That the Christmas Truce of 1914 happened at all is miraculous. For composer and arranger Tim Takach, there was a particular moment of magic. "It was the German soldiers singing 'Stille Nacht'," Takach says. "That's when they all realized that was something that they had in common."
One hundred years ago this month, nations waged war across the entrenched Western Front in the largest conflict the world had seen to that time. But as Christmas approached, the guns fell silent. The stories and images of opposing armies putting war aside and observing peace are well documented; since 2007, Cantus and Theater Latté Da have added to that canon by staging a production, All Is Calm, that tells the story of the 1914 Christmas truce in music and words. "All is Calm is an entertaining show," Takach says, "but it's also rooted in actual events and actual documents."
As unfolded in several locations across the Western Front, which extended from Belgium into France, opposing British and German troops traded Christmas carols at a distance. Singing music together soon brought the soldiers out of their trenches. Handshakes, food and gifts were exchanged. More music followed, and in several cases, spontaneous soccer games were played. "The soldiers had been singing their own countries' Christmas carols back and forth across the lines," Takach explains. "It was the German soldiers singing 'Stille Nacht' which at that point, had crossed nationalities so people knew that song in their own languages that brought these guys out of the trenches and allowed them to go up into no-man's land and to shake hands and put their cultural and political differences aside."
Takach, a founding member of Cantus who has since left the men's vocal ensemble for other musical pursuits, collaborated with fellow arranger Erik Lichte and with director/writer Peter Rothstein on the making of All is Calm. According to Takach, Rothstein had been reading a book about the Christmas Truce of 1914 when he happened to attend a Cantus concert. "The two things just kind of stuck in his mind," Takach says. "Since music was the catalyst for this event of peace, and it involved all these men, [it seemed] a perfect matchup to have a group of men anchor the piece of theater, musically."
Although Takach had not heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914 before the project, he quickly immersed himself in the history. In addition to reading about what had happened, Takach and the other members of Cantus watched the 2005 film, Joyeux Noël, to get a sense of the drama. To get better acquainted with the musical material, the men of Cantus work-shopped the songs, singing them as they imagined a group of homesick, war-weary, entrenched soldiers may have done all those years ago.
For Takach, this story has a life beyond recounting a moment in history; he says it shows how music can be a catalyst that brings people together despite other differences. "As a musician, that's what you hope," he says, "that your art can make a difference and it can make people see the world a little bit differently."
Takach himself will see All Is Calm a bit differently, too; this year, he'll attend the production for the first time as an audience member. "That's probably going to be overwhelming for me," he says, "but I'm excited."
And after this year, Cantus will pursue other types of Christmas programming, but All Is Calm will go on to reach even more people, thanks to a grant Rothstein received to help bring the show into cities in greater Minnesota. "The piece has life beyond the people who were in the room on day one," Takach says. "It's good to see art do that to go on and to take on a life of its own."