Music Monday with Mary
There is a heightened sense of excitement here at Minnesota Opera as we finish up our lauded performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. In just one week, we will start rehearsals for our long-awaited world premiere of Silent Night, Minnesota Opera’s newly commissioned opera by American composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell.
This opera captured my imagination as soon as Dale Johnson told me about it. I have been reading as much as I can find about the Christmas truces of 1914. And please note that I do mean “truces”. I was astonished to find out just how large this pacifistic movement was on the Western Front in Europe…stretching from the coast of Belgium to Switzerland. As luck would have it, I was also able to visit authentic locations of the truces that inspired the French film producer Christian Carion to create his movie, Joyeux Noël, whose screenplay was the basis for Mark Campbell’s libretto. Carion is from northern France and, although the battle scenes of his film were shot in Romania, he was astonished at how his crew was able to recreate the visage of his “pays”….his region of France. In the next blogs, I will post some of my photos of the locations of the Christmas truces in Belgium and northern France. I will also tell you some of the true background stories that inspired our opera’s libretto.
However, this week, I would like to continue my little series of book reviews! I have found a wealth of material about World War I, and specifically about the Christmas truces. No doubt many of you will want to do some background reading, either before or after you see our production of Silent Night. So here are just a few selected volumes concerning this vast subject.
First of all, a book to explain the Christmas truce to children.
The Best Christmas Present in the World by Michael Morpurgo, published by Egmont for ages 4-8. Echoes of Christmas 1914 in the trenches call to the present day when a letter found by chance in an antique desk brings one soldier’s experience hauntingly to life. Heart-warming and spine-tingling, this is a perfect story to curl up with on a winter’s night. It is beautifully illustrated by Michael Foreman. British author Michael Morpurgo has written more than forty books and won the Whitbread Award, the Smarties Award, the Circle of Gold Award, the Children’s Book Award and has been short-listed for the Carnegie Medal four times.
Silent Night: The Story of the WW I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub, a Plume book published by Penguin Putnam, Inc. This book is being read in the Twin Cities by several groups who are also coming to our production of “Silent Night”, and I will be presenting lectures of background information about the opera, including many photographs of the truces and the truce sites. Weintraub’s book also discusses what might have happened if the fighting had stopped in December 1914 in the Chapter 7 “What If -?”. The following phrase from page 174 resonates in our opera’s theme. “Although the unchanged reality of war is that the shots ordered by increasingly remote presences are absorbed by ordinary humans, Christmas 1914 reopened imaginations to the unsettling truth that at each end of the rifle, men were indeed the same.”
Another marvelous book is Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914 by Malcom Brown & Shirley Seaton, Pan Grand Strategy Series. This was one of the earliest books on this subject, first published in 1984. It is written from the British point of view, and contains some excellent illustrations. The miracle of the truce and the shameful facts of the remainder of the war years, when men were ordered to kill each other while encased in thousands of miles of trenches in Western Europe, are also well told by these historians. On page xxv, Brown writes: “Conan Doyle’s phrase, indeed, sums up the attraction of the truce: it is the human dimension which means that this relatively obscure event in the fifth month of a fifty-two-month war is still remembered and will continue to catch the imagination.”
The next book on my list, by Alan Wakefield, is about various truces during the whole of World War I, lest we think that 1914 was the only year when the soldiers stopped fighting at the end of December. This book is Christmas in the Trenches, from Sutton Publishing. It contains many fascinating illustrations and talks about Christmas truces and celebrations from 1914 through 1918. The book is fascinating because it also talks about Christmas celebrations on other fronts, for instance in East Africa, Salonika, Macedonia, etc.
I will end with another book which I find particularly touching. Meet at Dawn, Unarmed: Captain Robert Hamilton’s account of Trench Warfare and the Christmas Truce in 1914 by Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed, published by Dene House Publishing in the UK. In 1980, Andrew Hamilton found his grandfather’s marvelously detailed leather-bound diaries, kept from 1913-1950. The diary from August 5, 1914, to January 12, 1915, had been typed out and bound. Andrew Hamilton was a history teacher and was excited to find material he could use for his lessons on the Great War. One of the highlights of the diary was Robert Hamilton’s account of the Christmas truce.
Although there seem to be a number of books specifically devoted to the Christmas truce, there are even more than on this list, including some in French and one in German. And accounts of these truces are found in many of the books and documents on WW I. There are also a number of blog sites specifically for the Christmas truce and reenactments of the truce.
Read and come to see our opera! The opening night is November 12, 2011!