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