‘Most extraordinary performance”

“The Christmas Truce” – Concert 19

Canberra International Music Festival

Fitters’ Workshop, May 16

Reviewed by Clinton White

IT’S December 24, 1914 and the warring sides are in the dark, dank trenches. There’s a strange silence, guarded by a rifle here and there.

Elizabeth Wallfisch

Elizabeth Wallfisch

A few lights flicker over the lip. The silence lingers heavy in the frosty air. In the mud and the snow a single voice begins tentatively to sing “O Tannenbaum”. Others join in with soft harmonies and the sound slowly builds in confidence.

Then, from 200 yards away, in the trenches opposite, another voice. This time it’s “Adeste Fideles”. Others on that side and then both begin to sing along.

The soldiers peek nervously over the lips of the opposing trenches. Slowly, one-by-one, they step up and out onto the blood-drenched battlefield. The two sides advance towards each other. But it’s not a threatening, angry advance. It’s an advance of the sweet sounds of Christmas – a Christmas truce.

When the soldiers meet there’s conversation, shaking hands – even brotherly hugs. Photos of family, or a girlfriend, are shown. Drinks are shared. Jokes are told. There are more songs – some poignant, like “Silent Night” or “The First Noel”, others drunken fun. There’s even a competition to see who can sing their national anthem the best, made so much easier because the tunes are the same.

There’s a game of football with friendly competition and celebration.

A lone, distant violin (Elizabeth Wallfisch) plays, filling the night air with a mournful but strangely peaceful, comforting tune.

But then a discovery. Nearby lays the body of a dead comrade – a courageous soldier. He is carried respectfully by men from both sides and laid to the gentlest rest.

One of their number, an ordained priest, dons a white stole, symbolic of peace. He breaks the bread, no doubt stale, and it is shared with all who are gathered. He pulls the cork from a bottle of wine, no doubt pretty nasty, and all take a sip. The lip of the bottle is not wiped on the way round. It’s not necessary. All present are brothers.

Then comes a lone piper (John Ferguson) from a distance place. The air he plays, whilst melancholy, seems to have a hidden power. All are silent.

Finally, a bugler. The sound of “The Last Post” echoes across the battlefield, its final note lingering seemingly endlessly. And then silence. A long silence. Perhaps there are thoughts of the futility of war. Perhaps there are thoughts of the dead comrade. Perhaps there are thoughts of going home. Perhaps there is a prayer or perhaps … nothing.

And then it comes. A slowly rising, rolling thunder. A thunder of applause from a deeply moved audience; moved to their feet too, in respectful appreciation of what likely was the most extraordinary performance of the Canberra International Music Festival.

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