It was written between 1920 and 1922 for singer and an unusual accompanying group of flute, cor anglais and string quartet (two violins, viola and cello). Warlock completed the work in Cefn Bryntalch, his family home in Llandyssil, near Montgomery in Wales.
There are four songs, with a short instrumental interlude. The poems they are based on (with the first line in parentheses) are:
- "He Reproves the Curlew" ("O Curlew, cry no more in the air")
- "The lover mourns for the loss of love" ("Pale brows, still hands and dim hair")
- "The Withering of the Boughs" ("I cried when the moon was murmuring to the birds:")
- "He Hears the Cry of the Sedge" ("I wander by the edge of this desolate lake")
There is a lengthy instrumental introduction to the first song, in which the cry of the curlew is represented by the cor anglais and the peewit by the flute. The songs, which concern lost love, are melancholy in mood. A number of motif elements recur throughout the songs dependent on the point in the text - a structural technique also found in many others of Warlock's songs.
The cycle lasts around twenty-five minutes.
The Curlew was well served by the gramophone, three excellent recordings having been made within the first thirty years after its composition:
- John Armstrong (tenor), Robert Murchie (flute), T. McDonagh (English horn), International String Quartet (Mangeot, Price, Bray, Shineburne) conducted by Constant Lambert (National Gramophonic Society 163-165). This recording was made with the personnel who gave the notable Warlock Memorial performance on February 23 1931 at the Wigmore Hall, to preserve the benefit of their rehearsed ensemble.
- René Soames (tenor), Geoffrey Gilbert (flute), Léon Goossens (English horn), Aeolian String Quartet (Cave, Williams, Forbes, Moore) (HMV 3x12" 78rpm discs C 7934-36) (27 March and 12 April 1950). Recorded under auspices of the British Council.
- Alexander Young (tenor), Lionel Solomon (flute), Peter Graeme (English horn), Sebastian String Quartet (Argo LP RG 26) (January 1954)
- There are numerous more recent recordings.
- Gordon Bottomley, "The Curlew" and Peter Warlock, 'The Gramophone', December 1931 p.9 ff.
- E. Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, 'The Record Year 2' (Collins, London 1953), p. 320.
- L.S. Review in The Gramophone, Dec. 1952 p 41.
- Argo listings.