It was a rare moment of fellowship amid the horrors of war.
At Christmas in 1914, German, British, and French soldiers on the Western Front of World War I came out of their trenches to sing carols together, exchange small gifts, and even play soccer. They were also able to recover and bury their dead. In most places, the ad hoc truce lasted only a day or so before superior officers ordered them to resume fighting. But those hours of peace across No Man’s Land remained as a beacon of humanity in a conflict that claimed millions of lives.
Beginning this week, the Boston Pops remembers with the world premiere of “A Soldier’s Carol: The Christmas Truce of 1914.” It will be played as part of the traditional Holiday Pops program with annual favorites sacred and celebratory, including the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” and Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.”
The Pops commissioned the roughly nine-minute work from the Tony Award-winning Broadway team of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (“Ragtime,” “Seussical”).
“Every year it’s the same challenge, how to keep this great tradition that so many people look forward to and still bring new things to the table,” says Pops conductor Keith Lockhart. “I was kind of frankly out of ideas of what to tell new this year.”
Then his attention was caught by media coverage of the centennial of the start of World War I, which gets much more attention in Europe than the States. He was reminded of the Christmas truce story, which he says he knew vaguely, “and I realized this December would be the 100th anniversary of that event, that little island of shared humanity in a four-year sea of horror.”(“Silent Night,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 opera by Kevin Puts, was based on a French film about the same subject, “Joyeux Noel.”)
Ahrens had worked with Lockhart and the Pops both with and without Flaherty. Most recently she contributed text for “This Difficult Song: The Star Spangled Banner at 200,” and when she attended a performance at Tanglewood in the summer, Lockhart says, he broached the Christmas Truce idea.
“I confess I had never heard of it,” Ahrens said by phone from her home in Manhattan. “I got all excited.”
She researched the event, including watching a History Channel account and reading “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce” by Stanley Weintraub, which tells the tale with the help of the soldiers’ letters home. She put together a draft text that she brought to Flaherty.
“The bottom line I was trying to reach is, war never ends, there’s always war, but at the same time there’s always the human spirit, which has the capacity to transcend that, even if it’s only for a brief moment in time,” Ahrens said.
The piece they delivered in just a few weeks tells the story with narration by local actors Karen MacDonald and Amelia Broome (alternating) and both traditional carols and original choral passages from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
“It’s a musical story,” Lockhart said. “The reason these two groups started figuring out they weren’t enemies was they started singing Christmas carols that they had in common, albeit in different languages,” including “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fidelis.”
“A Soldier’s Carol” will close the first half of the Holiday Pops program, which gets the more serious and sacred works. It won’t be played every year, but it could be a regular part of the Holiday Pops rotation “if people respond to it as strongly as I think they’re going to,” Lockhart said. “It’s a beautiful tale to tell.”
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.