Since 1868, Americans have set aside time at the end of May to visit the burial sites of veterans. The date of what used to be called "Decoration Day" was chosen for practical reasons: If you're going to place flowers on a grave, what better time than when plenty of flowers are blooming? But it's appropriate timing on a symbolic level, too. The contrast between seasonal beauty and the ugliness of war is an apt metaphor for the bittersweet combination of fond memories and painful loss that lies at the heart of Memorial Day.
It's a complex mix of emotions that music has long explored. Here are a handful of selections that lie in the meeting place between love and loss, war and peace, beauty and discomfort.
John Adams: The Wound-Dresser
Much like Memorial Day itself, John Adams’ 1989 song cycle The Wound Dresser has its roots in the American Civil War. The lyrics are by Walt Whitman, who worked as a volunteer Army nurse from 1862 until the end of the bloody conflict. By the time he wrote his poem in 1865, Whitman had knelt at the side of countless injured and dying men, hearing their last words and attempting to alleviate their pain.
"I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you."
Whitman wrote the poem in the months following the war's end but chose not to publish it until about a decade had gone by.
Earlier this year, baritone Jeffrey Williams sang The Wound-Dresser with Clarksville’s Gateway Chamber Ensemble. You can listen to him perform a portion of the piece on Live in Studio C here, or watch this interview with John Adams about the composition.
Edward Elgar: "Nimrod"
Sir Edward Elgar did not have mourning in mind when he wrote the “Nimrod” movement of his Enigma Variations. In fact, it was initially intended as a musical depiction of the time a close friend (very much alive at the time of composition) encouraged him to keep writing music. However, the beautiful melody is tinged with an undercurrent of sadness. Perhaps it is just that contrast between hope and mourning that has made it an anthem of the British Army and a regular part of Remembrance Day ceremonies in the United Kingdom.
Henry Purcell: “When I Am Laid in Earth”
A mythological queen choosing to throw herself on a funeral pyre is a very different thing from a member of the military dying in combat. That said, the aching melody and words of Dido’s lament from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas carry a poigancy that seems well-suited to a casualty of war. “Remember me,” Dido begs, “but ah! Forget my fate.”
Franz Joseph Haydn: Mass in C, Hob. XXII/9 “Mass in Time of War”
It can be a tricky thing to definitively assign meaning to the music of Haydn. The composer himself sometimes had a clear agenda or message in mind, but most of the nicknames assigned to his music were given after the fact for somewhat tenuous reasons. Haydn gave no indication that he intended his Mass in C Major as anything other than a service to honor the name day of his employer’s wife, just like the other masses written for that purpose. However, it has become known as “Mass in a Time of War,” due to both historic context and musical content. It was written in 1796, as Austria was pulled into a war between the newly-formed French Republic and Europe’s strongest monarchies. And In the last sections, most notably the "Agnus Dei," periodic drumbeats on the tympani create a driving sense of a battlefield as the choir pleads for the sins of the world to be taken away.
In this video, the "Agnus Dei" begins at 39:43
Frederic Chopin: Etude Op. 10 No. 12 “Revolutionary”
About a month after 20-year old Chopin left Warsaw to seek a music career in larger cities, cadets at Poland’s military academy rebelled against Russian occupying forces. The “November Uprising” was eventually crushed by an overwhelming force of strength from Imperial Russia. As a result, Poland lost all vestiges of independence. Chopin lost friends who had taken up arms in the fight. He also lost all hope of ever returning to the homeland he loved. Ultimately, his musical response to the failed revolution was to become a sort of cultural ambassador for a nation that had technically ceased to exist, developing Polish folk dances like the Polonaise and the Mazurka into stylized forms of concert music. But first, he responded quite directly to the end of the fighting with an etude that highlights his countrymen’s bravery and angrily mourns their loss.
Jeffery Ames: “In Remembrance”
Belmont professor Jeffrey Ames was deeply affected when two of his former students suffered an untimely death. He turned his emotions into music for choir, piano, and french horn. His composition acts as a sometimes quiet, sometimes urgent prayer in a time of tragedy, seeking peace for both the mourners and the souls of those they mourn.
Joseph Bertolozzi: The Contemplation of Bravery
When American composer Bertolozzi was commissioned to write new music for use at the United States Military Academy at West Point, he was specifically asked not to write a march. They had enough of those, the military leaders said. With that direction in mind, Bertolozzi decided to lean into a more meditative direction. The result stems from his thinking about what it means to take on a position in the military, knowing that doing the job at hand may lead to death. Near the end of the piece, all of the instruments become quiet for a few measures: a moment of silence built into the music to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
The melody most associated with Memorial Day is, of course, Taps. The slow, simple tune was introduced during the Civil War as a bugle call to mark the end of the day. Taps has officially been a part of military funerals since 1891, although by that point it was already commonly heard at the burial of former soldiers. Today, Army buglers at Arlington National Cemetary say Taps can be heard there as many as 30 times in a day as soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors are laid to rest.