Warlock, the fiddler and the indefinite article

A recent short exchange of comments with kurtnemes concerning Peter Warlock, got me to thinking about the poetry of W B Yeats, and song settings thereof.

Since I lived in Ireland for much of my youth, Yeats has always meant a great deal to me. I can still recite some of his verses from memory. At school we were often set poems and told to “learn them off”, that is to say, learn them off-by-heart (what a peculiar, but apt expression that is).

One of Yeats’s better known poems (and one that’s fairly easy to “learn off”), also happens to have music at its heart: The Fiddler of Dooney. 

When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Mocharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle,
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.

Read the poem aloud and then ask yourself, why would anyone need to set it to music? The music is there already. I particularly like the phrase “dance like a wave of the sea”. That indefinite article always captures me when I read it. It’s somehow very Irish. I’m sure that an English poet would have said “dance like the waves of the sea” which is fine, but Yeats has the edge; indeed he liked it so much that he used it a second time, at the very end, realising that this workaday, monosyllabic phrase had enough magic in it to hint at eternity. I can think of no line of poetry that is lovelier.

So, to the question: why would anyone want to set it to music? I think we need to leave the question in its rhetorical form. I have no ideological objection to composers setting The Fiddler of Dooney, besides which, since it has been set by, among others, Arnold Bax, Ivor Gurney, Hamilton Harty and Thomas Dunhill (this last as one of four settings from Yeats’s 1899 collection The Wind Among the Reeds) any complaints from me would be pointless. I can’t help thinking, though, that no matter how skilful and engaging the musical setting, I’d always go back to it on the page (though I don’t need even to do that since I’ve learned it off!) and enjoy its inherent music unhindered. This version, which I believe is the Dunhill setting (perhaps someone will correct me if I’m wrong), is engaging. Peter Dawson’s old fashioned style of singing (and the twinkle in his eye) rather suits the verse, and, needless to say, Gerald Moore is the most sympathetic accompanist.


And so to Peter Warlock. The Curlew is Warlock’s setting of four Yeats poems –  three from the 1899 collection, The Wind Among The Reeds (in which The Fiddler of Dooney also appears) and one from In The Seven Woods (1904). It is less a song cycle and more a tone poem with voice; the instrumental interludes between the set texts being as important as the sung sections. Warlock has written for an unusual ensemble: cor anglais, flute and string quartet, and this group meditates on the bleakness of the set poems, “building a sorrowful loveliness”. Warlock’s music is wayward and misty, his harmonic language so unsettled (and unsettling) that much of the time it is effectively atonal. Yet, there is beauty in Warlock’s eeriness, and a kind of consolation. Perhaps the most telling moment in the piece is in the final entry of the voice, when it rises, at first listlessly from the drooping, withered instrumental line, and then rises further, unaccompanied, angry and despairing, so that the final lines, “Your breast will not lie by the breast / Of your beloved in sleep”, sound almost like a curse. There is the briefest of instrumental codas and we leave the desolate landscape that Yeats and Warlock have conjured for us.

If you’d like to travel there, you might like to try this version. I particularly like Gareth Hulse’s ghostly cor anglais.


As a short postscript, I’d like to draw attention to Joni Mitchell’s song Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which appeared first on her 1991 album, Night Ride Home, though I slightly prefer the rather portentous version she recorded with orchestra on Travelogue (2002). There are various versions available on youtube. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is described as being “based on a poem by W B Yeats”. The poem in question is The Second Coming from 1921. Mitchell departs significantly from the text; not always to best advantage, but she builds up a declamatory word structure, with Yeats as a starting point, that has an impact. It might, however, leave some lovers of Yeats nonplussed or even resentful.

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Posted in Classical music, Popular music
10 comments on “Warlock, the fiddler and the indefinite article
  1. T E Stazyk says:

    Interesting. I agree with you about the inherent musicality of the Yeats poem, and you’ve further made the point by talking about Joni Mitchell’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I think what she does to the rhythm of the original poem with her tempos is worse than any manipulation of the words. Good thing I never completed my rock version of T . Eliot’s Hollow Men!

