Nativity Scenes Suite: A Short Synopsis

Notes from the Composer:
"It was the custom of the church I attended as a youth to present an outdoor living nativity scene. Great care was taken to create a convincing portrayal of the event. A rough shed and manger were set up, hay was strewn about, and live sheep were brought in from local farms. The sheep occasionally escaped, making the role of shepherd boy all too realistic. One year a newborn baby portrayed the baby Jesus. Members of the congregation cast as Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, and Shepherds stood silently in the cold each evening in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Christmas Eve was especially poignant; the final event of the candlelight service was to gather at the nativity scene and sing carols. Much of the delight of a child's imagination finds expression in this work. Children grow to adulthood, however, and learn soon enough that the nativity is not solely a story of wonder, joy, and exaltation, but also of denial and opposition. Nativity Scenes is in no way a complete telling of the story but a succession of five panels touching on messianic prophecy, the wise men from the east, the shepherds, the deliverance of Jesus, Mary and Joseph from Herod's massacre, and finally, the birth of Christianity itself."

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Nativity Scenes opens at a point in the history of the Kingdom of Israel at which all is lost. Enslaved by Babylon, their captors require of them a song. They lament, "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" Yet, they are mindful of the prophecy of a great Savior, a Messiah. The scenes shifts through time to John the Baptist, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, who proclaims the imminent arrival of one who will baptize with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.

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The second movement of Nativity Scenes takes up the narrative of the Three Wise Men arriving from the east. Discerning his sign in the sky they inquire urgently, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews?" But the Messiah is not to be found in fashionable Jerusalem. He is to be found in a back-roads village named Bethlehem. King Herod, ever eager to maintain his grip on power, hatches a plot. In this movement we hear the hoofs of camels, the excitement of three Wise Men, and Herod depicted in music out-of-time and out-of-key.  

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This movement opens with a pastoral scene, shepherds gathering their flocks at dusk. In the night the angel of the Lord appears, proclaiming the birth of "a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." The music portrays the fright of the shepherds, "the heavenly host praising God," and the shepherds spreading the good news across the land. Two tunes attributed to Handel are utilized in this movement, as well as other works, hence the title, "Handelia."  

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This movement is about the deliverance of the infant Jesus from King Herod's edict that every male child under the age of two is to be slain. The introduction depicts the urging of the angel of the Lord for Joseph to gather his family and flee. The middle section represents Herod's mayhem. The third section depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph safely beyond harm's reach.

This movement is about the birth of Christianity itself. It captures the energy, vitality, and explosive growth of the first century Christian church. The movement is in the form of an argument. At first the upper and lower strings are at odds. In the middle section the two sides come to terms. In the end all sides work together with fervent, unbounded joy.

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