Perhaps the most striking thing about the music of Bethlehem is its utter simplicity. Gone are all the Wagnerian trappings to be found in Boughton's earlier compositions. Everything is stripped to essentials — the cleansing influence being that of folksong, although, apart from the carols, only one actual example is used (to characterize Zarathustra at the beginning of Act Two). The rest is Boughton responding with artless sympathy and writing 'folksong' of his own to such purpose that Vaughan Williams found it hard to believe he had not indulged in a 'collecting' spree among the good folk of Glastonbury. For Herod, on the other hand, Boughton adopted a deliberately showy, vulgarly flamboyant style the better to suggest the empty pomposities of royalty. An extended ballet sequence (omitted in this recording) carried musical mockery perhaps a shade too far in an orgy of Brummagem orientalism more reminiscent of Ketelby's art than his own. The three Shepherds are delightfully characterized by Boughton's simulated folksong, while the Wise Men add touches of ragtime (for Nubar) and, for Merlin, a theme that he had already used to good effect in the first of his Arthurian dramas, The Birth of Arthur. His skill in combining the three Wise Men's themes, and, in the Herod scene, unexpectedly linking two very different carols, adds greatly to the excitement and dramatic impact of the score. Indeed, Bethlehem is the only one of Boughton's music dramas to make use of the ensemble. Nor is it without orchestral felicities. Scored only for a small orchestra, it is a model of subtle resource, limpid in its colouring and perfectly in keeping with the innocent story it is required to illustrate.
Choral Prelude: 'Earth today rejoices':
Scene 1: The home of Mary and Joseph. The Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she has been chosen above all women to conceive and bear God's only son. Though frightened at first, Mary submits to the Lord's will. When, however, she tells Joseph what has happened he chides her for deceiving him and prepares to leave, but the Angel Gabriel reassures him of her innocence. Together they set out for Bethlehem.
Choral Interlude: 'In the ending of the year'
Scene 2: A Moor at Night. The Shepherds Jem, Dave, and Sym see a great star and hear angel voices telling of the birth of a Saviour. Joyfully they set out to find the Holy child.
Choral Interlude: 'O come, all ye faithful'
Scene 3: The Stable at Bethlehem. Mary sings a lullaby to the new-born child. The Shepherds present their simple gifts — a penny whistle, a hat, a pair of warm mittens — and go on their way rejoicing.
Choral Interlude: 'The Holly and the Ivy'
Scene 1: Before the door of King Herod's palace in Jerusalem. Three Wise Men, Zarathustra, Nubar, and Merlin, meet. Each has followed the star and will now journey together to Bethlehem. A woman spreads the news of the birth of a Saviour and there is great rejoicing among the crowd. This is interrupted by the sudden and terrifying appearance of Herod who demands that the Wise Men be made to explain their mission. Calchas the Herald brings them before him and he learns that a Child has been born who will be King over all the World. Herod pretends to be sympathetic, but when they have gone he rages against the Child and vows to kill Him.
Choral Interlude: 'The Seven Joys of Mary'
Scene 2: The Stable at Bethlehem. The Wise Men present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Angel Gabriel warns of Herod's evil intentions and the Wise Men take heed. As the angels sing their paean of praise Mary and Joseph set out for the safety of Egypt.
from notes by Michael Hurd © 1993