The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What music best commemorates today’s 70th anniversary of D-Day, which marked the beginning of the end of Nazi domination of Western Europe? The Ear offers two works by Edward Elgar and Maurice Ravel. | June 6, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is June 6, 2014 –- the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allies invaded the northwest coast of France on the beaches at Normandy and started the beginning of the end of Nazi domination in Western Europe by Adolf Hitler.

D-Day landing

A lot of music commemorates war and the troops who fell in battle.

I offer two that may not be the best choices but that move me.

First, I offer the ninth variation, “Nimrod,” from British composer Sir Edward Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns used it very effectively in a solo piano version in his epic film about World War II called simply “The War.”

But I cannot find that version. So here is the a haunting and deeply moving orchestral performance in a popular YouTube video played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its former music director and conductor Daniel Barenboim:

And here is the “Pavane for a Dead Princess” by French composer Maurice Ravel. He actually wrote “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and dedicated each movement to a different friend of his who died in World War I. But there is something quietly eloquent about the way Ravel uses the stately and processional dance step of the Pavane to express understated sorrow.

Ravel usually composed on the piano, and then orchestrated his own work. So here are two versions, the first orchestral and the second done on the piano and played by the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who captures just the right bittersweetness and poignancy.

You can decide which one best expresses your sentiments about today’s historic commemoration. Despite the coughing in the background, I tend to favor the simpler and more austere piano version. But both are deeply moving to me.

I am sure that many other works, from two famous funeral marches by Ludwig van Beethoven (in the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” and the Piano Sonata in A-Flat Major, Op. 26) to the famous Funeral March by Frederic Chopin, would be appropriate.

Classical music –- instrumental, vocal and choral as well as operatic – offers so many appropriate choices. My guess is that NPR and Wisconsin Public Radio, like radio stations and even TV stations around the country and the world, will feature many such works in their programming for today. I would especially love to hear Requiems by Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gabriel Faure.

If you have a favorite, please leave a reply with a YouTube link if possible, plus the reasons why you like the work so much.

The Ear wants to hear.

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    Comment by James Peters — July 28, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

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  4. One of my favorite war-inspired pieces is Rudolf Mauersberger’s Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, an unaccompanied Lament Motet for the city of Dresden that uses select lines from the Lamentations of Jeremiah for its text (the destruction of Jerusalem). Mauersberger was Kantor of the Dresden Kreuzkirche, and although he narrowly escaped death during the Allies firebombing of the city, 11 of his choir boys perished. While this certainly is not related to D-Day, it is an artist’s deeply emotional response to the tragedies of war. I have conducted this piece several times and with several different choirs, including Madison’s Isthmus Vocal Ensemble and a performance as guest conductor of two German choirs combined with my university choir in the Cologne Cathedral. Below is a link to my latest performance with my San Antonio Chamber Choir from May 11, 2014. I highly recommend reading the translation of the text along with listening. Here’s a link to the text:

    Youtube video:

    Comment by Scott MacPherson — June 6, 2014 @ 11:17 pm

  5. Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw? Tough, perhaps, but appropriate.

    Comment by sackerson — June 6, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

  6. I disagree. D-Day does not call for funeral music. Save that for Memorial Day. D-Day is a massive assault by sea and air. D-Day is surprise and a deception. It is the unleashing of aggression, and hellish violence. It is desperate and heroic. It should be commemorated by music that celebrates daring and bravery. It’s Valkyrie time (too bad it’s German), and the battle passages from “Ein Heldenleben” (ditto) and maybe the Verdi Dies Irae (also Axis music?), and the NBC Radio Symphony playing “D-Day” by Richard Rogers.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — June 6, 2014 @ 11:35 am

  7. I nominate Barber’s Symphony No. 2. Although twenty years after its composition, he wanted it destroyed and felt it was not good, I find it a powerful portrayal of what must have felt like a do-or-die effort to end the war.

    Comment by slfiore — June 6, 2014 @ 9:44 am

  8. Let me provide a couple of entries:

    1 The “Requiem” of Maurice Durufle. I believe it is pointedly a reaction to WW II — written in 1947. I relate to it as an anguished cry of penitence throughout, and in that context “In Paradisum” just packs a wallop of a catharsis. Durufle wrote very little else, but he outdid himself on this great work.

    2 Prokofiev’s 8th Piano Sonata, and Barber’s Piano Sonata. I regard these as the greatest piano works written in response to WW II events (and perhaps the greatest, period). Both works drag you through some immensely tragic terrain; and, for me, the sense of tragedy overpowers the statement of “victory” in the final movement of both. From what I understand, Barber in fact wanted to end his Sonata with the third movement — one of unquestionable despair, IMO — but Horowitz (for whom it was written) simply refused to premier it unless it had an additional movement which reflected some measure of hope. And Barber’s response was the powerful virtuosic Fugue. I can fully sympathize with Barber’s original conception, though.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — June 6, 2014 @ 8:09 am

    • Hi Tim,
      All three are great suggestions and classic works of music that pertain to World War II.
      I too love the Prokofiev and Barber sonatas, though I am more inclined to listen to the Durufle Requiem on a day like this. It reminds me of the pensive calm of the Faure Requiem, with which it shares a lot of qualities, don’t you think?
      As always, thank you for reading and replying so thoughtfully and insightfully.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 6, 2014 @ 8:14 am

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