The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: For you, what classical music best celebrates Memorial Day? | May 27, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Today, Monday, May 27, is Memorial Day – or Decoration Day, as it used to be known when solders’ graves were marked with more  flowers and flags, and fewer words and less rhetoric.

army grave with flag and flowrds istock photo

Music is such a profound part of our memories, of how we celebrate events and people.

So once again, The Ear asks: For you, what classical music best celebrates Memorial Day?

Here are links to some past years of my suggestions and suggestions – including music by J.S. Bach, Franz Josef Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Samuel Barber and so many others — from readers, found in the COMMENTS section:

And last year I linked to a great story about Taps that was done on NPR:

graves with flags USE day

Here is another link to another NPR story that features a moving aria of elegiac music by Henry Purcell:

And here is yet another NPR story that features some wonderful links to appropriate music – including Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and John Adams’ “The Wound Dresser,” based on the poetry of Walt Whitman (below), who was a hospital nurse during the American Civil War.

Walt Whitman 2

It also mentions and uses an audio clip of one of my favorites, “Le Tombeau de Couperin” by Maurice Ravel (below), which dedicates each movement to a different friend who had been killed in World War I, even while the music remains quietly wistful of earlier times and does not wear its heart if its sleeve.

I also find Ravel’s “Pavane pour une princesse defunte” (at bottom, played in a live concert recording so reservedly and so movingly by the great Sviatoslav Richter, despite the audience’s coughing) in a YouTube video) a poignant, bittersweet and very moving expression of sadness and nostalgia, especially in the original solo piano version which seems more intimate and introspective in its aloneness, rather than orchestral version:


So once again I ask: For you personally, what music best embodies and expresses Memorial Day?

Leave those suggestions and links in the COMMENTS section.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. To hearken back to the NPR Taps story and a personal Memorial Day memory: In 1971, the Veterans For Peace received a permit for a Memorial Day parade on the square. Many other veterans groups and school bands refused to participate. (There was a war on at the time, for those too young to remember, and some of the more traditional veterans groups had objected to a recent Madison Common Council resolution on the war.) A call went out over the radio for musicians to form an impromptu band. My high school band was marching in Monona early that morning. I asked around and another trumpeter agreed to join me to head to the square. After the parade, the veterans asked if we could play Taps. I stood before the reviewing stand and Greg hid in the bushes near the Capitol. We played Taps, with Greg echoing me.

    Comment by Steve Rankin — May 27, 2013 @ 11:28 am

  2. Your question is causing me to think deeply about what this day means to me. What do I mean by “honoring” those who lost their lives in war? Am I glorifying their sacrifice or mourning it? Only those who physically died, or also those who lost mental, physical, spiritual well-being? Only those who were in the military, or also the unnumbered dead in “collateral damage”? Am I honoring the mothers and fathers who have lost their children, the children who have lost a parent, their lives torn apart? Knowing the power of music to manipulate emotions, would my choice be to stir up the passions in support of state-sanctioned violence, or to console those who grieve? I guess the manner of my questions displays my anguish, and the only music I can think of which adequately expresses it is Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — May 27, 2013 @ 8:34 am

    • Hi Susan,
      You make excellent points, as always, and ask excellent, relevant questions.
      Especially these days it seems to me we run the risk of overglorifying the military and ignoring other aspects of suffering and victims of war or conflict.
      Plus I couldn’t agree with you more: the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8, which I recently listened to and was moved by, is a perfect choice in all ways.
      As I recall, the composer dedicated it to “All victims of fascism,” which the Soviet leaders took to mean the Nazis during World War II, but which Shostakovich used to mean all victims of all kinds of tyrants and dictatorships, including communism.
      Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 27, 2013 @ 8:40 am

  3. In creating my Memorial Day concert, no matter which elegiac pieces I chose for the body of the concert, , the Finale would be the Fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth: The celebration of the commonality of Humankind, which is the only real answer to War.

    Comment by Steven Powell — May 27, 2013 @ 7:55 am

    • Hi Steve,
      Thank you for your thoughtful reply.
      Increasingly, I find alternatives to war and armed conflict have more relevance and deeper appeal.
      That is not to understate the sacrifice mad by soldiers. But as another reader commented, all kinds of victims are involved as well.
      And Beethoven’s plea for “brotherhood,” based on the poet Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” is a fine choice.
      So, I would add, is Beethoven’s Symphony No.3, the famous “Eroica,” with its mammoth funeral march that surely applies to more than the military.
      Again, thank you for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 27, 2013 @ 8:45 am

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