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Philip Arnold Heseltine (30 October 1894 – 17 December 1930), known by the pseudonym Peter Warlock, was a British composer and music critic. The Warlock name, which reflects Heseltine's interest in occult practices, was used for all his published musical works. He is best known as a composer of songs and other vocal music; he also achieved notoriety in his lifetime through his unconventional and often scandalous lifestyle.
As a schoolboy at Eton College, Heseltine met the British composer Frederick Delius, with whom he formed a close friendship. After a failed student career in Oxford and London, Heseltine turned to musical journalism, while developing interests in folk-song and Elizabethan music. His first serious compositions date from around 1915. Following a period of inactivity, a positive and lasting influence on his work arose from his meeting in 1916 with the Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren; he also gained creative impetus from a year spent in Ireland, studying Celtic culture and language. On his return to England in 1918, Heseltine began composing songs in a distinctive, original style, while building a reputation as a combative and controversial music critic. During 1920–21 he edited the music magazine The Sackbut. His most prolific period as a composer came in the 1920s, when he was based first in Wales and later at Eynsford in Kent.
Through his critical writings, published under his own name, Heseltine made a pioneering contribution to the scholarship of early music. In addition, he produced a full-length biography of Frederick Delius and wrote, edited, or otherwise assisted the production of several other books and pamphlets. Towards the end of his life, Heseltine became depressed by a loss of his creative inspiration. He died in his London flat of coal gas poisoning in 1930, probably by his own hand.
Heseltine spent much of the 1915 summer in a rented holiday cottage in the Vale of Evesham, with a party that included a young artist's model named Minnie Lucie Channing, who was known as "Puma" because of her volatile temperament. She and Heseltine soon entered into a passionate love affair. During this summer break Heseltine shocked neighbours by his uninhibited behaviour, which included riding a motorcycle naked down nearby Crickley Hill.[n 1] However, his letters show that at this time he was often depressed and insecure, lacking any clear sense of purpose. In November 1915 his life gained some impetus when he met D. H. Lawrence and the pair found an immediate rapport. Heseltine declared Lawrence to be "the greatest literary genius of his generation", and enthusiastically fell in with the writer's plans to found a Utopian colony in America. In late December he followed the Lawrences to Cornwall, where he tried, unavailingly, to set up a publishing company with them. Passions between Heseltine and Puma had meanwhile cooled; when she revealed that she was pregnant, Heseltine confided to Delius that he had little liking for her and had no intention of helping her to raise this unwanted child.
In February 1916 Heseltine returned to London, ostensibly to argue for exemption from military service. However, it became clear that there had been a rift with Lawrence; in a letter to his friend Robert Nichols, Heseltine described Lawrence as "a bloody bore determined to make me wholly his and as boring as he is". The social centre of Heseltine's life now became the Café Royal in Regent Street, where among others he met Cecil Gray, a young Scottish composer. The two decided to share a Battersea studio, where they planned various unfulfilled schemes, including a new music magazine, and, more ambitiously, a London season of operas and concerts. Heseltine declined an offer from Beecham to participate in the latter's English Opera Company, writing to Delius that Beecham's productions and choices of works were increasingly poor and lacking in artistic value; in his own venture there would be "no compromise with the mob". Beecham ridiculed the plan; he said it would "be launched and controlled by persons without the smallest experience of theatrical life".
An event of considerable significance in Heseltine's musical life, late in 1916, was his introduction to the Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren. This friendship considerably influenced Heseltine, who for the rest of his life continued to promote the older composer's music. In November 1916 Heseltine used the pseudonym "Peter Warlock" for the first time, in an article on Sir Eugene Aynsley Goossens' chamber music for The Music Student.[n 2]
Puma bore a son in July 1916, though there is confusion about the child's exact identity. Most biographers assumed him to be Nigel Heseltine, the future writer who published a memoir of his father in 1992. However, in that memoir Nigel denied that Puma was his mother; he was, he says, the result of a concurrent liaison between Heseltine and an unnamed Swiss girl. Subsequently, he was given to foster-parents, then adopted by Heseltine's mother. Parrott records that the son born to Puma was called Peter, and died in infancy. Smith, however, states that Puma's baby was originally called Peter but was renamed Nigel "for reasons which have not as yet been satisfactorily explained". Whatever the truth of the paternity, and in spite of their mutual misgivings, Heseltine and Puma were married at Chelsea Register Office on 22 December 1916.
