The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical and classic: What music best expresses Memorial Day? | May 30, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2011.

All wars have many things in common. One thing is music.

From the American Civil War and World War I and World War II to the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, music has proven vital to heading off to war, coming home from war and remembering war.

It seems only fit and just then, as Abraham Lincoln might say, to mark this Memorial Day with appropriate music.

I choose not to celebrate the upbeat or jingoistic side of war, the Sousa marches, victory suites and the like.

That’s probably because in the long run, war always seems a solution of last resort – sometimes necessary but rarely desirable and never totally victorious or without terrible cost. It is a bittersweet and poignant, not joyful, occasion. And that is how remembering it should also be.

Today I offer three pieces of music that I hope will help you and those close to you to remember war and its human cost.

Curiously, all three have been used as soundtracks by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who clearly has a sharp ear for music that, to my mind, fits the occasion.

First, I offer a piece by Sir Edward Elgar often used to remember the dead and the fallen, one that is particularly popular in Britain and Commonwealth countries on Remembrance Day, which is similar to the American Memorial Day.

It is the “Nimrod” Variation from Elgar’s wonderfully effective “Enigma” Variations, often used by Burns in a solo piano transcription that I cannot find to link to.

The second is the bluegrass-type of music, which to me resonates with a certain American classicism, as does the words written by Sullivan Ballou. It is Jay Ungar’s “Ashoken Farewell” and was used by Burns in “The Civil War” to create one of the most moving moments in television history.

If you go to YouTube, you can even find it used to memorialize 9/11 and the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. That is how current it remains.

Finally, there is a newer piece, a pop song that also resonates of becoming a future classic, called the “American Anthem” and sung by Norah Jones, which Burns also used is his film about World War II, though it could apply to all wars and all forms of patriotic sacrifice.

This one is for you, Dad.

To all who have served and are serving and will serve, thank you. I hope you and your loved ones find these choices a fitting and worthy memorial in sound and will share this link with others.

If you want other ideas, here is a link:

I would also like to hear whatever music you think is most appropriate and most moving to mark Memorial Day – a song, an instrumental piece, an orchestral or choral work, whatever. Just leave a comment and a link.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I like Barber’s Adagio for Strings.


    Comment by eva wright — May 30, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    • Hi Eva,
      So do I.
      And it is a very fitting choice.
      I sometimes fear it is overplayed.
      But then I hear it again and realize how powerful it is.
      Did you know the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet gave the world premiere of it in Rome?


      Comment by welltemperedear — May 30, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

  2. Ashoken Farewell was composed by Jay Ungar. Though the link article gives more details, it would have been nice if you
    had acknowledged the composer of that work, just as you do for most of the other music you write about.


    Comment by Karen Fischer — May 30, 2011 @ 1:52 am

    • Hi Karen,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      You make a good point..
      I will add his name.,
      Thank you.


      Comment by welltemperedear — May 30, 2011 @ 6:18 am

  3. Music for Memorial Day? Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.


    Comment by Terri Gregory — May 30, 2011 @ 12:48 am

    • HI Terri,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      That is an excellent choice, both popular and and outstanding music.
      Thank you.


      Comment by welltemperedear — May 30, 2011 @ 8:14 am

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