December 7, 2012

Cantus choral ensemble to sing of remarkable World War I pause

Here's a headline you won't see often: "Music pauses war between bitter enemies."

Here's a headline you won't see often: "Music pauses war between bitter enemies."

But for one brief moment during World War I, such a headline applied. In particular, it describes the Christmas truce of 1914. That rare and unexpected cessation of fighting took place amid brutal trench warfare in Ypres, Belgium.

German and British troops laid down their arms on a chilly Christmas Eve. Members of the two armies soon began to fraternize, sang songs and took the opportunity to calmly bury their dead.

That piece of history forms the backbone of the show "All Is Calm," by the Minneapolis-based male choral ensemble Cantus in collaboration with Theater Latté Da. The show will be performed Saturday at the Mondavi Center in Davis.

"Music was the key in the truce," said Cantus tenor Aaron Humble, via phone from Minneapolis.

Though the history of exactly what was sung first and by whom is lost, it is not unreasonable to think that Franz Gruber's classic, "Silent Night," was sung during the evolution of the truce.

" 'Silent Night' had made its way to other countries by the early 20th century," Humble said. "The English knew the carol, and they identified it as one of their own, and the Germans, they shared knowledge of the same Christmas carols the British knew."

That song, as well as others from that time, which include European carols and war songs, will get fresh arrangements by Cantus. Three Theater Latté Da actors will read excerpts from soldiers' diaries. Quotes from poets who participated in World War I, including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, will be read during the music.

The dramatic and musical arc of the show, which Cantus and Theater Latté Da have performed for the past six years – and which they brought to the Mondavi Center in 2009 – begins with the call to war and recruitment.

"There is a real enthusiasm there in the letters from people saying that they thought the war was going to be sort of a picnic," Humble said. "There's a real naiveté there, especially letters of younger soldiers."

The music and letters evolve to where they take on a more British perspective, with troops arriving onto the continent and the realization that this war was no game. Then, the letters reflect weariness and an intense desire for the war to end.

The idea of mining the truce for the concert stage belongs to Peter Rothstein, artistic director with the Minneapolis-based Theater Latté Da.

Rothstein first learned of the truce through John McCutcheon's song "Christmas in the Trenches," but he initially had no serious plans of staging it.

"When the United States invaded Iraq, I decided to move the idea to the front burner and make it happen," Rothstein said.

What followed was research at the Flanders Field Museum in Ypres. Amid the archives, Rothstein discovered how elemental music was to the truce.

"In my opinion, the truce would not have happened if it weren't for music creating a common language between the opposing lines.

During the first winter of the war, soldiers on opposing sides began holding impromptu concerts, and in some cases serenaded each other across the no man's land between trenches, Rothstein said.

In 2006, Rothstein approached Cantus about coming in on the musical side.

"What was appealing to us was the option of doing a Christmas concert that was not your typical sweet-and-saccharine Christmas show," said Humble.

At first the work was conceived as a radio drama. It received its world premiere as a live broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio in 2007.

"We were putting this show together while we were engaged in two wars," said Humble. "What has always been sobering to me is that this scenario is no longer possible now in modern warfare because now there is so little human contact."

"The (World War I) truce was not a singular 'X marks the spot' event. There were truces all up and down the front line that were recorded," said Humble.

"Some of them lasted a day and some lasted weeks, and for those that lasted weeks, those troops had to be removed because the soldiers had established a rapport with the enemy, and they were unable to fight."

News of the truce eventually reached higher commands and fighting normalized. The British generals requested lists of soldiers and officers who took part in the truce, for disciplinary action. but no one was disciplined.

"The truce was kept secret for a long time. History books did not teach about it. It was seen as a failure of military discipline," Humble said.

That, and the fact that the 100th anniversary of the truce is approaching, gives Cantus a certain urgency to keep performing "All Is Calm."

"Today, we don't share carols with people we're at war with," Humble said. "Bringing those differences to the light of day? I think that is sobering."

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071.



When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, UC Davis

Tickets: $25-$60

Information: (530) 754-2787;

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