Peter Warlock and the spirit of Christmas

December 10 2021, by Patrick Maxwell

Look, I normally don’t like Christmas. The jazzy tinsel, the opulent trees, the screaming jingles of the music in the shops normally provokes sighs of anguish rather than outbreaks of festive joy. It is the quiet, hallowed, candle-lit aspect of the season that moves me, and does most of those who turn out in droves for a carol service every year. It is often their only involvement in a church whose significance has faded into seasonal moments of national celebration. The almost ghostly figure of Peter Warlock was a compost much better suited to that kind of atmosphere. Dead at thirty-six in 1930, his music is that of the yearning, painful and cold side of Christmas, and the greatest number of his famous works to survive have been designed for a time of year where such a tone is often pushed aside for the facile and capricious. Mariah Carey he certainly isn’t, but neither is this downtrodden or deliberately tragic music. It is only powerful in a wholly different way.

‘Bethlehem Down’ is Warlock’s most well-known Christmas piece. Its beauty lies in a deceptive simplicity; around the spiraling melody are some of Warlock’s most penetrating harmonies, all swirling around a deep D minor centre. It is modal in character – the tonality shifts almost uneasily between solidity and flux. Every verse ends on a plain open fifth D chord; despite the text telling of how the newborn will be given ‘the king’s gifts’ and ‘myrrh for its sweetness’, the musical texture is piercing in its frozen and penitent quality. The third verse, sung forte, turns the sweetness of the star on its head: ‘when he is king they will clothe him in gravesheets’ – the coming of the king of glory has become a funeral. For Warlock, the recalcitrant and depressive alcoholic, whose lifestyle was as famous during his lifetime as his music, this was the kind of thing his celebrations of the festive season could turn into. Musically, in the time of joyful processions, Warlock wrote a solemn retreat. In a season of easy tunes and fire-lit exultation, his music is the necessary antidote, the searingly beautiful reminder of the frailty of Jesus’ birth, whatever you think of the tale.

When tired of the gossiping cafes of London life in the early twentieth-century, Warlock retreated to Cornwall, and from the area stemmed another of his carols; the much more simplistic if still musically adventurous ‘Cornish Carol’. Another influence is felt more clearly here: Warlock was a keen writer on early music (as well as a worshipper of Frederick Delius) and the plangent quality of the Renaissance madrigal is clearly on show in the playful homophony and bright character of this short piece.

Warlock’s strophic style – the illustration of a simple tune through a succession of verses – lent itself to the inevitability of much of our Christmas repertoire. There is a reason carols are so popular: they are the same tune repeated again and again (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel often has seven). Warlock’s music has a similar sense of inevitability – the study, even reliance, on earlier styles means his music loses some of the originality that made figures like Edward Elgar succeed in orchestral works or Howells in the choral sphere. His most well-known orchestral work, the Capriol Suite, relies on the folk tunes of the English countryside which had made such an impact on Vaughan Williams – the tunes were supposedly copied from a Renaissance songbook. For someone who struggled to free himself from the influence of the Delius he had first met as a schoolboy and played with the playful melodies of centuries ago, Warlock found his own originality in adaptation. In the traditions of the Christmas carol service, where the tunes never really seem to change and the atmosphere of hushed excitement is repeated every year, it is then little surprise that so many choirs do still reach for the scores of ‘Bethlehem Down’ every year. That same profound, charged and even solemn music provides that mix of inevitability and spice that can make the festive season more than a banal, dare I say boring, routine. It could even be moving.

Patrick Maxwell, L6

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