Philip Heseltine (1894-1930) was born in London into a family of bankers, solicitors and impresarios, but after losing his father at an early age, he was taken to his mother's family home in Wales, where he spent his childhood and would later return as an adult to produce some of his best work. Throughout his youth he explored a variety of subjects, discovering in himself a particular fascination with music, but he achieved little satisfaction or success in any of his schooling, and at one point abandoned his hopes of a musical career. Yet he gravitated toward artistic and literary circles as a young adult and spent his frequent periods of unemployment studying early music.
Among his close friends were the writer D.H. Lawrence; composer, critic (and later, biographer) Cecil Gray; and composer E.J. Moeran, with each of whom he indulged at different times in various aspects of publishing, intellectualism and bohemian lifestyle. By spending alternating periods in Cornwall, England and Ireland, Heseltine managed to avoid military service during World War I instead finding opportunities to cultivate his love of Celtic languages and antiquities. In 1916, not yet a composer, he published his first scholarly music article under the pseudonym Peter Warlock. The following year he wrote his earliest, and some say his finest, songs for solo voice with piano accompaniment.
More musicologist than composer, the self-taught Warlock produced more editorial work than original music, including nine books and hundreds of articles, reviews, and early music transcriptions. He was a champion of the music of the Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren, and also the Hungarian Bela Bartok; he authored a biography of his friend and mentor, the English composer Frederick Delius, whose music was his childhood inspiration. Each of these, combined with his vast knowledge of Elizabethan music, had a decided influence on Warlock's own style.
The years 1922 to 1928 were Warlock's most productive period as a composer, during which he wrote primarily solo and choral works, including the masterful song cycle The Curlew, scored for tenor and chamber ensemble. However his best known piece may be the Capriol Suite (1926), originally written as a piano duet. Warlock would often release music in multiple arrangements, and the Suite was indeed scored for string orchestra, and then in 1928, for full orchestra.
The Capriol Suite is based on Renaissance dance tunes published in Thoinot Arbeau's landmark 1589 manual on the subject, Orchesographie. The suite consists of six movements, with which Warlock takes varying degrees of creative liberty: Basse-Danse ("low dance"); Pavane, for a line of couples; Tordion; Bransles, a country round dance; Pieds en l'air ("feet in the air"); and Mattachins, a sword dance. The piece is dedicated to Paul Ladmirault, a French composer with whom Warlock shared a mutual admiration, and who had published a flattering article about him in 1927.
A period of deepening depression affected Warlock in 1930, and his mysterious death in December of that year could not be classified as either accident or suicide. Since then the complexities of his character have been ignored, exaggerated, or given askance looks in print and film, especially his reputed interested in the occult (hence the name "Warlock"). Yet in this particular respect he is scarcely different from the other great English composers of this impressionist period like Delius, Holst and Vaughan Williams, who took far greater inspiration from nature and folklore than from established religion or scholarly technique.