About this Recording
8.573227 - WARLOCK, P.: Choral Music (The Carice Singers, Parris)

Peter Warlock (1894–1930)
Choral Music


Robert Nichols, visiting Mr Heseltine’s rooms in Christ Church College, Oxford in 1913, encountered—whether he wished it or not—the music of Frederick Delius. Philip Heseltine, who metamorphosed into Peter Warlock, declared it a “melody of chords”, a description that fits his own and his choral output especially. The earliest examples of the genre would not appear for some years, after the first batch of solo songs, in fact. But they are remarkable for their assuredness and technical grasp. They fall clean and bright from the mould, proclaiming themselves Warlock’s natural medium.

Bethlehem Down [23] (1927) has words by his friend Bruce Blunt, a minor poet for whose verse Warlock shows great sympathy. (The fox and The frostbound wood are but two other, significant collaborations.) Warlock’s music for Bethlehem Down is a consummate example, complementing the contrasts that occur within a single poem. With remarkably little alteration he suggests the security of a maternal embrace or the fatal instability of the future. Such sensitivities apart, it was rapidly concocted and funded what Blunt called “an immortal carouse”—beer at Christmas!

The full heart (1921) [1], despite its dedication “To the immortal memory of the Prince of Venosa”, is not especially Gesualdo-like: deliciously dissonant chords might recall those of the earlier composer but derive equally from Delius. One of only two extant settings of words by Warlock’s University friend, an exponent of the “Imagist” school, it was some five years in gestation, unusual for a composer who frequently wrote at speed. Nichols’s friendship was one of the few that endured; most people fell out with Peter Warlock sooner or later.

Of five settings of Hilaire Belloc, four were songs for solo voice, given here in arrangements by Fred Tomlinson. Ha’nacker Mill [2], The night [3] and My own country [4], conceived as a set, are from 1927. Their words contemplate mortality passively but not despairingly and appealed to a composer erroneously accused—on the scantiest evidence—of specialising in hedonistic drinking songs.

The spring of the year (1925) [5], the “melody of chords” par excellence, proclaims similar sentiments but more optimistically. Parallel dissonances that open it are resolved in the final line, triumphant but ultimately calm, covertly Christian, rejoicing in a springtime death and Heavenly reunion.

Three dirges of John Webster, texts from plays by the metaphysical dramatist, were not written simultaneously. All the flowers of the spring [6] came first (1923), the others following two years later. Despite the time-lapse they function well as a unit, sharing components such as key relationships and, notably, pedal-points, a favourite device. That of All the flowers is masterly, underpinning the onomatopoeic evocation of “wind”. The shrouding of the Duchess of Malfi [8] for men’s voices contains some of Warlock’s most extreme harmonies and now does emulate Gesualdo; Call for the robin redbreast and the wren [7] (women’s voices) employs false relations to epitomise the macabre content.

Otherwise, As dew in Aprylle [9] has a naïvety befitting this hymn to the Virgin by atheist Warlock. Composed in 1918 it is one his earliest explorations of the genre; that it emerges from—apparently—nowhere, perfectly formed, is remarkable. The source for the words is usually given as Early English lyrics, an anthology of 1907 compiled by E.K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick. Warlock employed it often: it provided texts for 15 pieces. But there are some differences of spelling: “stylle” and “Aprylle” in the song are consistently “stille” and “Aprille” in the book so there could have been another source. His reading was extensive and, as is becoming apparent, eclectic.

Warlock’s association with Christmas derives from the popularity of, inter alia, Bethlehem Down and Adam lay ybounden [15]. The latter, alongside Tyrley tyrlow [16] and The sycamore tree [18], appeared in the Oxford book of carols (1928). But it was a season with which he would feel increasing disaffection and during which he relinquished his life. The five lesser joys of Mary [10] and The rich cavalcade [11] (both 1929) are amongst his last works: in the first he attaches some curious harmonies to a not particularly memorable melody; the second, too, is at odds with a style that was evolving more successfully in his solo songs and—ever a severe critic of his own work—he was unhappy with it.

