Classical Music Honors Veterans
To mark Veterans Day, my husband and I began what has become a family tradition as of a few years ago: we drive to, and lay flowers at, veterans’ memorials around Massachusetts. We’ve been to 17 so far, from Boston to just outside of Worcester.
His dad (Army) and uncle (Navy) enlisted in World War II, and my dad (Army) served in the Korean War. Years later, his older brother (Navy) and my favorite cousin (Army) both served in the Vietnam War, and his youngest cousin, who is now a high-ranking Army officer, has served in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq, so far.
Our family has been lucky that all our soldiers have come home alive. The war memorials commemorate those who didn’t. While many towns have official wreath-laying ceremonies at these monuments, as the years pass and the wars melt into the pages of history, we know that the soldiers’ families also pass away. To us, it’s the right thing to do as we just don’t want those soldiers to be forgotten by us, the everyday citizens, who benefit from their sacrifices.
From symphonies to masses, music has also recognized the horrors of war, commemorating whole communities lost. In honor of this Veterans Day, however, here are some pieces that focus on the soldiers themselves.
The lyrics, if not the actual tune, of the Civil War-era song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” were written by Irish-American bandmaster Patrick Gilmore in 1863. Gilmore, who had settled in Boston, said he wrote the song for his sister, who was anxiously awaiting the return of her fiancée, a Union captain. Gilmore believed that the war would end soon and made the song a celebration piece, one that captured the public’s longing that the soldiers would soon be coming home again. Here’s Mitch Miller’s version with his orchestra and chorus:
Gilmore premiered it in Boston at the 1869 Peace Jubilee with a 1,000-piece orchestra and a 10,000-member chorus. Although it was well received, it wasn’t until the Spanish-American War that the song became popular enough for it to enter the American song book. There are many theories as to the tune’s origin, but no one has a definitive composer at this time. Research has shown it may have some roots as an English Renaissance tune.
There is a famous story that French composer Maurice Ravel was turned down from serving in the French army during World War I, so he worked around that by becoming a battlefield ambulance driver. He made it home safely, but several friends did not. His piece, Le Tombeau de Couperin, is named for the great French Baroque-era composer François Couperin, but the movements were all dedicated to friends who died in the war. One movement honors two childhood friends of Ravel’s, who were brothers killed by the same shell. Paavo Järvi conducts the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra.
Although he was criticized at one point for having written a piece that to some seemed too light-hearted to be a commemoration of fallen soldiers, Ravel reportedly defended the piece by saying “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”
Another piece of remembrance from World War I is Frederick Kelly’s Elegy, In Memoriam Rupert Brooke. In 1914, the Australian pianist and composer enlisted with the British Royal Navy and served alongside his good friend, the poet Rupert Brooke. Kelly was wounded twice in the war, but it was a profound personal loss when his friend lost his life. He composed the music while recuperating in his tent. Here’s the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Johannes Fritzsch:
Kelly helped to bury Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros. Kelly later died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
William Schuman wrote New England Triptych in 1956, subtitled “Three Pieces for Orchestra After William Billings.” Billings is considered one of the most important early American composers. The third movement is based on Billings’s “Chester,” which was originally a church hymn, but later used by the Continental Army as a marching tune:
"Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And slavery clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England's God forever reigns.
The foe comes on with haughty stride,
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their vet'rans flee before our youth,
And gen'rals yield to beardless boys."
Here's the United States Marine Band:
In 1957, William Grant Still wrote The American Scene, which takes the listener on a five-suite tour of the United States as it describes either the physical environment (like “Berkshire Night” or “Navaho Country”), or life in that area (like “A New Orleans Street” or “The Plaza/Los Angeles”). The final suite includes “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier/Our Boys will never be forgotten.” The last 30 seconds reduce me to tears every time. Here’s the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Richard Auldon Clark:
Director Steven Spielberg tapped John Williams to compose the soundtrack for his 1998 film, Saving Private Ryan. The action takes place in France in 1944 and tells the story of a group of American soldiers on a mission to find and return Private James Ryan safely to his family after his three brothers are killed in action. “Hymn to the Fallen” comes at the end of the movie. John Williams conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the official soundtrack recording.
Whether any soldiers in your family came home alive or not, their sacrifices for our democracy cannot be honored enough. When you see the American Legion veterans with red poppy boutonnieres at tables in front of your grocery store this week, stop and donate. Put together a care package for a soldier overseas, or write a check to any of the numerous and worthy veterans’ services charities. Join me in honoring our veterans on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, in any way you can. And if you have served, Thank You.
CODA: When I was a child in the 1970s, I went to sleep-away summer camp, which ended the week with a bonfire and campers invited to come up and sing a song for everyone. I only heard a teenager camper sing this song once, never knew the name of it or anything about it, but I never forgot the tune and the repeating line, “No, my love, no.” A Google lyrics search was successful! It’s The Cruel War, another Civil War tune that was recorded in the 1960s by the folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary.