he was the editor of the musical magazine The Sackbut.

His most prolific period, both as a composer and author, was in the early 1920s when he withdrew from the financial and social pressures of London to his mother’s and stepfather’s house, “Cefn Bryntalch”, in Montgomeryshire, mid Wales, where he wrote some of his finest songs, finally completing his song cycle The Curlew to poems by William Butler Yeats.

During this period he also met Bartók, who visited him while returning from a concert in Aberystwyth arranged by Walford Davies, and whose influence can perhaps be seen in The Curlew.

Between 1925 and 1929, following a quiet period, Warlock and his colleague Ernest John Moeran led a wild, boozy life in Eynsford, Kent, having to deal with the local police more than once. For Warlock, however, this was one of the most fruitful periods of his life, but by the end of the 1920s his creativity was on the decrease and he had to support himself with music criticism again.

He was suffering from severe depression, but whether his death from gas poisoning at the age of 36 was suicide or an accident is not known for certain. His cat had been put out of the room before he died, perhaps to spare it. There is a third possibility: Warlock had made Bernard van Dieren his heir in his will, inspiring claims by Warlock’s son Nigel Heseltine that Bernard van Dieren had murdered his father.

An intriguing figure, Warlock has served to inspire several characters in English language literature, among them: Coleman in Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay, Roy Hartle in Osbert Sitwell’s Those Were the Days, Giles Revelstoke in William Robertson DaviesA Mixture of Frailties and MacLintick in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant by Anthony Powell. D H Lawrence’s use of Warlock as the model for Julius Halliday in novel Women in Love led to a threat of a lawsuit, followed by an out of court settlement.

His name is surrounded by rumours of involvement with the occult, an interest which he shared with others in the bohemian world of the early 20th century - for example the novelist Mary Butts asserted that it was Warlock who initially introduced her to these subjects.

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.

His life was the basis of a highly fictionalized film entitled Voices From a Locked Room. The film starred Jeremy Northam and depicted Warlock as having multiple personality disorder.


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