Act of peace in time of war
As German and British soldiers hunkered down in muddy trenches less than 100 yards apart, something remarkable happened on the Western Front.

On Christmas Eve, 1914, soldiers on both sides put down their guns and sang Christmas carols - first to themselves and then to each other. Then, in an unprecedented act of goodwill, they emerged from their trenches, called out "Merry Christmas" and exchanged gifts.

Nearly a century later, the so-called Christmas Truce proves that there can be humanity even in time of war and that enemies are often arbitrarily made by those not doing battle.

"If that isn't a plug for diplomacy, I don't know what is," said Aaron Humble, one of the singers in the vocal ensemble Cantus.

Cantus, along with acting troupe Theatre Latte Da, will perform a tribute to the truce, "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914," at Grace Church in San Luis Obispo on Saturday. While Latte Da will offer spoken word narratives gleaned from soldiers' journal entries and poems, Cantus will sing World War I songs and Christmas carols popular at the time.

"Many historians credit 'Silent Night' with being the song that actually started the truce," Humble said. "People said the Germans started it, and the English recognized the song as something that was sung in England as well."

The truce has, of course, been parlayed in many art forms - from music videos and songs to movies and books. The format for "All Is Calm" resembles an old radio show, Humble said.

His group features nine men, as it has since Cantus was founded in Minnesota in 1995. Based on a string quartet model, the vocal group does not have a conductor.

"The principal that you're basically working toward is consensus building," Humble said. "Each piece is given a producer to do initial score studies, score marking and research for the piece."

If there's any difference of opinion on how a piece should go, he said, a vote is taken. The songs Cantus performs range from classical to bluegrass to contemporary rock.

"All nine of us sit in one room, and we build a program together," Humble said. "That is not a terribly efficient process, I'll be forthright about that. But it's so rewarding because the program has everybody's mark on it, and at the same time it has variety."

The group consists of classically trained soloists. Women are not included, Humble said, because female voices would cover the overtones.

"With men's voices, you're able to sing with more soloistic tones," he said. "So we're able to sing with more release, with more bravado, with a more classically bel canto approach than if we were singing in a mixed choir."

Often, when Cantus tours, the group performs outreach at local schools. When performing for high school students, it tries to do more contemporary songs.

"Because a lot of high schoolers are not out there hanging out in the chamber music crowd," Humble said.

In the past, Cantus has performed songs by Curtis Mayfield, Billy Joel and Leonard Cohen.

The idea for "All Is Calm" originated with Peter Rothstein, director of Theatre Latte Da, who had researched the truce in Europe. It was also Rothstein's idea to reach out to Cantus for the music.

In addition to traditional Christmas carols, the group will sing songs such as "Keep The Home Fires Burning" and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," which were popular among troops during the war.

The truce occurred just months into the war, which was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. During the truce, soldiers from both sides used the stalemate to claim the bodies of their fallen comrades.

They even engaged in a good-natured game of soccer.

"The truce happened for miles and miles up and down the trenches," Humble said. "Some of them lasted for a day, some of them lasted weeks."

As inspiring as the truce sounds, when the holiday was over, fighting resumed. If soldiers refused to fight their new friends, they were simply moved to the back of the line, replaced by those who were willing to do battle.

As the harmony ends in "All Is Calm," the arrangement becomes cacophonous, reflecting the return to turmoil. The truce, after all, would only stall the inevitable - in this case, four more years of war, claiming 15 million lives.

Patrick S. Pemberton, San Luis Obispo Tribune
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