Page 6 - Wilberforce – Remember Bethlehem
P. 6

Remember Bethlehem was conceived after a conversation on the works of the late story-telling songsmith, Jake Thackray. Thackray’s sometimes bawdy, sometimes satirical and often hilarious lyrics are delivered in a lugubrious baritone, and underpinned by a strong Yorkshire accent that led him to be dubbed the “North Country Noel Coward”. In his Remember Bethlehem, he shows a more tender side, and tells a story of a “shabby little country girl” completely broken by the ardours of her journey, arriving in Bethlehem as a distrusted stranger to
give birth to baby boy called Jesus.
What strikes and moves me most about Thackray’s telling of the familiar Nativity Narrative is the way in which he normalizes Mary. Rather than retrospectively beatifying her – telling her story full in the knowledge of the extraordinary thing she did (as many nativity stories do) – Thackray’s portrayal of her as young, afraid and cold makes her achievement all the more astonishing. Indeed, so out-of-the-ordinary is the gift given by this apparently ordinary girl, that no one and no thing can ever forget it: “Even the stony old hills [...] your shaggy old trees [...] the sulky old sun Remembers Bethlehem.”
My carol of the same name adopts a similar approach to telling Mary’s story. Musically, I have only thinly veiled my affection for Peter Warlock’s miniature masterpiece, Bethlehem Down, and evidence of this can be seen in my choice of key, the triple metre and the strophic setting, as well as the resemblance of some of the cadential figures.
A final strand of inspiration comes once more from Yorkshire, and specifically Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre. My wife is a literature scholar, and pointed out to me the parallels between Mary’s plight in Thackray’s story and a scene from the novel, in which Jane wandering around the moors, quite lost and desperate. Through her distrust of man she feels outcast and dejected, and places herself in the benign maternal protection of nature, and by inference, of God. Brontë’s prose is too elegant and rich for me merely to emulate, and as such, the second verse of Remember Bethlehem is adapted directly from her words.

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