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: Veterans Day is a good time to hear Bach’s musical prayer for peace

November 11, 2019
2 Comments

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

Today – Nov. 11, 2019 – is Veterans Day.

There is a lot of classical music that can be used to honor the holiday and the men and women who serve in the military.

This is not the day to remember the dead. That is Memorial Day.

So it is worth recalling that Veterans Day started out as Armistice Day in 1918 when World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Here is a link to more about the holiday found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veterans_Day

One could celebrate by using brass bands and other military ensembles playing patriotic music and marches.

But there seems to be too much conflict in the world, and the dream of ending war and armed conflict seems as distant as ever, given certain political trends and unfortunately regressive and destructive forces at work right now.

Instead, The Ear wants to honor what should be the deeper purpose of the military: To secure peace.

For that reason, here is a YouTube video of a  memorable performance of “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Grant Us Peace), the ending prayer from the Mass in B Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach.

The four-minute work is performed more slowly than usual, but also more movingly and soulfully, by the famed Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, all under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner.

Do you agree that it is a wish that honors the true purpose of the military?

If you know of other appropriate music to mark the holiday, please leave the title of the work and the names of the composer and the performers along with, if possible, a YouTube link.

The Ear wants to hear.

 


Classical music: Which music best commemorates Memorial Day?

May 25, 2015
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day 2015.

graves with flags USE day

Try as I might, The Ear cannot think of better music to remember and memorialize the wounded and fallen than the “Nimrod” Variation from “Enigma” Variations by Sir Edward Elgar (below).

Edward Elgar

The holiday is much more complex and psychological than the usual funeral march permits.

It was, after all, the same music that the American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns used in “The War” — about World War II — played in a hauntingly wonderful solo piano arrangement that I simply cannot find on YouTube.

But the music’s meaning, and the way it affects you, can change in the instruments performing it.

So today I offer three ways or versions, arrangements or transcriptions.

First is the very popular YouTube video of the original orchestral version featuring Daniel Barenboim conducting in Carnegie Hall the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – with its great strings and brass — in memory of his predecessor, music director and conductor Georg Solti.

Second is a stirring rendition by a military brass band in England playing on Remembrance Day 2011 before Queen Elizabeth II:

And the third version is an a cappella choral version using the Latin lyric “Lux Aeterna” (Eternal Light) from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead that was put together in England.

All versions are moving and attest to the emotional power of Elgar’s music.

But which version do you like best and why?

And is there other music you would play to commemorate Memorial Day?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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