No Laughing Matter

This will be the last update on my Christmas oratorio for a while. Yesterday, I finished transcribing it into my new notation software and revising it in the original instrumentation. I have already begun work on an alternate version for a reduced instrumental setup and when that is done I will give you some examples of that process.

As most of you have not yet heard my Christmas oratorio, let me first give you a quick overview. It is divided into ten movements:

  1. Prologue
  2. Annunciation
  3. Romance
  4. Annunciation
  5. Magnificat
  6. Elegy
  7. Discovery
  8. Nativity
  9. Proclamation
  10. Epilogue

The prologue sets the stage, describing life in the province Judaea in the Roman Empire from the perspective of the oppressed common people. I chose this perspective for my work since it seemed like not many others – if any – have done so before. The astute reader may have noticed that both the second and fourth movements are called “Annunciation”. That is because not only Mary was visited by an angel, as described in the Gospel of Luke, but also Joseph, and this is described in the Gospel of Matthew. This is something that I only learned about it in my research for this oratorio.

The first five movements focus on Joseph and Mary, culminating with the Visitation and the Canticle of Mary. I have in fact combined events from both gospels in my oratorio: Mary’s annunciation, the visit to Elizabeth and the adoration of the shepherds from Luke, and Joseph’s annunciation and the star (leading the shepherds, however, and not the Magi).

The latter five movements focus on two shepherds watching their herd by night. Linking back to the prologue, the shepherds embody the common people in my narrative, and in the sixth movement they each describe hardships that they endure. (These two individual shepherds were made up by me, but their lives and their struggles are based on my research into life around the 1st Century.)

The seventh movement, Discovery, is a kind of scherzo where the two shepherds, upon realizing that one of their beasts is missing, go on a frantic search trying to recover it. The basis for the movement is that the shepherds are so poor that they cannot afford to lose even one of their animals. It is framed in a comical way to contrast with the former movement, which gets quite dark. However, in retrospect I feel I missed the mark here. Discovery ended up feeling more like an unprepared, awkward injection of slapstick that dulled any dramatic impact the previous movement might have had. Therefore, I ended up making the most substantial changes in this movement.

Discovery starts out with two short verses, one each for the two shepherds. One is more anxious, the other more agitated (which is also based on how they are presented in the previous movement). Then a middle section, based on the same musical material, which is a kind of short, dramatic recitativo where the shepherds end up spotting their lost beast high up on a hilltop. Another verse follows, this time as a duet, as the shepherds chase the animal up the hill. When they reach the summit, however, they are instantly distracted by the sight of a bright star, brighter than any other, seemingly lighting up an otherwise inconspicuous building in the distance.

In the new and improved version of Discovery, I have added an instrumental section between the first two verses and the recitativo. Here, the narrator can accomplish two important things: First of all, to address the fact that two shepherds chasing after a mischievous goat in the dead of night is, in fact, kind of hilarious. But additionally, to impress upon the audience it is in fact no laughing matter, as the shepherds losing even one of their animals could have devastating consequences for their livelihood.

I also removed the most outwardly comical parts of the musical arrangement and made the climax – when the shepherds chase the goat up the hillside – sound even more chaotic and stressful. I also cut out one of the two shepherds passive-aggressively blaming the other for losing the goat in the first place, because, again, it came off as a little too funny.

In the penultimate movement, Proclamation, I juxtapose Mary’s very human and relatable wish for her son to have a good, fulfilling and rewarding life with the shepherds who, like many at that time, were hoping for a saviour – literally, a messiah – to come and help free them from their misery. On the one hand, the selfless mother is still grappling with the notion that maybe her new-born child is capital S Special. On the other, the two world-weary shepherds – one pessimist, one optimist – do not not know whether they can, or dare, believe that a simple child (…or is he?) could be the answer to their prayers.

I believe that this revised version of Discovery will accomplish the twin goals I had for it all the way back when I first planned out my oratorio: to both act as a narrative counterweight to the dramatic previous movement and to further illustrate the plight of the shepherds. Compare these two synth renditions of the climax of Discovery in old and new versions. The bar numbers are different because of changes made earlier in the work.

The old version of the climax in Discovery (bb. 660–668)
The new version of the climax in Discovery (bb. 647–656)

In other news, I now have a few dozen planks in my basement that have received their first coat of paint. In a few weeks, a number of them will be up on my house, replacing a number of rotten planks on one side of my house. With the help of a skylift that as of yesterday evening stands in my backyard I will begin scraping the fresh planks clean and repainting them. Truly a glamourous life. Although, to be honest, I don’t think I would have it any other way.

Shiny and new.