Time to take warlock seriously

Peter Warlock | Chelsea Festival, London
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The Independent Culture

Peter Warlock aficionados are serious drinkers. They need to be. Warlock (1894-1930) frequented more pubs round Chelsea than the dozen-plus Chelsea addresses he clocked up between leaving pre-war Eton and his probably self-inflicted Christmas demise in Tite Street from coal-gas poisoning. The drink affected his work-patterns, but not just depressively. Many of his best pieces are cheerful drinking songs written to spruce up some amateur gathering, be it a Hampshire village cricket match, amateur dramatics or a boozy rendezvous in north Kent's Darenth Valley.

Peter Warlock aficionados are serious drinkers. They need to be. Warlock (1894-1930) frequented more pubs round Chelsea than the dozen-plus Chelsea addresses he clocked up between leaving pre-war Eton and his probably self-inflicted Christmas demise in Tite Street from coal-gas poisoning. The drink affected his work-patterns, but not just depressively. Many of his best pieces are cheerful drinking songs written to spruce up some amateur gathering, be it a Hampshire village cricket match, amateur dramatics or a boozy rendezvous in north Kent's Darenth Valley.

Each of his songs - as well as a clutch of melting carols like "Bethlehem Down" - is a polished gem. But it is in his black, desolate "The Curlew", that he turns to sheer gold the dark underworld of his multi-faceted, possibly split, personality.

Warlock never crawled to anyone. But the Warlock society, whose heroic efforts on his behalf have done much to keep this intriguing figure in the public eye, has aptly taken to annual crawling and bibbing in his honour. I caught up with them outside the Chelsea Fishery. The fabulous young Guildhall Brass turned out to do the honours, and I doubt if the Wallace Collection could have bettered it. Their conductor Eric Crees's l0-part band arrangements, piccolo trumpet and all, have got Warlock buttoned up. Warlock, who had only half a dozen euphoniums and things to jot for, would have been aghast with admiration. These brilliant and sympathetic arrangements are classics in their own right.

Later, opposite Chelsea Town Hall, Crees handed over the baton for a bet, to a six-year-old. Breathtaking. Passers-by gawped supportively, or were bowled over by loud-hailer renderings of Warlock's "Piggesnie" and "Captain Stratton's Fancy" by baritone Eamonn Dougan - a wonderful voice apt for the Wigmore Hall.

Warlock was one of the first to rate Bartok here and was at the razor edge of English music. The chromatic filigree of "The Curlew" insinuates all his other work. It's time - despite himself - we took this supremely gifted composer seriously.

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