The choral drama Bethlehem in Glastonbury just after Christmas will be a rare chance to experience the music of a British composer once considered the equal of Elgar and Wagner until his work was eclipsed by scandal. The production is also the first of many events celebrating the tercentenary of the town‘s charter, which was granted by Queen Anne in 1705.
In the first quarter of the 20th century Rutland Boughton was considered by many to be the foremost British composer of the time. Boughton came to Somerset in 1912 and was welcomed into local musical circles. His longterm aim was to build a theatre for the performance of his Arthurian music dramas — in effect, an English version of the Wagner festival at Bayreuth in Germany. Moral and financial support came from Roger Clark, of the well known shoemakers of Street, a prominent local Quaker family, enabling Boughton to found the Glastonbury Arts Festivals. The highlight of the first festival, in August 1914, was undoubtedly the first performance of his best-known opera, The Immortal Hour. When it was produced in London in 1922, it ran for a record 216 performances (a record still unbroken for a serious opera), attended by royalty and the London elite. It also launched the career of the singer Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1981—1992).
Boughton‘s next most popular work was his choral drama, Bethlehem, with a libretto adapted by the composer from the medieval Coventry Nativity Play. This was first performed in December 1915 in the Crispin Hall, Street. It was soon taken up by choral societies throughout the land. It has an appealing simplicity of style epitomised by the incorporation of some well known carols in Boughton‘s own distinctive and by no means simple arrangements.
Boughton‘s colourful lifestyle and his controversial updated production of Bethlehem in London during the General Strike of 1926 (in which Jesus is born in a miner‘s cottage and Herod is a top-hatted capitalist) finally put him out of favour with his supporters. Thus the Glastonbury Festival came to an end and Boughton‘s dreams of becoming the English Wagner were never realised.
The recently formed Avalon Music will present a semi-staged production of Bethlehem in St John‘s Church, Glastonbury, on Friday 7 and Saturday 8 January 2005. The director is William J. Wych, who for some years has written and directed the Glastonbury Miracle Plays performed each summer in Glastonbury Abbey. The musical director is Brendan Sadler, who conducted the 1996 revival of The Immortal Hour at Strode Theatre, Street. The production will use both professional and amateur soloists with a full chorus and orchestra (led by Hywel Jenkins, violin).
This 2005 production is by arrangement with J Curwen & Sons t/a G Schirmer Ltd on behalf of the Rutland Boughton Music Trust.
A scene from the original staging of Bethlehem on 28 December 1915 at Crispin Hall in Street. According to the published score, all the roles were played by local people except the Virgin Mary (Irene Lemon), Joseph (Bernard Lemon), Herod (Frank Mullings) and Herodias (Iris Yeoman). The shepherds Jem, Sym and Dave in the photo would be David Scott and Tom Gilbert of Glastonbury and Percy Holley of Street [not necessarily in that order in the photo].
Other Glastonians in the original cast were Gabriel (Boughton’s friend Christina Walshe), an angel (Louie Blurton), Zarathustra (Herbert Anderton), Nubar (David Scott), Merlin (Robert Billingham), first woman (Edith Percy) , the Believer (Agnes Thomas). Others from Street were an angel (Connie Hinde), second woman (Elsie Squire) and Calchas the herald (Percy Holley). Rutland Boughton himself sang the role of the Unbeliever.
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Jim Nagel, Abbey Press Glastonbury, (01458) 83 3603 or 0797 415 3861