Bethlehem Down

A carol by Peter Warlock

“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.

Bethlehem Down, which the choir are to sing at this year's Christmas Carol Service, is a hauntingly beautiful and reverent piece of music. You might imagine such music is written with the purest motives, but this is not always the case. Bethlehem Down was written to subsidise a bout of drinking.

Philip Heseltine was born in the Savoy Hotel, London in 1894. He received little formal musical training but was influenced by a number of composers, including Delius (who acted as his mentor) and the Elizabethans. He had a deep poetic insight (particularly appreciating Yeats and the Elizabethans) and was also influenced by Celtic culture. He had a close friendship with D H Lawrence, but they later fell out and he had to take legal action to prevent an unflattering portrait of himself from appearing in “Women in Love”. He was interested in the occult, which was why he chose the pseudonym “Peter Warlock”.

He composed over a hundred solo songs which are reckoned to be among the finest English examples, and are notable for their intensity, memorable tunes and harmonic individuality. In Bethlehem Down the harmonic writing is slow-moving but perfectly judged, so for example slight changes in the third verse convert the security of Mary's arms into the promised anguish of the passion.

By 1927 Warlock was in financial difficulty, due in part to a fall in the demand for his songs. He struck up a friendship with Bruce Blunt, a journalist, poet and “bon viveur”. The first record of their association was a press report about them being arrested “drunk and disorderly” in Chelsea. Running short of money, the two friends wrote Bethlehem Down to submit to the Daily Telegraph's annual carol contest. They duly won the prize, which was used to finance an “immortal carouse” on Christmas Eve 1927. But Warlock suffered from lack of self-confidence, had never had stable employment, and found himself unable to develop his musical language, possibly for lack of formal training. His financial situation got worse, he suffered several bouts of depression, and was found dead of gas poisoning in his Chelsea flat in December 1930 at the age of 36.

Like most of us Warlock was an imperfect character, and his motives for writing Bethlehem Down were not completely pure, and yet he created a thing of great beauty and reverence. The carol shows us that we do not have to be perfect in order to do good, while in its haunting harmonies I hear the compassion of the King for all our imperfections.

Mike Leuty
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th November 2003