Kevin Puts: Silent Night Elegy 

Silent Night Elegy 

Kevin Puts

BORN: January 3, 1972. Saint Louis, MS. Currently residing in New York, NY

COMPOSED: 2017-18

WORLD PREMIERE: The full opera Silent Night premiered at Minnesota Opera in November 2011. These concerts mark the first performances of Silent Night Elegy. The work was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, and Saint Louis Symphony, through the support of Mr. Joseph and Dr. Bette Hirsch

INSTRUMENTATION:  3 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets (2 doubling E-flat clarinet and 1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, anvil, bass drum, bells, Chinese cymbals, claves, cow bells, crash cymbals, bowed crotales, glockenspiel, gongs, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tom-toms, triangle, tubular bells, vibraphone, wood block, xylophone, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 20 mins

Kevin Puts was already a well-regarded composer before he received a life-changing phone call in 2012. That was when he discovered he had received the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his debut opera Silent Night. Pulitzer officials described it as “a stirring opera that recounts the true story of a spontaneous cease-fire among Scottish, French, and Germans during World War I, displaying versatility of style and cutting straight to the heart.” First produced at Minnesota Opera, the opera has subsequently been performed at Fort Worth Opera, Cincinnati Opera, the Wexford Opera Festival, Calgary Opera, Montreal Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Atlanta Opera, Opera San Jose, and Michigan Opera Theatre, among others.

Pulitzer in hand, Puts was now an in-demand opera composer. His second work in the genre, The Manchurian Candidate, was also commissioned by Minnesota Opera and had its world premiere in 2015. His first chamber opera, an adaptation of Peter Ackroyd’s gothic novel The Trial of Elizabeth Cree was commissioned and premiered by Opera Philadelphia in 2017. Puts’s other vocal music includes a work for soprano RenĂ©e Fleming and orchestra, based on the personal letters of Georgia O’Keeffe; the choral works To Touch The Sky and If I Were A Swan were performed and recorded by Conspirare.

Outside the realm of vocal music, Puts is the composer of several symphonies and his works have been commissioned, performed, and recorded by leading ensembles, and soloists throughout the world, including Yo-Yo Ma, Jeffrey Kahane, Evelyn Glennie, the New York Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Miro Quartet, and the symphonies of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, Atlanta, Colorado, Houston, Fort Worth, Saint Louis, and Minnesota. He is currently a member of the composition department at the Peabody Institute and the Director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute.—Steven Ziegler

Kevin Puts offers the following on Silent Night Elegy:

Sometime in 2008, I received an unexpected phone call from Dale Johnson, then Artistic Director of Minnesota Opera. He was interested in commissioning an operatic adaptation of Joyeux Noel, the 2005 Christian Carion film based on the spontaneous cease-fires and celebrations which took place along the Western Front on the first Christmas Eve of World War I. While I had produced a rather large catalog of orchestral works by 2008, there was very little vocal music—and no opera. Yet I was excited by the challenge of such a project, and my dearth of opera experience was smartly counterbalanced by the hiring of seasoned librettist Mark Campbell, with whom I have now written three operas. 

We called the opera Silent Night. Since the opera premiered in November 2011, I have gotten some interest in making a separate piece out of the orchestral music in the opera. Benjamin Britten’s haunting Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes comes to mind as one of the most successful attempts at such an endeavor. I felt however that a single-movement “essay”—rather than a suite of separate movements—would work better for my purposes. 

Silent Night Elegy more or less follows the narrative of the opera itself. An introduction featuring solo horn and solo cello introduces the primary thematic material of the opera. This is followed by a contrapuntal layering of the battle songs sung by the three armies (French, German, and Scottish) in the opera’s Prologue, anchored by a military snare drum. 

This leads directly to the cataclysmic battle scene which occurs near the beginning of Act I. A sense of confusion, sadness, and disarray follow until a lonely solo flute, accompanied by the harp, emerges from the haze and introduces the music of the Act II burial scene. In this scene—which culminates in a bagpipe melody—the soldiers have agreed to extend the cease-fire to allow time to bury the bodies strewn about in No-man’s Land. 

The generals of all three armies receive word of the unofficial celebrations. They are incensed and order the soldiers transferred to areas on the front where the fighting is most fierce. 

In our first discussion about the opera, Mark Campbell mentioned a possible scene in which all three armies drift off to sleep on the evening after the great battle, singing in their three languages about home as snow gradually begins to fall. This became a chorus in Act I, and the Elegy closes with this prayerful music.

If there is a message borne by the film—or the libretto—it is that once your sworn enemy ceases to be faceless, war becomes far less possible. This is a message I fully believe in. I am deeply grateful to the San Francisco Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony, and the Saint Louis Symphony for commissioning this work, and to Bette and Joe Hirsch for their generous support and friendship. —Kevin Puts

More About the Music

Recordings: While there are currently no recordings of Silent Night Elegy available, several of Puts’s orchestral works can be heard on releases by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra (Naxos) and the Baltimore Symphony (Harmonia Mundi), both led by Marin Alsop

Reading: Visit Kevin Puts’s website at kevinputs.com