All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

December 24, 2007.By Lanni Willis, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

I am a sucker for a white Christmas. But last night, the snow seriously got in my way. Both my husband and mother pointed out I had been overly optimistic in planning a return flight from Sante Fe the same evening as I had planned a family outing to one of the concerts I had most highly anticipated this season: Cantus’s and Theater Latté Da’s All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. Sure enough, our flight was delayed. So in full disclosure, this is a review of the half of the evening that I heard.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is an unstaged but still dramatic telling of an extraordinary event in human history, when during the first year of World War I, thousands of young men lay down their arms and celebrated Christmas together in no man’s land.

Director Peter Rothstein chose to tell the story with the tool that would have been available to the story’s real-life characters—radio. So the concert took the form of a musical radio drama, featuring war documents and letters and journals of the young men in the trenches as text and Cantus’s arrangements of sentimental war-time songs and Christmas carols.

Actors John Catron, David Roberts, and Alan Sorensen narrated convincingly, alternating the voices of French, German, and British soldiers. The men of Cantus provided an effective soundtrack of quiet drones and harmonized hums in addition to the beautiful array of original arrangements in the three languages of the front that lent a compelling emotional through-line to the texts, which themselves were made more dramatic by virtue of their reality.

That cold night in 1914, the enemy troops traded carols, food, and drink, shared Mass and soccer matches, and helped each other bury their dead, who had lain frozen on the battlefield for weeks. They found points of connection in their stories, like the German whose uncle trimmed the beard of the Englishman’s father. These scenes were effectively painted, as spoken accounts mingled with music and a German carol (“In Dulci Jubilo”) merged into a British holiday drinking song (“Wassail”). Another fine moment was the recollection of one soldier’s awe in hearing a French opera star singing “O Holy Night” from across no man’s land. As if from afar, a single tenor voice quietly rang over the attentive hush of the rest of the “soldiers” in the ensemble, and the hush in the audience made me feel I was with them in the trenches.

Inevitably, the truce is ended, and by orders of their superiors, the battlefield they had made a soccer field and graveyard turned back into a battlefield. After the first shot was fired, the young men went back to war, according to one soldier’s account, with a vengeance. This scene was movingly depicted by several beautiful verses of "Auld Lang Syne," the last of which devolved into battle cries.

The concert wound down with a question—not a sappy sound bite, but a real question from a soldier as he reflects that it was as if they had decided to end the war all by themselves. He asked, “What if we’d all walked away and refused to fight? Could the war have ended in a truce?” The same voice admits probably not, but the niggling question lingers, rippling through history. The audience was left to imagine the faces of these young men—the faces of war, and the faces of peace, and again the faces of war.

This Cantus/Theater Latté Da event came off less as a heart-warming holiday concert than as storytelling, and as such, it was a dramatic, real-life musing about the power this season has to make us stop, reflect, and decide to operate in a mode of peace, and the enormous impact those decision can have.