Remembering Memorial Day

Today is one of the most important American holidays: Memorial Day. Informally, it serves as the first day of summer, but it is much, much more than “National Grill Out Day.” It is a time for reflection, a time to remember those who have given their lives in service to our great country.

Today I am particularly reminded of my grandfathers. They were very different in age—one served in World War I, the other in World War II. But serve they did, with pride and distinction. When the wars were over, both settled back into the round of civilian life to work, raise families and leave war behind.

Many others did not have that chance.

So today I’d like to honor the fallen. I’ve assembled a musical list in tribute that speaks to the unique character of today, reminding us about what we’ve lost… and what we value most.

* * *

Samuel Barber: Adagio for Strings. Barber’s solemn work, taken from his String Quartet, Op. 11, perfectly captures the emotions of the day. It has long been associated with mourning, going back to its association with the funerals of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. More recently, I remember a performance that Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra gave, while on tour to Greater Minnesota. Three soldiers from the area had just been killed in Iraq, and Osmo wanted to honor their memory. After the works’s conclusion the audience sat in respectful silence for several minutes, and many afterwards remarked back that it was the most profound musical experience they had ever had.

Henry Purcell: “When I am Laid in Earth,” from Dido and Aeneas. This haunting aria serves much the same function for our friends in the UK as Barber’s Adagio serves for us in the USA. Each year, a military band performs it in London’s Whitehall for the Cenotaph remembrance ceremony, which takes place on the Sunday nearest to November 11 (Armistice Day). Its text reads:

When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Joseph Haydn (arranger): “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” Haydn adapted this haunting folksong in his collection, Scottish Songs for William Napier. The words reflect on the experiences of a common soldier, asking what he will see as he makes ready to march off to war, and what he will experience when he gets there. The song itself has lived on, used most recently in All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, presented by the local group, Cantus.

Maurice Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin. Ravel’s choice of the word “tombeau” (meaning monument or, literally, tomb) has a dual significance here. On the one hand, it pays homage to François Couperin, the brilliant 18th-century French keyboardist. On another level, however, each of the six pieces in this suite is dedicated to the memory of one of the composer’s friends who had perished in World War I. Ravel himself spent the war as an ambulance driver and witnessed plenty of death and dying, yet the music itself lacks any sense of mourning or tragedy; Ravel chose instead to memorialize his friends as he remembered them in life.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3). Nowadays this work is seen as (or mocked as) a gentle description of the English countryside. The reality is quite different—it was Vaughan Williams’ direct response to his experiences during World War I. Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance volunteer in France; he wrote later that after experiencing unspeakable horrors and the loss of many friends and colleagues, the symphony was created as part of a profound need to find solace. He was particularly inspired by the sound of a bugler practicing, and remembered a time when the bugler accidentally played an interval of a seventh instead of an octave. From this idea, he wrote the haunting trumpet cadenza of the second movement.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem. Similar to Britten’s War Requiem, this work combines a Latin liturgical text (taken from the last portion of the Roman Catholic Mass) with poetry from Walt Whitman and other English language writings. It commemorates the fallen, while offering a hope for peace.

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem. This work needs little introduction. Britten’s powerful combination of the traditional Requiem text and the war poetry by Wilfred Owen is an overwhelming experience. I was privileged to perform this work with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra some years ago, and I consider it one of my most overwhelming musical experiences.

Paul Hindemith: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Subtitled “Requiem for Those We Love,” Hindemith chose a Walt Whitman text as a poignant elegy to Abraham Lincoln, in order to remember that great president. But it also memorializes Theodore Roosevelt, while also commemorating the end of World War II. The composer had made this country his home (becoming a citizen in 1946), and Whitman’s words offered the opportunity to mourn the fallen and celebrate the joys of living.

John Adams: The Wound Dresser. Walt Whitman’s poetry of the Civil War, born of his work as a volunteer nurse, manages to testify to both the horrifically graphic nature of the war’s carnage and to his own limitless compassion. John Adams expertly reflects the dual nature of the poem: the agony of the dying and the poet’s heartfelt, almost serene contemplation of mortality.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, Choral. Forgive me if this feels inappropriate, but I cannot end my list without this work. After the powerful emotions of the previous works, Beethoven’s celebration of universal brotherhood and our shared humanity helps bring me back. It also expresses my hope for the future—that someday war will never be necessary.

Thank you again to those who gave their lives for us. We remember.




5 thoughts on “Remembering Memorial Day

  1. All excellent choices. However I would like to add lesser known works that are equally appropriate: Gustav Holst Composed two choral works which also set the words of Walt Whitman: “A Dirge for Two Veterans” uses some of the same text that Vaughan Williams used in his “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and Holst’s 1919 work “Ode to Death” also uses text from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
    The poetry and texts of Walt Whitman also inspired a composer who was able to retreat from all public areas during WW II in order to survive the Nazi regime. Karl Amadeus Hartmann, however, altered the Whitman text to fit his musical needs in his Symphony # 1. Originally composed in the mid 1930’s this work was revised in 1950 and is in five movements. The four outside movements involve a mezzo-soprano with the middle movement is purely orchestral.
    I would not be surprised if other lesser known composers from 1912-1950 also utilized the Whitman texts for similar purposes.


  2. A very good list. I would like to submit, if I may, another substantial (and neglected) work for your consideration: Sir Arthur Bliss’ choral symphony “Morning Heroes” (1929). Bliss himself had taken part in WW 1, and had been wounded and gassed while fighting in France. He was luckier than his brother Kennard, who was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme. A decade later, Bliss would write “Morning Heroes” in memory of his brother, and it sets a variety of texts, ranging from the Iliad, Whitman and Li-Tai Po to Wilfred Owen and Robert Nichols. It’s a big, powerful work that pulls no punches, and it would amply repay investigation, I’d say.


  3. Thanks for your responses—these are all great choices, and great music. I only know the Holst works via recordings (thank you, Richard Hickox!), but would love a chance to perform them. Hartmann is a composer I don’t know well—really I’ve only heard the name. And it is fascinating that so many composers, and so many British composers in particular, have been inspired by Walt Whitman’s poetry. “Solveig’s Lament” is a classic, and I appreciate the idea of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music as an off-the-beaten-track alternative to his Requiem. And I completely forgot about Morning Heroes! I’ve only heard it in performance once (not surprising given how rare performances are) but it did stay with me. And I tell you, it was murder getting a hold of my recording…!


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