Suggested Listening Special Edition: Music for Memorial Day

On this day of discounted appliances and backyard barbecues, let’s take a moment to share some music that captures the true meaning of Memorial Day — remembering the men and women who gave their lives for their country.

Leonard Bernstein: “Agnus Dei” from MASS

Bernstein’s MASS is a theatrical twist on the traditional Latin mass, interspersed with text in Hebrew and English, leaping stylistically from chorale to Broadway to blues.  MASS was composed at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to celebrate the 1971 opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and its premiere performance was laden with cultural and political significance.  Portions of the text were influenced by Bernstein’s meetings with the imprisoned Father Dan Berrigan of the Catonsville Nine, who famously burned hundreds of draft files in an anti-Vietnam demonstration in 1968.  President Nixon sent staff to rehearsals of the mass, who reported back that the Latin text was coded with anti-war messages.  Bernstein’s music is quintessentially American, and the call for peace at the end of the Agnus Dei — dona nobis pacem, “grant us peace” — makes this a memorable tribute to those who died in service. 

Charles Ives: Tom Sails Away

This brief song by insurance salesman/closet composer Charles Ives tells the story of a young man shipping off to war “over there.”  Written in 1917 — World War I well underway — the song conveys Ives’ disapproval of America’s entrance into the war via a poignant, first-person narration from the perspective of the younger brother of a newly deployed naval officer.  “In freedom’s cause Tom sailed away,” the vocalist sings — but the nobility of “freedom’s cause” is overshadowed by the dark, haunting piano harmonies.  This piece is a really beautiful commentary on the effects of war felt at home, and the story in Ives’ text is a story shared by the thousands of brave soldiers who we honor today.

Morton GouldAmerican Salute

Gould is one of the greatest composers of American popular music of the 20th century, and his American Salute remains a standard of summer pops concerts.  Based on the old Civil War tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” — Memorial Day was, after all, initially established to honor slain Civil War heroes — the piece is at once lively and intense, with powerful brass and percussion sections creating a distinct military feel.  Though “When Johnny Comes Marching” tells the story of a young soldier returning from the war to a hero’s welcome, it is important to remember those who never made it home.  That is what this holiday is truly about.


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