In his Essays Before a Sonata, first published in 1920, Charles Ives reflected on a vivid memory from his Danbury, Connecticut childhood:
In the early morning of a Memorial Day, a boy is awakened by martial music—a village band is marching down the street, and as the strains of Reeves’ majestic [Second] Regiment March come nearer and nearer, he seems of a sudden translated—a moment of vivid power comes, a consciousness of material nobility, an exultant something gleaming with the possibilities of this life, an assurance that nothing is impossible, and that the whole world lies at his feet. But as the band turns the corner, at the soldiers’ monument, and the march steps of the Grand Army become fainter and fainter, the boy’s vision slowly vanishes—his ‘world’ becomes less and less probable—but the experience ever lies within him in its reality.
Throughout his life, Ives was drawn back, repeatedly, to the rousing Second Regiment Connecticut Quickstep by David Wallis Reeves (1838-1900), a composer whom John Philip Sousa once hailed as “The Father of Band Music in America.” Ives quoted the march in his earliest surviving instrumental work, Holiday Quickstep (1887), and in his final years, he was known to sing it at full volume with fellow New England composer, Carl Ruggles. (James B. Sinclair) Most notably, the march emerges as a boisterous punctuation mark at the end of Ives’ Decoration Day. Composed in 1912, the orchestral tone poem forms the second movement of Ives’ New England Holidays Symphony. Not as much a cohesive “symphony” as a collection of independent pieces, the Holidays Symphony is a kind of American “Four Seasons.”
On Decoration Day, later renamed Memorial Day, the graves of American Civil War soldiers were “decorated” with flowers. Charles Ives was born eight years after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Ives’ father, George, served as the Union army’s youngest bandleader. From an early age, Charles Ives was surrounded by American vernacular music, from bugle calls and marches, to revivalist hymns and folk songs. All of these influences found their way into Ives’ music.
Decoration Day unfolds as a stream of fleeting dream images. Nostalgia and childhood memories blend with the lament of the dead. The hazy sonic collage includes fragments of Adeste Fideles, the Dies irae, and the Civil War tunes, Marching Through Georgia and Tenting on the Old Camp Ground. At times, amid disintegrating tonality, the music resembles a late Mahler adagio. A hushed statement of the mournful bugle call, Taps, emerges over intimations of Nearer, My God, to Thee in the strings. A spirited rendition of the Second Regiment Quickstep attempts to return us to the world of the living. Yet, after the raucous final chord of the march, lingering ghosts remain. The final bars drift away with a serene plagal cadence.
Charles Ives included this postface in the score:
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 Adeste 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. Then 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 of 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.
- Ives: A Symphony – New England Holidays (II. Decoration Day), Michael Tilson Thomas, Chicago Symphony Orchestra Amazon
- David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
- Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic
Featured Image: “Decoration Day, 1917”