The Gift and the Wise Men
An Epiphany Suite for Wind Ensemble and Pipe Organ
Commissioned by the Concordia Wind Orchestra (Jeff Held, conductor)
To the memory of Frieda M. Schumm
I. Gold - A Gift for a King
II. Frankincense - A Gift for the Spirit
III. Myrrh - A Gift for the Sacrifice
IV. Christ - A Gift for the World
A great deal of mystery still surrounds the period of time celebrated as the epiphany. We know the new-born Jesus was visited by three men from a far away land who brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but little is known about the sequence of events. Who did these foreign men believe Jesus to be? Where exactly did they come from? Why did they bring those particular gifts?
This piece is inspired by the prophetic nature of the gifts themselves. It is widely speculated that the gifts the wise men brought were each a symbol of an aspect of Jesus' life on earth to come. The first gift, gold, is represents Christ the King. This movement is therefore a royal processional which builds slowly but then errupts into a stately theme and is then passed throughout the winds and organ.
The second gift, frankincense, is a type of incense that in Jesus' day was often burned during prayer. This gift represents the spirit of Jesus which would be bestowed on humanity as the Holy Spirit when Christ arose into heaven. The second movement, then, is a mysterious, swirling mass of shifting tonalities both light and dark. The harp, wind chimes and marimba create a nebulous bed of sound over which a long melody (representing the spirit) travels. The accompaniment moves swiftly like the Holy Spirit while the chords in the low brass change slowly representing the mountain-moving power of the Holy Spirit. As ambiguously as it began, the movement quietly fades away.
The third gift of the wise men was myrrh. In those days, myrrh was often used as an embalming oil and perhaps makes this the strangest gift for a newborn child. Myrrh then could be symbolic of the suffering and death Jesus would suffer at the hands of men. This movement plays as a lament for the crucified and suffering savior. After a brief introduction, a hymn-like melody is played in solo form. The winds then grow in strength. The organ takes over the melody but mid-way through is joined by a fortissimo wind section as the anguish of the melody grows. The movement sounds as if it will end as quietly as it began, but there is still one final crescendo which reaches deafening heights as if the stone of Jesus' tomb itself is being rolled into place.
While epiphany is often the focus of the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus, it is important to consider the true reason these men made their long journey. They brought earthly gifts, yes, but their main goal was to have the chance to worship this newborn king. While Jesus may have received three important and symbolic gifts that night, it was the wise men (and us!) who received the one true gift: a savior, Jesus Christ. The fourth movement of this piece is a celebration of that gift. In the middle of the movement, all becomes quiet as a narrator reads from Matthew 5, also known as the Beatitudes, as solos from the winds perform melodies from the three preceeding movements. The beatitudes are what Jesus taught during his sermon on the mount and present with no uncertainty what gifts lie in store for us as believers. The final reading by the narrator is John 3:16 - a perfect explanation of God's gift to the world. The piece then swells in fanfare and begins a driving celebratory coda which comes to a thunderous finish.