Friday, 1 January 2021

Epiphany / Warlock - Bethlehem Down

Epiphany is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the feast marks the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child, and thus Jesus' physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Epiphany is celebrated 12 days after Christmas on 6th January (or January 19th for some Orthodox Church who have Christmas on 7th January) and is the time when Christians remember the Wise Men (also sometimes called the Three Kings) who visited Jesus. 

Epiphany is also when some Churches remember when Jesus was Baptised, when he was about 30, and began his teaching. Epiphany means 'revelation' and both the visit of the Wise Men and his Baptism are important times when Jesus was 'revealed' to be very important. 
"Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you."  Isaiah 60:1
A central question posed throughout the Epiphany season is therefore "Who is Jesus?". Matthew's account of the visit of the Magi with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh reveals him as a King, High Priest and Saviour of all. Isaiah speaks prophetically of the promise for God's glory. Paul continues with Isaiah's theme of unification around a central light which is Jesus Christ, reminding the Ephesians that Gentiles now share in God's promise. Paul is an ambassador for Christ to those who are no longer excluded and this central theme of unity and access for all to the love and teachings of Jesus is particularly pertinent today.

"Bethlehem Down" is a choral anthem or carol composed in 1927 by Anglo-Welsh composer Peter Warlock (1894–1930) set to a poem written by journalist and poet Bruce Blunt. It is a popular anthem used in the Anglican church during the liturgical seasons of Christmastide and Epiphany. (Warlock wrote it to finance a heavy bout of drinking on Christmas Eve 1927 for himself and Blunt, who were experiencing financial difficulty. The pair submitted the carol to The Daily Telegraph's annual Christmas carol contest and won. It was first performed in a Lancaster parish church on December 12th 1930. It was to be the last song Warlock wrote and the manuscript was said to be on his piano when he is believed to have committed suicide days later.


A composer and music critic, Peter Warlock was born Philip Arnold Heseltine on 30 October 1894. (The Warlock name reflects Heseltine's interest in occult practices and was used for all his published musical works.) He is best known as a composer of songs and other vocal music with a distinctive, original style.


When He is King we will give him the King's gifts, 
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown, 
"Beautiful robes", said the young girl to Joseph 
Fair with her first-born 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 grave-sheets, 
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.

The boy choristers at King's, Ely performed a different version in December, prompting much discussion on a certain Choral Evensong forum! Here is the version performed, much dark and with a stronger sense of suspense. Hugely atmospheric but quite sad. It is published in "Nöel 2".


This is in fact Warlock's first version, written for piano and voice. Warlock wrote "organ" at the start but as one commentator observes "it looks as though he intended it for organ and then forgot, writing a very pianistic accompaniment that demands more than usual editing by an organist." The original manuscript is here and was auctioned at Christie's, with the following text to accompany the listing:-
"His version for solo voice and organ, written for Arnold Dowbiggin's Christmas recital at Lancaster Parish Church, where it had its first performance on 12 December 1930, brings into starker relief the melancholy import of Blunt's text, with a more adventurous approach to the harmony, and an ending in deepest desolation with dying repetitions of the harmony's falling motif. On 17 December, sixteen days after completing the present manuscript, Warlock committed suicide in his flat in Chelsea, at the age of 36."

A film was made about Warlock's life, released in 2005. ""Some Little Joy" is a drama with music about Philip Heseltine, known as Peter Warlock, who by his death in 1930 at the age of thirty six had composed some of the most perfect gems of English songwriting and elevated hedonism to an art form." You can watch a trailer here:- (Warning, there is some adult content in the trailer.)

Warlock was perhaps not a conventional composer of church anthems, but produced some of the most beautiful music. I feel his work is a reminder that we must avoid assumptions about individuals and their capabilities, and avoid dismissing those with whom we struggle to connect, making this anthem doubly appropriate for Epiphany.

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