Lessons and Carols from No Man's Land
Christmas is the time of 'Lessons and Carols' - lessons coming from the Biblical tradition and carols first intoduced by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, becoming popular throughout Europe in the 15th century. The male vocal ensemble, Cantus joined with Theater LatteDa of Minneapolis Friday night at Yardley Hall to teach a lesson of a different sort with carols from all over Europe.

The program was divided into two parts. The opening, Carols for Male Voices, was arranged by, then WWI soldier, Ralph Vaughn Williams. They are a popular set among men's choruses and gave the singers a chance to introduce their gorgeous sound, blend and individuality through solos to the audience.

The second part, All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, was like a radio drama where the voices of actors spoke powerful first person accounts of the experience while the voices of Cantus provided a musical context. Researched and written by Peter Rothstein, 29 different people were cited for the text. Their letters and diary entries provided the compelling narrative. From Winston Churchill to Private W.T. Colyer of the Artists' Rifles Brigade, a broad perspective of the truce was told.

The actors were remarkable. John Catron's ability to affect the regional accents of soldiers from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and even the different London dialects, from cockney to hackney, was spot on. Alan Sorensen played the pompous, self-important generals and commanders to perfection and David Roberts presented fathers, sons, brothers and friends with a heartfelt poignancy.

The men of Cantus had their role to play as well. Caroling in the trenches of both the German and the British was common. According to the play, they engaged in loud singing to annoy the enemy. Cantus sang with the gusto of a raucous fraternity. It is doubtful, though, that the blokes in the trenches sounded as good.

Intoning a single bagpipe-like drone, the basses and baritones laid a solid foundation for tenor, Shahzore Shah to sing the lilting melody of Will Ye Go to Flanders? A quintet of voices then joined in with a horn-pipe chord, ascending and descending in time in this innovative arrangement by Erick Lichte. Mr. Lichte along with Timothe C. Takatch arranged roughly 28 different carols that functioned like an extended medley for the program.

The entire performance was memorized, so no annoying books were being bobbled around, allowing the singers and actors to communicate completely with the audience. It is rare to hear professional vocal ensembles "off of their music" these days and this reviewer was thrilled.

The section called Christmas set up a quiet, lonely, starry night. The men were allowed a little rum, they missed their loved ones, and singing ensued. Then one German soldier crawled out of the trench and sang, Stille Nacht, alone, in No Man's Land. No one shot or sniped. An Englishman joined him and then both sides put down their weapons and sang together in a dramatic act of peace and Christian love.

They exchanged tokens, shared whisky and rum, signed to each other, laughed, buried each other's dead and even played soccer. Then, they were ordered back to the trench, and the killing resumed. A war they all thought would be over by Christmas senselessly lasted another four years.

The soldiers had all been materially changed by that night and hearing Cantus, along with Catron, Sorensen and Roberts, retell the legendary tale, we were all transformed. Traditional Lessons and Carols teach us about peace through the Christmas story. Cantus' All is Calm, taught us about the courage to have peace, if only for a night, through the historical accounts of soldiers in World War I. My hope is that Cantus will return next year, at the World War I Memorial auditorium so that audiences can see the artifacts after hearing their program.

Megan Browne Helm,
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