It’s Memorial Day, which used to be called “Decoration Day,” a holiday begun after the Civil War to honor the dead. It was originally meant both for the sake of the fallen and to promote reconciliation. The month of May was the obvious season, as flowers to decorate graves would be in greater profusion than at the the anniversary of the end of the War in early April. The exact date of May 30 was established in the North, because no battle had been fought on that day. It was settled that Veterans’ graves were to be decorated and civic memorials for the fallen soldiers held.
“Memorial Day” gradually became the more common name as the United States fought more wars, and it became almost universal after World War II. The name wasn’t officially changed, though, until 1967.
Aside from both the official purpose of the day and its popular celebration as the kickoff to summer, I’m afraid I have one peculiar thing relating to it floating around in my head. It’s a heartrending piece of music written about Decoration Day by Charles Ives (1874-1954). Ives’ compositions were almost always inspired by, and included quotes from American music of his time. Among his favorites were the sounds of brass bands. This was quite natural, as his father was town bandmaster of Danbury, Connecticut. “Decoration Day” has as its centerpiece the sounds of such a band. But it is enveloped by music representing both the everyday and the “cosmic” context of the lives of ordinary New Englanders. For Ives, as a musician, the most important mark of that shared existence was the village band. One of Ives’ notable techniques is to include in his works the sounds of bands, either alone, as here, or juxtaposed, as in “Central Park in the Dark,” another striking and evocative orchestral piece I recommend, if you don’t know it, as a possible starting place with Ives’ music.
“Decoration Day” paints a picture of a New England small town when Ives was a boy in the latter years of the 19th century. It is filled, as is most of Ives’ music, with quotes and snippets of popular songs, hymns, and Civil War tunes. Igor Stravinsky, describing Ives’ procedure, called it “inclusiveness.” Much of Ives’ so-included commonplace music is unfamiliar today. It is a fascinating exercise, though, to try to make out tunes that might be familiar, or to look through collections of old Protestant hymns to see what Ives might have used. A passing familiarity with Ives’ musical backdrop can be a tremendous help to better know the art in this music. Ives himself wrote the story, or “program,” of this piece thus:
In the early morning the gardens and woods around the village are the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day’s Memorial. During the forenoon as the people join each other on the Green there is felt, at times, a fervency and intensity—a shadow perhaps of the fanatical harshness—reflecting old Abolitionist days. It is a day as Thoreau suggests, when there is a pervading consciousness of “Nature’s kinship with the lower order—man.” After the Town Hall is filled with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies, the parade is slowly formed on Main Street. First come the three Marshals on plough horses (going sideways), then the Warden and Burgesses in carriages, the Village Cornet Band, the G.A.R., two by two, the Militia (Company G), while the volunteer Fire Brigade, drawing a decorated hose-cart, with its jangling bells, brings up the rear—the inevitable swarm of small boys following. The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets. The roll of the muffled drums and “Adestes Fideles” answer for the dirge. A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg. After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds out through the pines and hickories, while a last hymn is sung. The ranks are formed again, and “we all march to town” to a Yankee stimulant—Reeves’ inspiring “Second Regiment Quickstep”—though, to many a soldier, the sombre thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band. The march stops—and in the silence, the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the Town, and the sunset behind the West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the Day .
I can never listen to this music, especially as I live near a cemetery filled with Grand Army of the Republic badges next to weathered marble headstones, without a lump in my throat. And today, in at least some of these New England cemeteries, the tired old stones and rusted iron badges will have bright flags to keep them company. They remind us that the last full measure of devotion they represent ought not to have been offered in vain. And so, as another tribute to that devotion, we have this piece of uniquely American “classical” music that not only anticipates much in the European avant-garde of the later 20th century, but serves as a reminder of that first, calamitous, total American war.