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.

 


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: YOU MUST HEAR THIS: The “Air” for strings by the American composer Arthur Foote

June 23, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has heard quite a lot of music — mostly orchestral music and chamber music — by the American composer Arthur Foote before.

It was okay — perfectly acceptable, accessible and listenable if not always memorable.

But this time was different.

As often happens, it occurred on Wisconsin Public Radio.

That is where I heard the “Air” from Foote’s “Serenade for Strings” in E Major, Op. 25.

The music proved beautiful, relaxing and even restorative. You know it’s good when it is hard not to listen.

Foote (1853-1937, below in 1930) is generally considered to be the first American composer trained entirely in the United States. He was a member of “The Boston Six,” also called the Second New England School and the New England Classicists, a group that included Amy Beach and Edward MacDowell.

Here is a link to Foote’s biographical entry on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Foote

And here is an entry about The Boston Six:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_New_England_School

The Ear doesn’t recall hearing the Air or the entire Serenade by Arthur Foote performed live in Madison, although it seems like perfect fare especially for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, but also possibly for the Middleton Community Orchestra, or even a University of Wisconsin-Madison group or the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Anyway at the bottom – for your listening pleasure, as they say — is a YouTube video of the Air that proved so appealing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE5VDFBOhtU

Let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


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