By April 1917 Heseltine had again tired of London life. He returned to Cornwall where he rented a small cottage near the Lawrences, and made a partial peace with the writer. By the summer of 1917, as Allied fortunes in the war stagnated, Heseltine's military exemption came under review; to forestall a possible conscription, in August 1917 he moved to Ireland, taking Puma, with whom he had decided he was, after all, in love.
In Ireland Heseltine combined studies of early music with a fascination for Celtic languages, withdrawing for a two-month period to a remote island where Irish was spoken exclusively. Another preoccupation was an increasing fascination with magical and occult practices, an interest first awakened during his Oxford year and revived in Cornwall. A letter to Robert Nichols indicates that at this time he was "tamper[ing] ... with the science vulgarly known as Black Magic". To his former tutor Colin Taylor, Heseltine enthused about books "full of the most astounding wisdom and illumination"; these works included Eliphas Levi's History of Transcendental Magic, which includes procedures for the invocation of demons. These diversions did not prevent Heseltine from participating in Dublin's cultural life. He met W.B. Yeats, a fellow-enthusiast for the occult, and briefly considered writing an opera based on the 9th-century Celtic folk-tale of Liadain and Curithir. The composer Denis ApIvor has indicated that Heseltine's obsession with the occult was eventually replaced by his studies in religious philosophies, to which he was drawn through membership of a theosophist group in Dublin. Heseltine's interest in this field had originally been aroused by Kaikhosru Sorabji, the composer who had introduced him to the music of Béla Bartók.
When Heseltine returned to London at the end of August 1918 he sent seven of his new songs to Rogers for publication. Because of the recent contretemps over Van Dieren, Heseltine submitted these pieces as "Peter Warlock". They were published under this pseudonym, which he thereafter adopted for all his subsequent musical output, reserving his own name for critical and analytical writings. At around this time the composer Charles Wilfred Orr recalled Heseltine as "a tall fair youth of about my own age", trying without success to convince a sceptical Delius of the merits of Van Dieren's piano works. Orr was particularly struck by Heseltine's whistling abilities which he describes as "flute-like in quality and purity".
For the next few years Heseltine devoted most of his energy to musical criticism and journalism. In May 1919 he delivered a paper to the Musical Association, "The Modern Spirit in Music", that impressed E.J. Dent, the future Cambridge University music professor. However, much of his writing was confrontational and quarrelsome. He made dismissive comments about the current standards of musical criticism ("the average newspaper critic of music ... is either a shipwrecked or worn-out musician, or else a journalist too incompetent for ordinary reporting") which offended senior critics such as Ernest Newman. He wrote provocative articles in the Musical Times, and in July 1919 feuded with the composer-critic Leigh Henry over the music of Igor Stravinsky.
With no regular income, in the autumn of 1921 Heseltine returned to Cefn Bryntalch, which became his base for the next three years. He found the atmosphere there conducive to creative efforts; he told Gray that "Wild Wales holds an enchantment for me stronger than wine or woman". The Welsh years were marked by intense creative compositional and literary activity; some of Heseltine's best-known music, including the song-cycles Lilligay and The Curlew, were completed along with numerous songs, choral settings, and a string serenade composed to honour Delius's 60th birthday in 1922. Heseltine also edited and transcribed a large amount of early English music. His recognition as an emerging composer was marked by the selection of The Curlew as representing contemporary British music at the 1924 Salzburg Festival.
