First off, report that it happened: Less than five months into the First World War, an estimated 100,000 German and Allied soldiers stationed in the trenches along several hundred miles of its Western Front unexpectedly ceased hostilities on the eve and the day of Christmas 1914.
Unplanned and certainly unauthorized, those troops met with one another, informally and unarmed, through the night and the day in the no-man's land between the two front lines. We know they exchanged small presents and souvenirs; shared food, liquor and tobacco; played pick-up games of soccer; and cooperated in the removal and burial of the dead. In some places, it's reported that the impromptu truce lasted up to two weeks, as entire companies subverted orders to resume combat: directing munitions fire into the air, away from their former targets, or on a predetermined, and therefore harmless, schedule.
Then reflect that music—mere music—was one of the major things that made it come to pass.
With the front lines so close to each other, soldiers on each side could hear their counterparts as they sang seasonal tunes to keep up morale. An odd sort of call and response developed in the days leading up to that Christmas; sides actually began trading renditions of holiday carols, lobbing songs instead of mortar fire across enemy lines. On the strength of that goodwill, a few brave soldiers followed, bearing humble gifts on Christmas Eve. When they survived, more came after. Soon, the fighting stopped.
It's fitting, then, that a stage work commemorating this impromptu armistice focuses on the music that made it possible. In that sense, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is clearly more of a costumed concert piece for men's chorus than an actual play.
Writer Peter Rothstein crafts a thin but sturdy contextual setting for this hour-long collection of 26 popular period and battlefield songs, hymns and carols. Between the numbers, chorus members unfold the developing story in spoken-word excerpts from interviews and war correspondence, radio transcripts and the published work of the period's "war poets," including Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Francis Ledwidge.
But the music is clearly the centerpiece here. The prismatic emotions of this work repeatedly shift from the optimism and ribaldry of numbers like "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Christmas in the Cookhouse" to the eerie starkness of "I Want To Go Home." Moods shift at times in mid-song, as a courting tune turns darker during "Will Ye Go Tae Flanders" and a satiric, battlefield gripe flattens into the elegy that ends "The Old Barbed Wire."
It's understandable that music director Sue Klausmeyer and the members of Cantari Men's Ensemble have resisted the urge to oversell the combustible passions found in much of the score. But during Friday night's performance, the emotional bandwidth seemed a bit too narrow in some spoken and sung sequences.
Michael Shannon and John Paul Middlesworth most effectively embodied the spoken testimony of the veterans they quoted, and Graham White's luminous solo in "Minuit Chrétiens (O Holy Night)" was a standout during the work's second part. But composer Erick Lichte's pensive, dark arrangement of "Silent Night" and Timothy Takach's setting for "Auld Lang Syne" gave the night its spiritual and musical center.
Amid the fluff and empty calories of so much Yuletide entertainment, this muscular musical reminds us that a set of songs once stopped a war. Now, that's power. May we see it utilized more in the days to come.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Upon a midnight clearing."