BOOK REVIEW / Musical genius with a monstrous alter ego: Peter Warlock: The life of Philip Heseltine - Barry Smith: OUP, pounds 25

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PHILIP HESELTINE was born in the Savoy Hotel in 1894 (this is one of those centenary biographies, rushed to meet a birthline) and died in a gas-filled room 35 years later, having composed some of the most beautiful songs ever written by a British composer and created in his alter ego, Peter Warlock, a semi-mythical monster of drunkenness, bawdiness and scurrility that has cast the reputation of his music somewhat into the shade.

In fact, as the letters quoted at huge length and in tiny type reveal, his invention of a diabolical wizard figure was a protection against the philistinism of his class and era. It functioned as a shield behind which he could write what Constant Lambert described as 'songs which are flawless in inspiration and workmanship' and works in other forms, as well as edit early music and produce an acid stream of criticism.

He began his life as a composer and critic in London during the First World War, beginning his pioneering studies of Byrd, Gibbons, Tomkins, Farnaby and others in the British Museum. His music master at Eton (who survived until 1973 and was Barry Smith's chief informant) had fostered his love for Delius and helped to lay the foundations of his musical knowledge, but Warlock was largely self-taught and had little formal training. His luck in befriending Delius was followed by a lifetime's correspondence and encouragement, and Delius and later Bernard van Dieren were his principal stylistic models, along with the 16th- and 17th-century composers he loved.

Barry Smith has read the large and unedited Warlock correspondence, and bases his biography on this material to the exclusion of much discussion of the music. Unfortunately, he knows more about Warlock than about writing biographies. The text is a stylistic disaster, pointed up by the counter example of Warlock's own splendid prose, none of which seems to have rubbed off.

The attempts at psychological analysis are nave to say the least (Warlock's relationship with his mother is given a grotesquely unsympathetic and one-sided portrayal). But the descriptions of Warlock's many friendships and enmities make lively reading (although the liveliest bits are often the quotations from the letters), and the breadth and depth of his acquaintance, encompassing the Lawrences, Aldous Huxley, Lady Ottoline Morrell, along with Delius and van Dieren, comes out well. Warlock's tender and turbulent love life is also treated with humour and proportion, and his difficult relationships with his family are clearly shown to have contributed to the financial and emotional depression that led to his likely but unproven suicide.

Warlock's selection of poems for setting to music is as interesting as Schubert's and Wolf's: he often made better songs out of indifferent words (considered purely as poetry) than he did out of great ones. Blunt and Belloc come off better than Yeats. (It was Warlock who spread the story that Yeats's reluctance towards being set to music was 'born of his horror at being invited by a certain composer to hear a setting of his Lake Isle of Innisfree - a poem which voices a solitary man's desire for still greater solitude - sung by a choir of a thousand Boy Scouts'.)

What is needed now is a collected letters and selected writings of Peter Warlock, with the Delius correspondence in full, as many of the limericks, verses and polemics as possible, more of the poems, and an up-to-date bibliography. Then lovers of Warlock's music would have a better idea of its creator.