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: What music will you listen to on Memorial Day? The Ear offers several stirring stories about music and Memorial Day, from Walt Whitman and the Civil War through World War II to the Twin Towers and the War of Terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

May 26, 2014
5 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Memorial Day, 2014

My Mom always referred to it as Decoration Day

I liked that name. It seemed to fit the occasion better.

army grave with flag and flowrds istock photo

To be honest, The Ear has always liked the idea of honoring military service, but is much less inclined to celebrate unabashed militarism with parades and flag-waving (below is a photo of a Memorial Day parade in Chicago).

I think of Memorial Day as a sadder, more introspective and memory-driven holiday, as well as the traditional start of summer -– which, especially after a Wisconsin winter like the last one, is nothing to apologize for.

chicago memorial day parade

In any case, here is a link to an informative but very accessible history of the holiday that also highlights the important difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day

graves with flags USE day

But putting history aside for a moment, how would you celebrate the holiday artistically, especially musically?

That is what The Ear wants to know.

Every year, the excellent blog “Deceptive Cadence” on NPR offers its musical take on Memorial Day. This year is no different and NPR has chosen some moving words and music that you should check out:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/05/24/315107700/asleep-in-dress-blues-music-for-memorial-day

But over the past years, The Well-Tempered Ear has also offered previous blog posts – some offering suggested listening, others seeking it — that still seem relevant and still invite readers to participate.

Here is one from last year:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/classical-music-for-you-what-classical-music-best-celebrates-memorial-day/

And here is a link to memorable 2011 posting, which made a lot of suggestions for composers and specific works, then asked for reader feedback and also featured the moving version of Sir Edward Elgar’s beautifully poignant “Nimrod” Variation from the “Enigma” Variations (heard in the original orchestration  at the bottom in a YouTube video that has almost 2,5 million hits and features Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and Norah Jones in her “Hymn to America,” both used convincingly and touchingly in Ken Burns’ mammoth documentary film “The War”:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/classical-and-classic-what-music-do-you-think-best-expresses-memorial-day/

Finally, here is a stirring story, much of it previously unknown to me, about the history of “Taps” that appeared on NPR:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/classical-music-for-memorial-day-and-as-a-tribute-to-all-veterans-here-is-the-long-and-moving-history-of-taps-from-npr/

TAPS Getty Images

What music comes to your mind and heart when you think of Memorial Day?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: For you, what classical music best celebrates Memorial Day?

May 27, 2013
7 Comments

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:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/classical-and-classic-what-music-do-you-think-best-expresses-memorial-day/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2010/05/31/classical-music-here-is-what-the-ear-would-like-to-see-used-on-memorial-day-to-honor-veterans-and-the-fallen/

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

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/classical-music-for-memorial-day-and-as-a-tribute-to-all-veterans-here-is-the-long-and-moving-history-of-taps-from-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:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2011/05/29/136721458/what-music-helps-tell-your-memorial-day-stories

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:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104341851

ravel

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.


Classical music: For Memorial Day – and as a tribute to all veterans — here is the long and moving history of “Taps” from NPR.

May 28, 2012
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

In past years, I have posted works of classical music that pay tribute to veterans, their families and those whose suffering we recall and remember on Memorial Day. (Below is a photo of Arlington National Cemetery.)

Here is a link to the Memorial Day posting for 2011:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/

Here are links to two Memorial Day postings for 2010:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/classical-music-poll-what-classical-music-is-best-to-celebrate-memorial-day/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2010/05/

In addition, the National Memorial Day Concert – with hosts Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise — that was broadcast LIVE last night (Sunday) from the west lawn of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wisconsin Public Television will get an encore presentation tonight at 10:30 p.m. The National Symphony Orchestra will take part. It performs Samuel Barber‘s “Adagio for Strings,” among other works.

Here are links to information about that TV broadcast:

http://www.pbs.org/memorialdayconcert/concert/

http://wptschedule.org/schedulenow.php?epid=220691&stime=2012-05-28

But this year I happened upon something else: An extraordinary history on NPR of the moving, emotionally intense bugle call TAPS that will be played many times in many places today.

It is both a personal story of a longtime military bugler for Arlington National Cemetery and a history of a piece of music that spans 150 years, and wears and conflicts going back to the Civil War and more recently the assassination of JFK.

Here is a link to the story:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/05/18/152939191/150-years-of-taps

But I am also not ignoring classical music. If I recall correctly, Leonard Bernstein once commented on how Beethoven used various bugle calls in his Symphony No. 3, the famed “Eroica” that also has a movement that is a “Funeral March for a Hero.” (Part of the technical explanation, I seem to recall, is that the symphony is written in the key of E-flat, which is often the key for brass and especially horns and trumpets.)  

But I am still interested in what piece of classical music you would choose to listen to on Memorial Day as a tribute to veterans. Leave a comment and let us know.


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