If we imagine the First World War and the Armistice, our ears turn to England. Nostalgic qualities found in Holst’s The Planets and Elgar’s Nimrod have come to typify a memorial soundscape so strong that little room is made for works from other English-speaking countries. This is no truer than for the United States, whose late entry into the Great War has long precluded American composers from making any significant contribution to the Armistice’s select musical canon. But as November 11 approaches, one might ponder the justice of our deference to Anglocentrism. Why is it assumed that an American composer would only offer a national, and not a personal sense of sincerity?
Last night, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra premiered Silent Night Elegy, Kevin Puts’ newly composed paraphrase of his 2011 opera and Pulitzer laureate, Silent Night. Just as in the opera, the opening harmonies more akin to Copland than Elgar set a distant tone for narration of the lives of English and German soldiers in the trenches. Towards the end of the work, Puts recalled the Christmas Truce of 1914, in which German and British soldiers crossed over barbed wire to lay down their weapons and sings carols together in front of a fire. English traditional carols like Dona Nobis Pacem or even the Austrian carol Silent Night made no appearance in the composer’s expansive fugue illustrating a token instance of brotherhood. Indeed, the music was cleverly unmuddied by any national signifiers as the strings instead played tunes of original carols Puts composed specially for his 2011 opera. Puts’ work was by no means all about peace and understanding. Snare drums and spitting trumpets were used to imitate rapid gunfire, while oboe screams and whirring flutes evoked the aural sensation of tinnitus, a condition wrought by shelling. Descriptive material once again offered no musical differentiation between either side, as Puts’ dense orchestrations also showed humanity’s blind capacity for violence.
Silent Night Elegy may avoid pointing fingers, but it implicitly compares two very different occasions when fighting ceased during the First World War. While the Christmas Truce marked a brief, perhaps genuine instance of reconciliation, the Armistice of November 11, 1918 was in fact a formal declaration of victory for the Allies and a surrender for Germany and Austria-Hungary. Perhaps it’s not too surprising, as the 2011 premiere of Silent Night was notable for its stance in holding British and German leadership equally responsible for initiating hostilities.
Slapping the Treaty of Versailles in the face, the opera seems not so much designed to tell a story as to win a Pulitzer, as three hushed chords signaled hope at the conclusion of Puts’ missed opportunity. One can concede that Puts’ compositional voice in Silent Night Elegy may not be self-consciously American, being indicative rather of a desire to be politically hands-off. But rather than appearing sincere, Puts only proves the stereotype of Americans as insensitive to the historical implications of the Armistice.