Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Carol or non-carol ? Warlock Bethlehem Down

A Christmas carol written by a practising druid to a text by an alcohol-inspired poet  Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down (1927) is part of the modern choral repertoire proving that hymns  and carols don't have to be ancient to be good. I love this because the singing is so fresh, honest and direct.  Peter Warlock and Bruce Blunt were drinking companions, and broke. The Daily Telegraph was offering good money for a new Xmas carol. So Warlock and Blunt duly obliged. Since then, Bethlehem Down has been sung with pious devotion, sometimes missing the irony in the text and the circumstances of its genesis. My favourite performance is by the Choir of Somerville College, Oxford, conducted by David Crown. It's way above all else, because the singing is so fresh and energetic, far truer to the spirit of the composer and poet and, indeed, to the meaning of Christianity, burdened as it is by conventional piety. More details HERE.

"When He is King we will give Him the Kings' gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes," said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her firstborn on Bethlehem Down.
Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight,
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.
When He is King, they will clothe Him in gravesheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.
Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close huddled oxen to keep Him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold."

(Bruce Blunt)

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