On Peter Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’…

November 3rd, 2016

www.phillipcooke.comIt’s that time of year when I try to find some time to write a blog on something musically Christmas-related. It’s not always the easiest task, particularly as I’ve been to seven carol services already this festive period, so I feel a little bludgeoned by angels, holly, Wise Men and cockatrices (whatever they are). And with trying to write some music, and dampen the expectations of two Christmas-fixated small children, and the REF – there isn’t always time to decide on something to write on. But then I remembered Bethlehem Down

Peter Warlock (1894 – 1930) is one of the most notorious British composers of the early Twentieth Century, more known for his louche lifestyle and forthright opinions then for his music. He is the very essence of a ‘nearly man’ – he had all the musical abilities and the right contacts to be a formidable composer of the very first rank, but like many before and after him he was hugely emotionally unstable with a predilection for self-destruction. Which he did in 1930. His reputation rests on his musical criticism, his pioneering work in reintroducing Tudor music to Britain in the 1920s and on a small canon of works including The Capriol Suite and some beautifully wrought little masterpieces such as Bethlehem Down. And it is a masterpiece, in my opinion.

There is a story that goes with the composition of Bethlehem Down: in 1927 the Daily Telegraph ran a Christmas carol competition with a financial reward for the successful entry, Warlock and friend Bruce Blunt (a poet and journalist) entered with Bethlehem Down for the only reason that they wanted an ‘immortal carouse’ – in other words a bout of heavy drinking and roistering in London Town. The carol duly won, and one guesses they achieved their primary aim (Warlock, along with other composers of his generation – Lambert, Rawsthorne, Walton – were amongst some of British music’s most hardened drinkers) on Christmas Eve.

Though the piece might have been conceived with something more base in mind, Warlock and Blunt managed to create something sublime and timeless – a moment of real repose and reflection amongst the usual glorification and exultation of Christmas music. The piece is a model of quiet, sustained homophony (all the voices singing together) – there are no dynamics in the work, with the natural ebb and flow of the music providing the necessary contrast. Bethlehem Down is hugely indebted to Warlock’s interest in Tudor music, with the expressive dissonances one might find in Gibbons or Tallis here enhanced in a Twentieth-Century palette. The form of the work is simple with much repetition, but this only provides the stability for Warlock’s subtle chromatic language – he pushes the key of D minor (the saddest of the keys…) to the limits of good taste (this is a Christmas carol after all) before reeling it back in for the final cadence of each verse. If the final cadence of Herbert Howells’s A Spotless Rose (1919) is one of the most expressive moments of the Christmas carol repertoire, the cadence at the end of Bethlehem Down can’t be far behind it – that descending tenor line is such a beautiful moment.

Whenever I hear Bethlehem Down in a carol service it always transports me to somewhere else, not in a religious way, but in some sort of otherworldly way where time stops and there is a moment of real contemplation. Something like that. In my opinion it is the highpoint of Warlock’s output (though Adam lay ybounden, also for the festive period, is very good) and one of the most poignant and special pieces in the repertoire of British music.

Have a listen. And also have a Merry Christmas.


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