  2. G.H.Bone says:

    Well, adapting Eliot to popular music forms has not always yielded the best results (!) … but that aside, I do think Slouching Towards Bethlehem has a lot going for it, but it’s not Joni at her best. I only mentioned it as a contrast to the rather more “classical” Yeats settings that dominate. It’s a shame that Warlock didn’t have a go at the “Second Coming”. He’d likely have made a fine job of it.

  3. JDB says:

    Peter Warlock and his music are completely new to me (as is the fact that a curlew is a bird…dare I even admit that in a public forum?!). The work wasn’t immediately pleasing to me, but after a second listen I understood what you meant by “there is beauty in Warlock’s eeriness.” I do love the sound of an English horn, particularly in this spare instrumentation. I’m not as familiar with Yeats as I would like to be. (I think my first encounter was with “The Second Coming”, which Joan Didion used in its entirety as the epigraph for her collection of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”) His words clearly strike a chord for other artists; in addition to inspiring Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Didion, the Coen brothers tapped the first line of “Sailing To Byzantium” for the title of their film, “No Country For Old Men.”

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Thank you JDB. I’m glad you gave “The Curlew” a try (twice, indeed!) It’s perhaps not the most immediately approachable work, but I do think that it repays efforts made to get to know it. There’s another intriguing Yeats setting in my record collection that I’d completely forgotten about. Judy Collins recorded a version of “Innisfree”, set to music by Hamilton Camp, which is rather effective. As for Yeats and the Coen brothers: when that film came out I kept wondering why that title sounded so familiar, and assumed that it was the title of a song. It was many months afterwards, when leafing through my dog-eared Collected Poems that I spotted it. A couple of years ago, I saw a corporate training video which took as its epigraph the last line of “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”, i.e. “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”, which was accompanied by Mama Cass singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. I’m not sure what Yeats would have made of it, but had been around now and written a poem in response, my guess is that the tone of poem would be akin to this http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/september-1913/

  4. Alan Price says:

    For me Yeats has always been a profoundly musical poet. His lyricism is very acute and incisive. If you just convey the wonderfully dreamy surface then you miss the sharpness of observation. One of his great poems Is The Wild Swans at Coole. The swans are of course highly symbolic romantic ideas yet also real and authentically watched birds. They are very much of the moment, for the watcher, but also inner movements of the spirit or soul state.
    This poem is almost beyond setting to music. Only when the late great Cyril Cusack reads such verse does the actor, as a musical instrument, heighten the music of the words. The Second Coming is an almost impossibly difficult poem to set to music. The poem’s rhetorical power is best realised by reading out loud and not through song. But Warlock is one of the very few composers to have pulled off Yeats.

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Thanks Alan! It’s good to hear from a fellow Yeatsian (if that’s the word). I did spot some clips of Cyril Cusack reading Yeats on youtube, but I haven’t had the chance to explore them yet. Cusack was remarkable. Yeats’s own readings (or the few I’ve heard) are rather flat, oddly enough. I understand that Benjamin Britten wrote a setting for “Salley Gardens” (which of course is Yeats at his most balladeering) but I haven’t heard of any other settings. If anyone (other than Warlock) could pull off Yeats, it would probably be Britten. The settings of the various poets in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings is exemplary throughout, to my mind.

      • Alan Price says:

        Thanks for reminding me of Britten. His settings of English poetry are superb. A musical ear of great sensitivity. Yeat’s own readings of his poetry have a weird fascination. His version of The Lake Isle of Innisfree sounds like a strange incantation – as if he were Aleister Crowley casting a poetic spell.

  5. Even more Irish, to my ear, is the use of ‘of’ in that line. ‘Dance like a wave on the sea’ would sound English. ‘Dance like a wave of the sea’ sounds Irish.

    • G.H.Bone says:

      Good point. There is a peculiarly Irish approach to the genitive case – that word “of”. An English speaker would say “I stubbed my toe on the chair leg” whereas an Irish speaker might say “I stubbed my toe on the leg of the chair”. Similarly and outraged mother, confronting a grubby faced child might say, in England “Just look at your face!” In Ireland “Would you look at the face of you!”

      I suspect, alas, that these idioms are dying out now.

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