The birds [12] and Carillon carilla [20] set Belloc again. The former (originally 1926) paraphrases a tale from the Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, the closest Warlock gets to biblical narrative; the latter would be his last choral Christmas piece (1930) and its lethargy says much about his feelings towards the time of year. Belloc’s contentious text inspires what Warlock wryly called his “anti-semitic chords”—in an earlier song, Mr Belloc’s fancy, he happily set Squire’s words, mocking Belloc’s prejudice.

The freshness of Benedicamus Domino [14] is appealing, though; the late mediæval Latin verses are a joyous, corporate celebration of the Virgin Birth. Another early excursion (1918), it begins with an exposed incantation taken up in later verses. It rarely moves beyond virginal C major (albeit with a pentatonic bias) thereby proclaiming a simplicity appropriate to the unquestioning statement of faith at the core of the text : “Glory, Praise, God is made both man and immortal”. (But note the provocatively ironic allocation of “Sine viri semine” to the basses!)

Adam lay ybounden (1922) is deceptively straightforward. Any banality is allayed as references to the apple, instrument of mankind’s fall, are marked by niggling chords or melodic contradictions. Contemporary with it are the Three carols, dedicated to Ralph Vaughan Williams who, directing the London Bach Choir, gave their first performance (with orchestral accompaniment) in 1923. Only The sycamore tree was newly written, the other two items being reconstituted from earlier formats. Balulalow [17] (initially from 1919) begins with harmonic anomalies, more false relations that reappear in a later lullaby, Cradle song, for solo voice. Is this an early manifestation of Warlock’s Christmastide discomfort? Or did he just not like children? He certainly had a poor relationship with his own son. Tyrley tyrlow (1922) has jaunty syncopations, a more jolly affair altogether. Of the set, Vaughan Williams wrote enthusiastically to the composer that the choir had “never moved so fast before!”

I saw a fair maiden [19] was written about the same time as Bethlehem Down although its mood is lighter. It is just about the least chromatic of all Warlock’s pieces; this simple purity, along with the composer’s request that it be “Very slow and quiet” results in another poignant song in praise of Mary. The bass pedal that moderates the opening bars establishes the atmosphere for the whole piece such that even the resolute last verse is measured and, its opening dissonances apart, restrained.

Corpus Christi [13] (1919) is one of only a few of his pieces with which Warlock expressed satisfaction. Two voices emerge from the chorus to represent wounded knight and sorrowing maid, allegories of the crucified Christ and His Mother, perhaps, although there are several textual variants. The bulk of the choir mostly sings wordless figures to contextualise these two characters making the climactic “And in that bed…” the stronger (and the version for string quartet and duet of 1927 less effective). The sacred and profane are never far apart: the final cry is tortured or ecstatic.

Warlock’s knowledge of Celtic languages began with his mother’s remarriage and resultant move to Montgomeryshire. He learned Welsh when English was the language of the squirearchy. Then came Irish Gaelic during his Hibernian sojourn (1917–18) while his notebooks additionally compare Breton, Manx, Cornish and Scots Gaelic vocabulary and declensions. Here is a more committed, intellectual involvement than that of the refugees of the “Celtic twilight”. Both Cornish carols (Kanow Kernow) were written in 1918 and the text of Kan Nadelik (A Cornish Christmas Carol) [25] underwent changes before publication including the addition of Reed’s translation, now the standard vehicle of performance (although Warlock was ambivalent about it). However Benneth Nadelik ha’n Bledhan Nowedh (A blessing for Christmas and the New Year) [21] is here recorded in the language proper to it for the first time.

There is a footnote to all of this. Warlock would arrange Bethlehem Down for baritone and organ, the topmost line of the original becoming a melody from which new but bitter, cynical chords were hung. It was his last work; within a month he was dead, quite possibly by his own hand.

Brian Collins

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