STUART MILLSON searches for unjustly overlooked Kent composers
A recent release on an innovative recording label – with the somewhat obscure title, Heracleitus – brings a mysterious figure from 20th century music in this country into view. The CD from the recording arm of the English Music Festival, an organisation dedicated to the rediscovery of the musical traditions of this island, owes its name to an almost forgotten song by Peter Warlock, which receives its world-premiere recording in the disc (Heracleitus – songs by Warlock, Gurney and Butterworth, EMR CD036).
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) was perhaps one of the first English minimalists – or at least, a composer able to concentrate profound sensitivity and emotion into sparse and sparing spans of music.
Warlock is best known for his Suite, Capriol – based upon 16th-century airs and dances – and the slanting light of desolate marshland in the melancholic song-cycle, The Curlew; but in the song, Heracleitus, the listener encounters a timeless whisper from classical antiquity, set in an English mist, and reverently delivered by tenor, Charles Daniels:
‘They told me, Heracleitus, they told Me you were dead; They brought me bitter news to hear And bitter tears to shed; I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.’ (W J Cory, 1823-92, after Callimachus (3rd century BC)
Warlock lived for a time in the north Kent village of Eynsford, which even today (despite traffic) is a reassuringly old-fashioned place, standing beside and fording the clear stream of the River Darent, overlooked by downland and willows. By a stroke of good luck, the M25 – which planners wanted to build through the Shoreham and Eynsford valley – went elsewhere, saving an idyllic landscape from noise and destruction.
A blue plaque at the Eynsford High Street cottage which he shared between 1925 and 1928 with fellow composer, E.J. Moeran commemorates his time there – and by all accounts (“with the kitchen swimming in beer”) it was a jolly, bohemian existence, or perhaps too dissolute to sustain. Moeran – a man who seemed as Irish as he was English – even earned the name, “Jolly Jack”, and when not composing his Violin Concerto or landscape-inspired rhapsodies, shared his composer-friend’s propensity for ale-drinking. Legends abound of the Eynsford sojourn: a naked Peter Warlock, no doubt under the influence of the local brew, even rode a motorcycle back and forth through the village – to the amusement of fellow bohemians, no doubt, but probably to the consternation of the natives. When returning from London on the train, the Eynsford station-master was always ready to bang on the window of the carriage in which Warlock was travelling – thus waking the slumbering composer from his stupor.
Another of the composer’s north Kent circle was the curious figure of one Hal Collins. As Michael Trend noted in his 1985 book, The Music Makers – The English Musical Renaissance from Elgar to Britten:
… Hal Collins – also known as Te Akau – a part-Maori, who boasted a cannibal grandmother. Collins was an interesting man in his own right: he was an effective artist, as his woodcuts show, and also, it seems, a self-taught musician who once played a whole act of an opera from Tristram Shandy which he had in his head.
Yet a purity is found in Warlock’s music, at odds with the excesses – and darkness of his character (a darkness, emphasised by his strange, untimely, lonely death in a Chelsea flat in 1930): wistful phrases, beautiful and touching, yet slipping away into a feeling that the composer is longing for something unattainable. (Warlock wasn’t the musician’s real name – the composer abandoning his familial name, Heseltine, for a persona far more tantalising and provocative.) It was, perhaps, a natural thing for Warlock to have come to this Kentish valley. Neighbouring Shoreham was the home of the early 19th-century mystical and pastoral painter, Samuel Palmer. He and his followers loved the countryside and described themselves as “the Ancients”, often dressing in the mediaeval costume. The paintings – oddly modern, in their style – or at least, not entirely what one would expect of the early half of the 19th century – depict a mediaeval world of corn, twilights, harvest, rural-dwellers. A photograph exists of smiling Peter Warlock, tankard in hand, standing alongside members of the Shoreham Dramatic Society – the members in their rustic Robin Hood costumes.
English music is so often associated with scenes of rural Britain. As the inter-war Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, said: “England is the country, and the country is England.” Vaughan Williams wrote a Pastoral Symphony, in part, a response to the Great War; and a composer called Ernest Farrar (who was born in Lewisham in 1885 – some 10 miles from Eynsford) which in those days was a rural village by the River Ravensbourne) composed a suite of English Pastoral Impressions, the first movement of which suggests bells chiming in the distance, and a gentle dance on the village green – the music then subsiding into a dream sequence, as distant, watchful horn-calls evoke longing and memory. Farrar served in The Great War, his life ending on the Western Front in the last year of the conflict.
In the search for Warlock, other forgotten figures have emerged from the north-west Kent… Who, for example, has heard of John Veale (1922-2006)? Veale was born in the suburb of Shortlands (famous for its 19th-century ragstone-constructed water pumping station, built in the style of a chateau) and a part of Bromley – once a Kent market town, but now known as the London Borough of Bromley. He composed symphonic works, and his Violin Concerto (which is reminiscent of William Walton) has been recorded by the Chandos label. Yet, just like the Cornishman, George Lloyd, Veale sank into complete obscurity during the time of the Second Viennese School takeover at the BBC during the 1960s and ‘70s; and was quite surprised in the early 1980s to have received a telephone call: “Is that the composer, John Veale?”
Just a couple of miles away in equally built-up Beckenham (although there are still village almshouses by St. George’s church), emerged another composer: Carey Blyton (a relative of the famous children’s author). Many will be surprised to know that Blyton wrote much of the early incidental music to the classic television sci-fi series, Dr. Who – haunting, abstract minimalist pieces, including a brief march-like interlude for the character of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, an accomplice of the Doctor. In complete contrast is the composer’s Song of the Goldfish – a strange evocation of the fish’s existence in a living room bowl – and an adventure-tale Overture, The Hobbit (recorded on a British Light Overtures series by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia).
Villages just beyond the M25 – suburbs which were once villages themselves. Look carefully through the neat hedges and fragments of still-wild woodland that has managed to cling to life in our congested age: a legacy of music created by some of England’s most unusual artistic personalities remains…
STUART MILLSON is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists. After more than two decades living in a Kent village, he crossed the River Severn and the Black Mountains, and now writes from West Wales.