Wednesday Dec. 24, 2014

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Winter, Thirty Below with Sundogs

The sun came up chased by dogs
Across a field of snow.
As they passed the pile of broken logs
Frost fluttered in the air
Between the birch trees
Standing in that spot exactly
Where the ridge becomes a hill.
In another thousand years
Sky and woods and land
Will have come to be there, still.
And still pursued all day, a winter fox
Too smart for dogs,
The sun goes in animal delight
Over the farthest edge of earth
Not far ahead of night
And jumps into the dark pool
With a last great splash of light.

"Winter, Thirty Below with Sundogs" by Tom Hennen, from Darkness Sticks to Everything. © Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

Today is Christmas Eve.

It was on this day 100 hundred years ago that the last known Christmas truce occurred along the Western Front during World War I. In the week leading up to Christmas, soldiers all over the battlefields had been decorating their trenches with candles and makeshift trimmings when groups of German and British soldiers began shouting seasonal greetings and singing songs to each other. On occasion, a soldier or two would even cross the battlefield to take gifts to the enemy. Then, on Christmas Eve, the men of the Western Front put the war on hold and many soldiers from both sides left their trenches to meet in No Man’s Land, where they mingled and exchanged tobacco, chocolate, and sometimes even the buttons from their own uniforms as souvenirs. They played games of football, sang carols, and buried fallen comrades together as the unofficial truce lasted through the night.

It was on this day in 1818 that the carol Silent Night was first performed at the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria. Father Joseph Mohr was working there as a young priest, and had written the poem two years earlier.

Legend has it that as Christmas approached, the church pipe organ was broken, threatening a Midnight Mass without music. Father Mohr paid a quick visit to the choir director, Franz Gruber, and asked him to compose a melody for his Christmas poem. Late that night, the two performed the carol as a duet at the Midnight Mass. Father Mohr sang tenor and played the guitar while Gruber sang bass. The song was immediately popular throughout the village, and copies of the sheet music soon began to spread around the country. By the middle of the 19th century, it was embraced throughout Europe, and was being sung by folk singers, church choirs, and in the courts of kings. It is now sung in 300 languages around the world.

It was on this day in 1871 that Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida had its debut at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo. The opera was commissioned by Ismail Pasha, the khedive of Egypt. Pasha had been educated in Paris, and he dreamed that with the construction of the Suez Canal, Cairo would be the new Paris. Pasha planned elaborate festivities to celebrate the canal’s opening, and he wrote to ask Verdi if the great composer would write a piece of music to celebrate. Verdi answered: “I regret that I must decline this honor [...] it is not my custom to compose occasional pieces.” Pasha accepted that, but he did not give up on Verdi. The Egyptian leader built a beautiful and luxurious opera house, which opened with the Suez Canal in November of 1869; its first opera was Verdi’s Rigoletto. The next spring, Pasha offered Verdi 150,000 francs, a huge sum of money, to write an Egyptian-themed opera.

A French Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette, wrote the story: an Ethiopian princess, Aida, is enslaved in Egypt. She loves Radames, a commander of the Pharaoh’s army, who loves her back. Aida is torn between her love of Radames and loyalty to her father, King of Ethiopia and the Pharaoh’s enemy. Verdi was impressed by the story. He wrote in a letter: “It offers a splendid mise-en-scène, and there are two or three situations which, if not very new, are certainly very beautiful.” The librettist was Antonio Ghislanzoni, and Verdi composed the opera quickly as he received pieces of the libretto. In September of 1871, the director of the Cairo Opera House met Verdi to receive a handwritten copy of the opera. Verdi refused to attend the opening because he got seasick easily and hated traveling by ship.

The opera was quite a spectacle, with dramatic sets, costumes, choruses, and dances. The Pyramids of Giza and the Temple of Karnak were prominently featured. The first, sold-out performance was a huge success. Ismail Pasha was overjoyed, and after the curtain went down the performers were given round after round of applause, as was Pasha. The opera played 12 times that season in Egypt, and opened in Italy a few months later — this time Verdi was in the audience. The performers received 32 curtain calls.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®