After spending Christmas 1924 in Majorca he leased a cottage (formerly occupied by Foss) in the Kent village of Eynsford. At Eynsford, with Moeran as his co-tenant, Heseltine presided over a bohemian household with a flexible population of artists, musicians and friends. Moeran had studied at the Royal College of Music before and after the First World War; he avidly collected folk music and had admired Delius during his youth. Although they had much in common, he and Heseltine rarely worked together, though they did co-write a song, "Maltworms". The other permanent Eynsford residents were Barbara Peache, Heseltine's long-term girlfriend whom he had known since the early 1920s, and Hal Collins, a New Zealand Māori who acted as a general factotum. Peache was described by Delius's assistant Eric Fenby as "a very quiet, attractive girl, quite different from Phil's usual types". Although not formally trained, Collins was a gifted graphic designer and occasional composer, who sometimes assisted Heseltine. The household was augmented at various times by the composers William Walton and Constant Lambert, the artist Nina Hamnett, and sundry acquaintances of both sexes.
By November 1928, Heseltine had tired of Cefn Bryntalch, and returned to London. He sought concert reviewing and cataloguing assignments without much success; his main creative activity was the editing, under the pseudonym "Rab Noolas" ("Saloon Bar" backwards), of Merry-Go-Down, an anthology in praise of drinking. The book, published by The Mandrake Press, was copiously illustrated by Hal Collins.
The final summer of Heseltine's life was marked by gloom, depression, and inactivity; ApIvor refers to Heseltine's sense of "crimes against the spirit", and an obsession with imminent death. In July 1930 a fortnight spent with Bruce Blunt in Hampshire brought a brief creative revival; Heseltine composed "The Fox" to Blunt's lyrics, and on his return to London he wrote "The Fairest May" for voice and string quartet. These were his final original compositions.
In September 1930 Heseltine moved with Barbara Peache into a basement flat at 12a Tite Street in Chelsea. With no fresh creative inspiration, he worked in the British Museum to transcribe the music of English composer Cipriani Potter, and made a solo version of "Bethlehem Down" with organ accompaniment. On the evening of 16 December Heseltine met with Van Dieren and his wife for a drink and invited them home afterwards. According to Van Dieren, the visitors left at about 12:15 a.m. Neighbours later reported sounds of movement and of a piano in the early morning. When Peache, who had been away, returned early on 17 December, she found the doors and windows bolted, and smelled coal gas. The police broke into the flat and found Heseltine unconscious; he was declared dead shortly afterwards, apparently as the result of coal gas poisoning.
An inquest was held on 22 December; the jury could not determine whether the death was accidental or suicide and an open verdict was returned. Most commentators have considered suicide the more likely cause; Heseltine's close friend Lionel Jellinek and Peache both recalled that he had previously threatened to take his life by gas and the outline of a new will was found among the papers in the flat. Much later, Nigel Heseltine introduced a new theory—that his father had been murdered by Van Dieren, the sole beneficiary of Heseltine's 1920 will, which stood to be revoked by the new one. This theory is not considered tenable by most commentators. The suicide theory is supported (arguably), by the (supposed, accepted) fact that Heseltine/Warlock had put his young cat outside the room before he had turned on the lethal gas.
Philip Heseltine was buried alongside his father at Godalming cemetery on 20 December 1930. In late February 1931, a memorial concert of his music was held at the Wigmore Hall; a second such concert took place in the following December.
In 2011 the art critic Brian Sewell published his memoirs, in which he claimed that he was Heseltine's illegitimate son, born in July 1931 seven months after the composer's death. Sewell's mother, private secretary Mary Jessica Perkins (who subsequently married Robert Sewell in 1936), a Camden publican's daughter, was an intermittent girlfriend, a Roman Catholic who refused Heseltine's offer to pay for an abortion and subsequently blamed herself for his death. Sewell was unaware of his father's identity until 1986.
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