Livestream TONIGHT HERE: John Brancy and Peter Dugan live from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Watch their program ‘A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song’ here. Learn more about it at memorialinsong.com.

The History of A Silent Night

On Christmas Day, 1914, German, French, and British soldiers ventured out from the trenches. They gathered in no man’s land to exchange gifts, play games, and sing songs. Silent Night, Gestille Nacht, Douce Nuit: though the words were different, every soldier sang the same tune.

A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song is our tribute to the war that changed the world. In particular, it pays homage to the many composers who served in the war, and it illuminates the way that WWI changed the face of music, song, and poetry forever.

The pieces of music you will hear tonight are, in a sense, living artifacts of the WWI era. Despite the vast contrasts in style among the various composers, almost every piece was composed within the ten-year period between 1912 and 1922. The poetry and the music itself is infused with the emotions of the war, from vengeful violence to solemn mourning to desperate calls for peace.

Gerald Finzi composed “Channel Firing” in 1949, but the poem was written by Thomas Hardy in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of WWI. Hardy describes a corpse who has awakened at the sound of artillery fire and mistakenly thinks that the judgment day has come. The voice of God responds with a condemnation of war and of the senseless cycle of violence that has been ongoing since the dawn of man. Knowing that Hardy’s poem was written just before WWI gives the text an eerie, prophetic quality. We can only imagine how strongly these themes resonated with Finzi, who lived through WWI but composed the music to this song after the Second World War. Performing this song in the 21st century, we are painfully aware that Hardy’s text still rings true today.

George Butterworth, arguably the most promising English composer of his generation, was also a highly regarded Lieutenant in the British army. He was awarded the Military Cross, but was shot and killed by a sniper in the battle of the Somme before he could receive the honor. His settings of six poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad tell the tale of young lives lost too soon. With hindsight, when we listen to “The Lads in Their Hundreds,” it is impossible not to reflect on the fact that Butterworth himself would meet the very fate that the song describes.

Ivor Gurney was a prolific poet and composer. He was in the trenches when he composed “By a Bierside.” After recovering from a gunshot wound, Gurney returned to the front, only to be severely sickened by poison gas. He would never be the same, living out the rest of his days in mental institutions, but always composing and writing. “In Flanders” is the song of a homesick soldier, and “By a Bierside” wrestles with the very nature of death itself.

Carl Orff, best known for his seminal work Carmina Burana, fought for the German army in the war and was severely wounded when a trench collapsed on him. He was only twenty two years old. He composed these four lieder just after the war’s end. In “Der Gute Mensch” and “Herr, Ich liebte,” we hear a bombastic, almost violent compositional style, indicative of what would later become Orff’s unique sound.

Maurice Ravel was eager to join the Air Force to fight in the war but he was turned away due to his age. Instead, the forty-year-old composer served as an ambulance and supply truck driver on the front. During this time he composed his masterful piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin, each movement of which was dedicated to a different friend who had fallen in battle. The Prelude, which you will hear tonight, is the first movement of the suite and is dedicated to Jacques Charlotte, also a musician. “Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis” is Ravel’s own poem about three birds, each a different color of the French flag, who have to deliver the news of a soldier’s death to a loved one back home.

Francis Poulenc is exceptional among the composers on this program, in that he served in both World Wars. He was only a teenager when he was conscripted into the French army in the final year of WWI. Years later, he composed “Priez pour paix,” a medieval prayer for peace on the eve of the Second World War. “Bleuet,” which Poulenc also composed just before the outbreak of the Second World War, is in fact a setting of a WWI poem, written by Apollinaire, shortly before his death of influenza in 1918. Apollinaire had been severely wounded in battle two years earlier and never fully recovered. “Bleuet,” which refers both to the blue French flower of remembrance and to the nickname for French soldiers in their blue uniforms, reflects on the way the war changed the lives of an entire generation of young people.

Claude Debussy composed “Noël des enfants” in the final years of his life. With his own poetry as the text, this was Debussy’s call for vengeance on behalf of the children of France who were left homeless and orphaned by the destruction of the war.

Charles Ives, the iconic American modernist, wrote Three Songs of War in April, 1917, the same month that the United States entered the conflict. John McCrae, the Canadian doctor who ran a wartime hospital in France, had already received popular acclaim for his poem “In Flanders Fields” when Ives decided to set that text to music. Ives uses quotations from several popular songs of the time, most notably “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” the melody of which is heard in its entirety in the piano part. In the final bars of “Tom Sails Away,” Ives quotes George M. Cohan’s hit “Over There.”

Ivor Novello was called up for duty in 1916 by the Royal Navy Air Service. After crashing two planes in training, he was moved to a clerical position, where he served for the remainder of the war. Our arrangement of Novello’s hit “Keep the Home Fires Burning” hints at the irony of singing such an optimistic song, when in fact so many soldiers would never return. Walter Donaldson served for the American Army, after which he wrote the tender song “My Buddy.” Wilfred Sanderson wrote “God Be With Our Boys Tonight” in the final year of the war. The uplifting song was made famous by the Irish tenor John McCormack. The final song is our original arrangement of Danny Boy. This is our tribute to all the soldiers who did not return, and to all those loved ones who suffered the pain of that loss.

-Peter Dugan