“We will remember them”
That is what is read aloud every evening at 8:00 pm at the town of Ypres, France at the Gates of Menin. Thousands of men made there way through these gates on the way to the front during World War I and a hundred years later they are still remembered.
But how really do we remember things that happened a hundred years ago? And why bother really at this point? We read books, watch movies, if you are lucky you remember a conversation with a relative who was there…. but those memories are rapidly fading. I was very lucky to have a chance to see a unique way of remembering history on Friday night this week.
Cantus is a vocal chamber ensemble that preserves history by performing songs. Some are classic works you might hear a choir perform in church, others could be belted out by friends in a pub with grins on their faces and full pints in their hands. Peter Rothstein approached them in 2012 to put together a performance that told the story of the Christmas Truce. This “truce” occured in 1914 in the Fields of Flanders during the Great War on Christmas day. This truce is well documented by many eyewitnesses at the time. Soldiers in the trenches, moved by the spirit of the holidays ignored the normal rules of war and crossed the trenches to exchange greetings, gifts and share an evening of peace. All this against a backdrop of a war that would stretch on for years.
The stage is sparce, nine men dressed in black with three actors sitting in front of them on tall stools. The actors recite from historical letters, poems and other documents in German, Scottish, Irish and English accents. They are careful to name the soldier, his rank and what unit he served in after each reading, emphasising that this is no fantasy, but a real event that effected real people. The content and tone of the singing and reading follows a timeline. The euphoria of the new recruit, full of patriotism and pride, leaving on a grand adventure. The grim reality of trench warfare. The mix of horror and humor that surrounds men who are unsure they will ever make it home again. The suprise and euphoria when that burden is lifted for one short night, only to be put back in place the next day.
You feel every bit of that sitting in the audience. Hard to replicate that in a blog, but I have placed five of the songs and dialogue in chronological order below. In a world saturated with media and special effects, this approach is simple and effective. The Christmas Truce resonates this time of year because it gives us hope that even in the darkest of times, the best parts of the human spirit is still there, right below the surface.
I hope you enjoy the perfomance and I hope you and your family have a fine holiday.
Come On and Join ( a call to enlist)
The Old Barbed Wire (humor and grim circumstance mix together)
Angels We Heard on High ( a small miracle in the middle of the madness)
We’re Here Because We’re Here ( the title says it all, the miracle ends and the war goes on)
Last Post: Silent Night