This score follows not only Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, but the centuries of musical reverberations thereafter. It plants its humble seeds in the Middle East where the gentle tones of Persian and Turkish ney flutes articulate melodic figures, and strident Roman horns and drums bind Herod the Great's soldiers to the military terminology of the age. The score then blossoms from these seeds, extending its tendrils across centuries of European traditions. Pre-Baroque instruments such as viola da gamba, vielle, harp, and recorders guide the score westward with the elemental sounds of strings and winds. The second half of the soundtrack covers Mary's isolation and her relationship with Joseph by weaving throughout the choral writing and knitting the work together into a dramatic, reverent whole.
In the beginning, soundtracks to Biblical movies adhered to a Hollywood template with more fidelity than most people attend to the Ten Commandments. The first commandment of Biblical film scores was: "Thou shalt render orchestral grandeur unto the epic as did Elmer Bernstein on The Ten Commandments and Miklos Rozsa on Ben-Hur." Peter Gabriel's score to The Last Temptation of Christ, released as Passion, changed all that like the Second Coming. His mix of world-music elements, wailing singers, and otherworldly electronics prevailed, influencing countless film scores and emulated to almost plagiaristic perfection by John Debney's soundtrack for The Passion of the Christ. Mychael Danna departs from that path on The Nativity Story, the 2006 film interpretation of Mary's journey. His sound is more medieval and classical than Middle Eastern. Rather than blowing Turkish duduks à la Gabriel and Debney, he uses recorders and wood flutes. He likes building from simple folk themes to extravagant expanses where a lone flute segues into a sweeping string arrangement that morphs into slowly cascading voices. He taps into Gregorian chant and plainsong, and even when he uses Persian vocalist Azam Ali (from Vas and Niyaz), he has her singing an Abbess Hildegard-style hymn called "Nazareth." But this is a Hollywood Biblical epic and Danna bends to another commandment of the genre: "Thou shalt wring tears and awe-inspired wonder." You don't need to see the film to know that the heavens must be opening--as they only do in Hollywood--on "And Thou Bethlehem." Danna's The Nativity Story isn't a sea change like Gabriel, but it is a new tributary. --John Diliberto
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