By Bernard Van Dieren

This obituary of Peter Warlock, written by Bernard Van Dieren, was published in The Musical Times on February the 1st, 1931.

This was shared by Bill Thompson from his site

Click this link to load the PDF of the obituary in its original form.

Tragedy is a much-abused word. But the death of Philip Heseltine (whom an even wider public knew as Peter Warlock) was a tragedy. An exceptionally gifted artist, in the full vigour of healthy manhood, suddenly silenced, incalculable potentialities unfulfilled-such a loss must ever be mourned. There is nothing here in which one can find consolation.

The extent of the loss music and musicians suffer could be gauged by a studied survey of his compositions only, but the time is not yet ripe for that. Their significance assures them a continued attention from which an adequate critical appreciation is bound to result. At this moment it will suffice if one speaks of his remarkable personality.

Heseltine’s career was to some extent determined by the inevitable Eton-Oxford upbringing that family tradition prescribed. He had the originality of the creative artist whose spirit revolts against the pedagogues’ concerted efforts to force intellectual activity into the moulds their wisdom considers best for the greatest number. The idealist resents indiscriminating discipline; Heseltine, like so many gifted youths before him, was inspired to spiritual rebellion by it. And throughout his life he gave a sympathetic interest to all idealistic rebels when he saw society ready to crush them, and to all art and endeavour that faced extinction because it was too subtle for popularity.

But his penetrating mind could distinguish relative merit, and he kept a grasp on facts in spite of this predisposition.

His unflagging devotion is movingly shown in his lifelong battle on behalf of Delius; but the results of his championing are also an eloquent testimony to his strength of character and conviction, and to his efficiency. The unceasing combat he waged, as a true knight errant, made him at times tilt at some academic windmill, or thrash some shepherding yokel who would have remained in obscurity but for the distinction of being thus attacked as if he were knight or giant.

In the midst of continual chivalrous warfare, a man may easily become aggressive without being contentious. This was recognized by many who had provoked his ire, and who, when they judged that they had a grievance, could not help seeing that here was one who was a loyal friend and a loyal enemy. They were ready to forget irritation, not only for his incontestable intellectual honesty, but no less for his irresistible personal charm. His integrity of mind was too convincingly apparent for denial, even by those who personally resented its effects. Mental qualities like these grow in depth by virtue of their very being, and although Heseltine became increasingly impatient of all convention that betrayed any family likeness to smugness and hypocrisy, it is significant that he was always unfailingly able to appreciate the beauty and power of any venerable tradition. In the very centre of his being he was too much an ‘ institutionalist ‘ to deny respectful interest to anything shaped by sincere faith and patient effort. But quite naturally his deep-rooted distrust of all things so elegantly cloaked that they could hide can’t, engendered an almost systematic caution directed against the risk of self-deception.

That state of mind must occasionally reveal a hesitancy which a casual observer could regard as a sign of inner conflict. When such a conflict occurred, Heseltine knew how to defer the clash until the opposing elements are revealed with the sharpest definition. He never evaded the issue, nor sought escape, but avoided hasty conclusions by applying his amazing industry to subjects unconnected with fundamental problems. He worked desperately hard during the recurrent spells of creative inactivity with which all artists are familiar, and this throws light on his mental attitude; because in the course of similar periods most people would fritter away their energies on irrelevant occupation. Heseltine, on the contrary, acquired in what was practically his ‘spare time,’ a scholarship of which any man might reasonably be proud. This was made possible by his extreme tidiness of mind. Very rarely has an imaginative and emotional spirit this highly valuable disposition, which implies the power to arrange life’s experiences in the memory with such consistent precision that existence becomes a continuous and coherent adventure in which the overwhelmingly important and the seemingly negligible take their right places. Heseltine himself was quite conscious of his powers in this respect, and frequently toyed with the idea of a short but all the more lucrative business career that would enable him to exploit them. A few tentative efforts confirmed his and his friends’ belief in this side of his versatility, but circumstances denied him a full chance, and in this, as in other matters, a multitude of acquaintances were puzzled by what with some confused information, they hastily regarded as waywardness. And Heseltine never felt disposed to explain himself or his actions; he had the sensitive man’s instinctive dread of being seen as ‘his real self.’ That of course is simply the spiritual counterpart of the fear of nudity that one feels where all go fully clothed. Necessarily, therefore, the exterior he presented to the world was deceptive, and unfortunately, it gave rise to much silly legend.

I have heard him described as Mephistophelian. He certainly had the caustic wit, but he had none of the callousness or of ‘the spirit of denial ‘-on the contrary, he was generous and kind, and possessed the warm-hearted enthusiasm of the born artist.

