On the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, France, Great Britain and Germany signed the Armistice. It was an agreement that ended the fighting of WWI as a prelude to peace negotiations.
On Sunday, the day of that centennial, the Penn State Concert Choir will perform “MEMORIA: A Cantata for the Centenary of the Armistice.” It was written by composer Scott Eggert, who lives in Annville, Pennsylvania.
Eggert was commissioned to create this music especially for the Armistice anniversary. He says he was free not just to write the music, but to choose his own texts.
“And I began reading literally hundreds and hundreds of poems,” Eggert says, “to attempt to assemble something into sort of an arc of a story, from 1914 to 1918, with the Armistice itself right in the center of the piece.”
Eggert included 11 articles from the Armistice document in the text for his cantata.
“They’re summaries, of course, of what was said in each of the articles,” the composer said. “ In another one, there’s a list of casualty numbers from major battles during the war. In another one, there are excerpts of personal letters between people at the front and back home.”
Eggert says he was pleased as he listened to a rehearsal of his work on Wednesday.
“It really was the first time I heard this choir sing some of it that I really began to become thrilled at what was happening,” he says. “They’ve taken to it in a powerful way. And they bring an intensity to it that really brings it to life. It’s radically powerful at times. So in that sense, I am happy with it now and I like it very much.”
Christopher Kiver, director of choral activities at Penn State, commissioned the piece from Eggert for the Armistice centennial.
“Some conductors like to have a very hands-on approach,” Kiver says. “But I feel that in order for the composer to create something that is dear to them, it’s better to leave them to it. So the funny thing is that I said to Scott, in our first conversation, ‘maybe 15 or 20 minutes?’ And so we have a 70 minute piece of music. So I was a little nervous. Just the fact that we’re only 10 weeks into the semester. But really the students have done a fabulous job.”
Kiver has high praise for the music Eggert wrote, too.
“It’s really deeply moving,” he says. “I think the genius of the work is in terms of the text, the poems. The third movement is really quite a horrific firsthand representation of war. But it’s followed by the most beautiful a capella chorale of the well-known poem 'In Flanders Fields.'”
Kiver will conduct both of the Sunday performances. They feature Penn State’s Concert choir, with a group of somewhat unusual instruments for a choral concert.
“We have three trumpets, two trombones, piano, synthesizer,” Kiver says. “In one of the movements he asks for an accordion sound from the synthesizer. But quite by chance, our synthesizer player plays the accordion. And then three percussionists.”
The percussionists, he says, will be using at least one very odd instrument. “We actually have an authentic World War I ratchet,” Kiver says.
A wooden ratchet (sometimes called a “rattle”) is a bit like the old child’s toy or New Year’s Eve noisemaker that swivels around the handle, making noise as you rotate your wrist.
“You sort of spun it around above your head and it makes this incredible noise,” Kiver says. “And that was to warn you that there was a gas attack coming. And so, that will be in the performance.”
And there will be more to these concerts than just the music.
“We’ve really tried to make this as much an experience for people as possible,” Kiver says. “We have this museum experience that’s happening before the concert, where the [Penn State] special collections folks from the library are supplying about 12 tables of images and artifacts.”
They also have an authentic World War I military uniform, and a photo of the soldier wearing it, in the pre-concert exhibit. There are other personal artifacts, as well as artwork and posters from the period. In the recital hall before the concert, the audience will hear poems related to World War I, recorded for this event by Penn State theatre students. These are the same poems that will be sung as part of the cantata. The organizers suggest arriving 30 minutes before the concerts start to view the exhibit.
“The idea of walking through this museum-like experience before, hearing the poems that have been recorded by School of Theatre students as you sit in the auditorium – it should take you to a place that makes you receive the music more deeply,” Kiver says. "And I think the fact that it truly is the centenary on November 11th makes this even more special.”
On the actual day of the anniversary, this Sunday, concert goers will gather to remember events of a century ago, with brand new music, in the newly-constructed recital hall at Penn State.
The Cantata for the Centenary of the Armistice will be performed twice: Sunday afternoon at 4 and Sunday evening at 7:30 in the new recital hall at Penn State University Park. The performances are FREE, but you must reserve your tickets. For information, call 1-800-ARTS-T-I-X.