Well done, all
As a member of the Rutland Boughton family, I would like to congratulate all
those who took part in the performances of Bethlehem for one of the
finest performances of the work that I have heard, and I have heard quite a
few. Glastonbury and district can be rightly proud of its musical gifts.
Bethlehem: Choral drama by Rutland Boughton, St John’s Church, Glastonbury
The neglect of Rutland Boughton’s music since his heyday in the early decades of the 20th century is widely acknowledged. There were many reasons for this neglect. One was his almost total rejection of the taste for dissonance cultivated by the musical style-shapers of his own and later times. He did himself no favours by the stubborn way in which he trod his own path; and there was his support for socialist – even communist – causes (something which affected the reception of another British composer, Alan Bush).
But there are now many enthusiasts anxious to promote Boughton’s work; and we have a recent example in Avalon Music’s fine production of the choral drama, Bethlehem, given two performances in St John’s Church, Glastonbury, only a week into the new year and conducted by Brendan Sadler (who conducted the revival of Boughton’s opera, The Immortal Hour, at Strode Theatre in 1996).
The structure of the piece is straightforward: the familiar nativity story is told in five scenes to choral and orchestral music with delightful arrangements of Christmas carols, some Boughton’s own, separating them.
The director staged it, simply but effectively, on a wide, raised platform in the main aisle, near the pulpit, an area large enough to hold a tableau of half a dozen of his colourfully costumed principals. But the action was far from static, nor confined to this area: all the available spaces of the church were involved, with joyfully singing shepherds entering and exiting in a dance along the length of the nave, and angels singing from on high in the pulpit.
Opera conductors have a hard enough task when they can have eye contact with the lead singers as well as the orchestra and chorus. Difficulty is multiplied when his principals are behind him and facing the opposite way. Mr Sadler seemed unfazed by this problem and controlled his forces unfussily, without exaggerated gesture, and with no perceptible dislocation between elements. Orchestra and chorus were well balanced and performed impressively. Any slight tendency on the part of some of the male voices to sag a little from the true musical line, in unaccompanied sections, was vigorously resisted by the sopranos and altos who held to the key pretty unswervingly.
The conductor was fortunate in his principals (he had cast his net as far as Bristol). The very first scene set a standard which encouraged the audience to have confidence in the evening ahead.
In Sebastian Field (Angel Gabriel) we had a true counter-tenor (they are few and far between) with symbolically genderless vocal tone, but his singing was full of strength and passion, and his diction clear.
Katie Murphy (Virgin Mary) had an ideally sweet soprano voice and a demure manner which remained undisturbed even when Joseph (Leslie Skidmore) lumbered her with every last piece of baggage before they set off on their walk to Bethlehem, himself encumbered only by his staff. (When you want something done, ask a pregnant woman.)
The standard of singing was well maintained by the shepherds and the Three Wise Men in subsequent scenes, but we reached a new level of vocal quality with the appearance of Victoria Nagel as The Believer singing of her faith in the news of the birth of a Saviour. Again, great clarity of diction as well as admirable voice production and committed acting.
Operatic works have the notorious problem of getting the words across to the audience even when they are sung in English. Professional opera houses solve this, nowadays, by “surtitles” suspended above the proscenium. (I wish they would do it even for English libretti.) Not to be expected here, naturally.
It was not a great problem for this production since the story was so familiar. But Andrew Gardiner (Herod), though possessed of a formidably powerful voice, did face strong competition from some Wagnerian brass accompaniment (appropriate for a brazen character) and the words suffered a little. So the audience was grateful that the programme provided explicit synopses of individual scenes.
Bethlehem was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Boughton’s work is accessible and easy on the ear, and though it did not push forward the musical boundaries of its time, it is certainly worthy of revival. We should be grateful to Avalon Music for helping the process. There is little doubt that with their enthusiasm, and that of their conductor, we shall see further productions of neglected Boughton works – perhaps the opera, The Queen Of Cornwall.
Who was that Victoria person? She’s not in the
Anyway, on the facing page is yet another article:
Drama opens celebrations
Glastonbury’s tercentenary celebrations got off to a successful start at the weekend, with a musical performance heard in central Somerset 90 years ago.
On Friday and Saturday St John’s Church played host to a special production of Bethlehem, a choral drama created by renowned composer Rutland Boughton. Based on the medieval Coventry Nativity Play, the production was first performed in Street’s Crispin Hall in 1915.
The new production - presented by musical event organisers Avalon Music at a cost of about £10,000 – was designed to launch a year of special events marking the 300th anniversary of the Glastonbury charter.
Paul Branson, the founder of Avalon Music, said: “People came from all over the country for it, and it will have brought in a lot of money to the town.
“It needs a full orchestra and choir, about 12 soloists and a children’s choir, and it was a 97 per cent sell-out which was very rewarding.
“We had a visit from Brian Boughton, one of Rutland Boughton’s sons, along with two of his grandsons.
“Brian said it was better than the professionally produced CD version, which has been out for some time now, and that knocked me sideways.”
This week’s Looking Back pictures are of a special performance from the early part of the last century.
The pictures are thought to be from Rutland Boughton’s 1915 production of Bethlehem, performed at the Crispin Hall, Street.
A picture of Rutland Boughton has also been included in this week’s Looking Back.
Rutland Boughton, who was born in 1878, was a celebrated composer of orchestral and choral music.
In the first quarter of the 20th century he was considered by many to be one of the most popular British composers apart from Elgar. He came to Somerset in 1912 and was welcomed into local musical circles, even receiving moral and financial support from Roger Clark, of the well-known shoemakers of Street.
With Mr Clark’s support, Mr Boughton founded the Glastonbury Arts Festival in 1914 in order to provide a platform for his works and for any other music that accorded with his artistic ideals.
The highlight of the festival was the first performance of The Immortal Hour, his best known opera. When produced later in London it ran for a record 216 performances.
The festivals continued with increasing success and sophistication until the end of 1926, by which time he had mounted over 300 staged performances and 100 chamber concerts, besides related lectures, exhibitions and a series of innovative Summer Schools.
Bethlehem was one of Mr Boughton’s most popular pieces of work. It was first performed in December 1915 at Crispin Hall, Street, and was soon taken up by choral societies throughout the country.
Mr Boughton went on to produce an updated and controversial production of Bethlehem, in which Herod was portrayed as a top-hatted capitalist.
After Glastonbury, Boughton took up residence at Kilcot in Gloucestershire to complete the cycle of The Arthurian music dramas that he had begun in 1908 and to hold further festivals at Stroud (1934) and Bath (1935).
Later, despite successful productions of The Immortal Hour and Bethlehem, Boughton’s fame declined.
It is only in recent years, largely through the activities of the Rutland Boughton Music Trust, that his importance in the history of British music has begun once more to be appreciated.
Now a permanent reminder of Rutland Boughton’s Glastonbury connections has been installed, with a blue plaque being unveiled at the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms, where the first Glastonbury Festival was held.
Glastonbury mayor Cllr Nick Cottle carried out the unveiling, along with Rutland Boughton’s grandson Ian Boughton, who is also administrator for the Rutland Boughton Music Trust.
These pictures can also be viewed on the trust’s www.rutlandboughtonmusictrust.org.uk website.
Photo captions, starting top left: