The Well-Tempered Ear

YOU MUST HEAR THIS: No piece captures the mixed emotions of Memorial Day better than Charles Ives’ “Decoration Day”

May 30, 2022
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2022.

It is the annual holiday to remember those who died in military service to the country. (Below are flags placed each year at the tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.)

If you want to honor survivors and current service members, that would be Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

All weekend long the radio has been playing music and the television has been showing war movies.

A lot of the music is familiar and repeated every year: Sousa marches and Morton Gould suites, elegies by Gustav Mahler, Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein; requiems by Mozart and Fauré; a hymn by John Williams and other movie scores. This year has also seen the playlist include rediscovered works of homage by African-American composers such as William Grant Still.

But only this year did The Ear finally hear — thanks to Wisconsin Public Radio — the one piece that, to his mind, best captures Memorial Day with its blending of consonance and dissonance, its mix of major and major keys, of familiar or “found” music and original music.

It is called, simply, “Decoration Day” and it was composed in 1912 — but not published until 1989 — by the 20th-century iconoclastic and early modernist American composer Charles Ives (below, 1874-1954). It ended up as part of a work the composer called “A Symphony: New England Hollidays.”

See if you agree with The Ear.

Listen to the 8-minute performance by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band in the YouTube video at the bottom.

Listen to the deep anguish and and sense of loss conveyed in the opening, when a solemn remembrance procession goes to a cemetery to plant flags and lay flowers and wreaths to “decorate” the graves of the fallen.

Listen carefully and you will hear a faint version of “Taps” and ringing church bells in the atmospheric music.

Then as so often happens in reality, life suddenly intrudes in the form of a celebration by a loud marching brass band as it leaves the cemetery for the celebratory marches, picnics and fireworks.

But at the end, the darkness briefly returns. The sense of loss lingers long after the actual death and long after the holiday has been celebrated.

There is no closure.

Just resignation.

Just living with loss.

Here is the background from Wikipedia about how the holiday started as Decoration Day after the Civil War and when it evolved into Memorial Day in 1970: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day

And here is biographical background, with the actual sources and depictions of “Decoration Day”  — just go  down the page to compositions and click — about Charles Ives: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Ives

Did you know and like Charles Ives’ music?

Does “Decoration Day” impress or move you?

What music most embodies Memorial Day for you?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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Classical music: The experts said his music wouldn’t last. But Rachmaninoff and his fans proved them wrong. Hear for yourself this Wednesday night at this summer’s final Concert on the Square

July 30, 2019
8 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

The experts sure got it wrong.

Only 11 years after the death of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (below, 1873-1943) – also spelled Rachmaninov — the 1954 edition of the prestigious and authoritative “Grove Dictionary of Music” declared Rachmaninoff’s music to be “monotonous in texture … consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes” and predicted that his popular success was “not likely to last.”

That opinion probably came from the same academicians who favored the atonal and serial composers at the time.

But Rachmaninoff’s music is so emotional, so beautiful and so easy for audiences to connect with that it can be a challenge to remember its serious backstory.

For example, much personal turmoil and anguish went into his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, which headlines this Wednesday night’s final summer Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

(Other works on the program, to be performed at 7 p.m. on the King Street corner of the Capitol Square, are the Overture to “The Magic Flute” by Mozart, the Firebird” Suite by Igor Stravinsky, the “Cornish Rhapsody” for piano and orchestra by Hubert Bath.)

For more information – including rules, food and etiquette — about the concert, go to: https://wisconsinchamberorchestra.org/performances/concerts-on-the-square-6-4/

The perfectly chosen soloist is the Russia-born and Russia-trained pianist Ilya Yakushev (below), who has appeared several times with Andrew Sewell and the WCO as well as in solo recitals at Farley’s House of Pianos, where he will perform again this coming season as part of the Salon Piano Series.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901) may well be the most popular piano concerto ever written, one that has often been used in many novels, movies and popular songs. Some would argue that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1910) has surpassed it in the popularity and frequency of performance.

True or not, the second concerto is a triumph of the human spirit and individual creativity. (You can hear the dramatic and lyrical opening movement, played live by Yuja Wang at the Verbier Festival, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

It was written in 1900-01 after the composer’s first symphony had not succeeded with the critics and when personal problems had overwhelmed him (below, around 1910).

Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression that lasted four years. During that time he had daily sessions with a psychotherapist whose cure used hypnosis and repeating to the composer that one day soon he would write a piano concerto that prove very good and very popular.

And so it was. The therapist was Dr. Nikolai Dahl (below) — and that is whom the concerto is dedicated to.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is often considered the Mount Everest of piano concertos for the sheer physicality and stamina required to play it.

Yet the composer himself — who premiered, recorded and often performed both concertos — said he thought the second concerto, although shorter, was more demanding musically, if not technically.

For more information about Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as its place in popular culture, go to these two Wikipedia websites where you will be surprised and impressed:

For the Piano Concerto No. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Concerto_No._2_(Rachmaninoff)

For general biographical details about Rachmaninoff: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Rachmaninoff


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