The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Here is what The Ear would like to see used on Memorial Day to honor veterans and the fallen | May 31, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is actually Memorial Day, even though many celebrations took place yesterday, including the National Memorial Day Concert on the Mall (below).

Well, to honor the occasion I posted a survey asking you for suggestions of classical  music that is appropriate for Memorial Day to honor veterans and fallen soldiers. Here are some from David Susan of Madison, who writes:

“Four pieces come to mind for Memorial Day (though of course I have no idea what they may say to others!): 1. Borodin, “In the Steppes of Central Asia” 2. Ives, “Variations on America” (Organ) 3. Vaughan Williams, “English Folk Song Suite” 4. (If “classical-style movie music” counts) then music by Hans Zimmer from the 90’s movie “Backdraft” could work–the main theme “Fighting 17th,” or a later cut called “Show Me Your Firetruck,” which combines the martial and poignant themes.

Here, as promised is, mine.

I’ll confess: I have not fought in a war. But no account of war I have heard or read suggests it is a quiet event.

So that is all the more reason why some quietude suggests rest and forgiveness, peace  — both individual and social — and an end to hostilities of all kinds. It is gentle and kind, but it stands and endures and moves people.

And so I offer this excerpt from the Faure Requiem — the “Pie Jesu” sung by the late Lucia Popp.

For me, the Faure Requiem, is like the Brahms “German” Requiem or the Mozart Requiem or the Verdi Requiem or Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and so many other great sacred pieces of music: You don’t have to be religious, let alone, say, Catholic, to feel the emotion and feeling behind this. I can’t believe anyone of faith or without faith would be insulted to hear this work played in honor of them or someone close to them.

And I can imagine the National Symphony Orchestra with a great American soprano — say, Renee Fleming or Kathleen Battle — performing this piece and absolutely bringing the huge crowd on the West Lawn of the Capital in Washington, D.C., to quiet and contemplation.

I hope you also think it is a good choice.

Whether you agree or not, let me know.

The Ear wants to hear.

Now here it is:

Posted in Classical music


  1. Thank you for the marvelous suggestion of Faure’s “Pie Jesu”. As a matter of fact, I hope it will be sung at my own requiem. It is a soulful, moving piece for me and perfect for honoring the dead. Sorry for the delay in responding – just got back from vacation.

    Comment by Margaret Irwin — June 15, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

  2. Thanks for the sentiment, and sorry about misspelling Copland!

    Comment by Ron McCrea — May 31, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

  3. I actually heard the “1812” performed in Portland, Maine, on a spit of land with the howitzers blasting, during the national governors’ conference meeting in the summer of 1983. They also had Sen. Ed Muskie narrate the Copeland “Lincoln Portrait” and served a clambake. Quite a spiffy and inspired event.

    From what I’ve read, Decoration Day, now Memorial Day, was selected in May three years after the Civil War because no great battle occurred on that date, allowing both North and South to observe it, and because flowers would be in bloom with which to decorate graves.

    Likewise, Armistice Day in November was declared to mark the end of the “War to End All Wars.” Somehow Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Independence Day, aka the Fourth of July, have become blurred together. They are all military celebrations accompanied by car and furniture sales. Pearl Harbor Day and D-Day are close behind.

    The “Pie Jesu” is a wonderful idea, blessing the war dead (not “the fallen,” por favor), but when it comes to wars the most fitting music to me is martial music and bugles — or silence — or reading of the bitter verse of Wilfred Owen.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — May 31, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

    • Hi Ron,
      I can agree with everything, including using the “war dead” instead of the euphemism “the fallen.”
      But as for martial music– well, what’s the old saying? Military justice is to justice as military music is to music.
      I’ll stand by non-military music for my preference to mark the tragedy, even when necessary, of war.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 31, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

      • Hi Ron, I remember hearing Ed Muskie narrating the “Lincoln” with the PSO. Ever since then, when I think of Abraham Lincoln, I picture Senator Muskie, with his craggy face and shaggy hair. When I was in high school, he was in our kitchen at least one evening a month, working with my Dad and some others to stop the paper mills from dumping their sludge into the Presumpscot River (now a great place to fish.) That was one of his earliest clean air and clean water projects. He was a good man and a real statesman. Nan

        Comment by Nan Morrissette — June 1, 2010 @ 5:44 am

  4. Sorry to get this to you late… Here are three patriotic works, classic if not classical.

    Sousa’s “Stars And Stripes Forever” is the ultimate American patriotic song, known to every schoolchild, veteran, parade watcher, band member, camper (“Oh be kind to your web-footed friends…”), July 4th concert-goer… it’s as American as they get and brings tears to my eyes every time. It was also what my grandfather woke us up to at 5:00 AM every Christmas morning, blasting it from the speakers. My second favorite recording is found on “The March King: John Philip Sousa Conducts His Own Marches and Other Favorites.” But my very favorite recording is from an old LP, played on a venerable calliope.

    When the Portland (Maine) Symphony and several community orchestras performed this work outdoors, my little white-haired mother used to be the first, second, third and fourth cannons for Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” Mum was officially known to the U. S. Navy as “Black Powder Annie,” after she fired at several Aegis Destroyers. (From the edge of the cliff at their oceanside home in South Portland, she and my father saluted any interesting ships entering or leaving Portland Harbor with cannon fire. They were saluted back by everything from the QE II to the USS John F. Kennedy.) The “1812” will always be her music of choice.

    However, to keep our patriotism in perspective, and to remind us always of the ravages of war and the huge toll it takes on all sides, I offer the incredible beautiful “Field of the Dead” from Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky.”

    God bless America and all who love her.

    Comment by Nan Morrissette — May 31, 2010 @ 6:11 am

    • Hi Nan,
      As ever, thanks for reading and then taking the time to comment.
      I think your first two choices are pretty standard repertoire selections and are included in many concerts (including the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Concerts on the Square, for the Fourth of July, especially the Tchaikovsky. And Sousa is as standard fare on even more occasions.
      But it really is the personal stories you tell about them that make them stand out.
      However, your choice of the Prokofiev work REALLY intrigues me and is unexpected. I once heard the “Alexander Nevsky” score performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra along with the film. (It was quite the total audio-visual experience.) But I want to, and intend to, hear “The Field of the Dead” again, thanks to your suggestion.
      I am also surprised that no one mentioned one of the most famous Yankee composers of all — Charles Ives.
      But it’s not too late.
      Yes, it is good to keep our patriotism in perspective and to be reminded on the ravages of war, which is why most great war novels are anti-war novels. So I join you in saying God Bless America and add God Bless Everyone in the World — with Peace.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 31, 2010 @ 9:16 am

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