These were the qualities that in his worldly wisdom he tried to hide; he knew too well that a man cannot risk the revelation that he remains a boy, and a rather shy boy. Yet that is what anyone with so fine a sensitiveness always is, and it is this that made him all the more lovable to those friends who knew him well enough and at the same time could value his great talents.

Genuine kindness, the delicate considerateness of the true gentleman, and brilliant wit, made him a most delectable companion. The ready response, from all who met him, to such appeals, naturally consolidated the delightful conviviality from which otherwise he might have fled. Here at least could be found an escape from the elemental loneliness that every poet knows and dreads. When the years show that no friendships can assuage the bitter melancholy that pays for the power to feel with the intensity which drives to poetic communication, the spirit falters in fear. The tribulation may be unknown to the critics who have in a loud voice spoken of Peter Warlock’s ‘roystering songs’. Certainly, some of these shine with the light of glorious fun to which the creative artist can claim a right in return for the sadness that is his natural heritage, and that assails him after every phase of concentrated activity. ‘Let us drink: it will make us all jolly!’ sing the students in ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’, and to a heartrendingly sad melodic phrase! It is the poet’s fate to deceive all but himself in the whole range between ‘gentle wistfulness’ and the black horrors that Borrow fought so heroically with only once an Isopel Berners to stand by him.

But if the jolly drinking song does not signify a riotous existence, the yearning melancholy song should not lead to the Philistine’s absurd belief that ‘the poor chap feels all done in.’ Poetic yearning is not what Nietzsche called the exasperation of impotence; it is born of indefinable desire, the longing for the eluding land, beyond the horizon, where is the Golden Fleece.

No artist could ‘ live ‘ all that speaks from his works, were he as robust as Leonardo! It has been said that Heseltine doubted his talents. The creative artist who does not is past redemption. Deep down in himself any talented man knows his own worth. It is true that Heseltine was one of the very rare composers who are genuinely modest about their work. He heavily discounted any praise given to them. Yet he was a most discriminating critic, who could find the flaws in his own productions with sufficient certainty to justify his absolute artistic honesty when he ought to admit to himself their excellence.

His heaviest burden possibly was his distracting versatility. In his earliest days he found himself burning to write about music, with the conviction that he could say more than others, and say it better. Delius’s timely and discerning advice made him see that he was a composer first and foremost. Later, in a brief career as a concert reporter, he speedily discovered that a daily paper is not a suitable medium for the dissemination of ideas or the propagation of convictions.

After he had already established his fame as a composer, he returned again and again to musical journalism with conspicuous success. On a wider basis of literary endeavour he aimed higher, and again justified every ambition. As editor of the Sackbut he displayed a brilliance that compelled the admiration of his adversaries, and his own contributions to this and other periodicals always gave proof of an ease beyond his experience, and a knowledge beyond accepted sources. In his independent literary works (he published several ‘ full-dress ‘ books) he eclipsed all these achievements and revealed a mastery of prose style, a lucidity in argument, and a constructive ability that in themselves would suffice to establish an author’s reputation.

Neither Philip Heseltine nor ‘Peter Warlock’ wrote music in the grand manner or planned on a large scale. The very fact compels us to respect his artistic integrity, for he possessed all the technique required. But he distrusted the sweeping gesture as much as he feared the possibility of, like the lesser artist, repeating himself, whether for gain or fame or from habit.

Very much was still to be expected from a man who at thirty-six had acquired a sound scholarship that enabled him to meet with unwavering confidence, and on their own ground, experts schooled in the course of long lives of specialised work.

Such capacities were gained by him while an unabating flow of transcriptions, arrangements, paraphrases and adaptations-all of incontestable merit-came from his pen, never betraying haste or the complacency of routine, but utmost conscientiousness in every bar. Here was already a productivity, of high merit, on which a man’s fame could securely rest. But yet all this was only part of his activity. He wrote some enchanting works for small orchestra, and enriched music with an impressive number of songs of the most exquisite workmanship, and dictated by real inspiration. I need not draw attention to their loveliness; most of them have already become well-known. In their finely drawn melodic lines, their beautiful transparency and balanced structure, they show, as in everything Heseltine did, a consummate orderliness, a perspicuity and understanding that make them worthy counterparts of the words which, with unfailing taste, he selected from the best of English poets. Can one give higher praise? If I knew how to, I would do it.

But if genuine emotion, infinite charm, and grace, can preserve a spirit as a living reality for future generations, the tribute of my admiration is unneeded. Much of ‘Warlock’s’ music will have become a national treasure when all that was ever said or written about it to-day will be forgotten.

Bernard van Dieren

Further information:

Share This Story