THE NATIVITY STORY – Mychael Danna
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
With the festive season almost upon us, what better time is there to look at the history behind Christmas? Director Catherine Hardwicke’s film chronicles the events which form one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith – the story known as The Nativity – and covers all the main elements of the story: the early life of Mary and Joseph in Nazareth, the young couple’s betrothal, Mary’s immaculate conception, Joseph’s visitation by angels, the couple’s arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census, their desperate search for shelter and being told there is “no room at the inn”, Jesus’s birth in a stable and the adoration by shepherds and magi, and the desperate family’s subsequent flight to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod, who fears for his throne following the birth of the ‘King of the Jews’ and orders a mass cull of all baby boys under his reign. Whale Rider actress Keisha Castle-Hughes plays Mary, Oscar Isaac plays Joseph, Ciaran Hinds plays King Herod, and there are significant supporting roles for Shohreh Aghdashloo, Alexander Siddig, Hiam Abbass and Nadim Sawalha.
Like The Passion of the Christ before it, The Nativity Story has already been the recipient of much criticism before its release, not least because of its 16-year old lead actress’s pregnancy, and the subsequent backlash against her by conservative religious groups. None of this controversy affected composer Mychael Danna, though, who is working with director Hardwicke for the first time. It has been well-documented that Danna is a scholar of ancient music, and a project like The Nativity Story must have been a mouth-watering prospect for the talented Canadian. As one might expect, he responded with a rich, authentic-sounding score for a full orchestra which, again like John Debney on The Passion of the Christ, also draws heavily upon middle-eastern instruments and traditions – Persian and Turkish ney flutes, Roman horns and drums, and pre-Baroque instruments such as the viola da gamba and the vielle.
As well as these ancient instruments, Danna also interpolates a number of liturgical plainsong chants into the fabric of his score. The beautiful opening cue “Veni Veni Emmanuel” sees a noble choir offset by a large string symphony orchestra and a number of exotic-sounding wind and percussion instruments, while later cues such as “Corde Natus Ex Parentis” seek to remind the listener of the spiritual nature of the story through equally outstanding vocal and instrumental performances. It is also perhaps worth noting Danna’s clever inclusion of the rhythmic part of the traditional Ukrainian Christmas folk song ‘Carol of the Bells’ into the rather dramatic “Is There a Place For Us?”, and a Latin version of the traditional Austrian carol ‘Silent Night’ in “Silens Nox”.
Voices in general actually play an important role in the score. Cues such as “Words of the Prophet” and “And Thou Bethlehem”, feature solo vocalists intoning dramatic-sounding dirges in mysterious languages, while others such as “Nazareth” and “The Return of Mary” are more exotic and beguiling, and feature more gentle orchestrations, playful woodwinds, harps and other antique string instruments. Cues which deal with earthly encounters with heavenly beings, such as “The Annunciation”, parts of “The Magi”, “Give Me a Sign” and “A Star Shall Come Forth”, are scored with crystal-clear boy soprano solos and string writing steeped in the grandest tradition of Alfred Newman and Miklós Rósza scores, which would not have sounded out of place in an 1950s biblical epic. The finale of “In Rosa Vernat Lilium” is especially stunning.
Occasional moments of dramatic dissonance, such as parts of “To Elizabeth” and “Census”, or rigid adherence to the conventions of the geographical setting, such as the opening of “The Magi”, make Danna’s score sounds like a more lyrical and melodic version of Howard Shore’s score for The Cell, full of authentic but grating harshness, alien to Western ears but wholly appropriate for the setting and time period. Elsewhere, though, the score is strikingly beautiful, simple in its construction, but wonderfully effective at conveying a sense of power and destiny while still addressing the inherent fragility of humanity and the awesome sense of wonder and majesty the story deserves.
Although it is unlikely that The Nativity Story will go on to reach the popular heights The Passion of the Christ did, either in terms of money or acclaim, if the film does find itself a niche within the mainstream market, I can certainly see Mychael Danna’s score being mentioned as a potential Oscar nominee next year. From my point of view, it’s certainly good enough. Danna’s work here is absolutely first class, mixing ancient and modern, traditional and classical, voices and instruments into a thoroughly wonderful end product which pays honourable homage to its visual accompaniment. Look for this one appearing in Movie Music UK’s “best of 2006” list.
- Veni, Veni Emanuel (3:10)
- Words Of The Prophet (1:55)
- Nazareth (4:31)
- You Shall Be His Wife (1:45)
- The Annunciation (4:01)
- To Elizabeth (2:45)
- The Magi (2:02)
- Why Is It Me? (1:31)
- Corde Natus Ex Parentis (1:57)
- Return of Mary (2:24)
- I’ve Broken No Vow (4:52)
- Census (1:37)
- The Journey (2:42)
- Give Me A Sign (2:38)
- The Shepherd (1:43)
- And Thou Bethlehem (5:54)
- Is There A Place For Us? (2:08)
- A Star Shall Come Forth (3:11)
- I Bring You Good Tidings (1:30)
- The Strength I Prayed For (1:29)
- The Shepherd’s Gift (5:12)
- In Rosa Vernat Lilium (4:47)
- Silens Nox (2:42)
- Rosa Aeterna Floret (1:28)
Running Time: 68 minutes 06 seconds
New Line Records 39074 (2006)
Music composed by Mychael Danna. Conducted and orchestrated by Nicholas Dodd. Featured musical soloists Norayr Kartashian, Hossein Omoumi, Walter Maioli, Nathalie van Ravensitein, Luce Maioli, Ivan Gibellini, Marco Aglioti, David Morris, John Bilezikjan, Phil Aykling, Katie Kirkpatrick, Shira Kammen, Mike Fisher and Russ Howard III. Special vocal performances by Anonymous 4, Azam Ali and the LA Zimriyah Chorale conducted by Nick Strimple. Latin lyrics by Elizabeth Danna. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Richard Ford. Album produced by Mychael Danna.