Decoration Day According to Charles Ives

A Rainy Day in Camp (Winslow Homer, 1871)

A Rainy Day in Camp (Winslow Homer, 1871)

Decoration Day is a masterpiece, with an ending that is the loneliest and one of the most touching I know of.
attributed to Igor Stravinsky

Charles Ives wrote of his piece Decoration Day, the second of the four pieces included in his A Symphony: New England Holidays, that it “started as a brass band overture, but never got very far that way.” [John Kirkpatrick, ed., Charles E. Ives, Memos 101]

The middle section . . . was taken from an organ piece written some years before. In my opinion this is the poorest part of the movement. (The melody of the march before the end is from Reeves’s “Second Regiment Quickstep”—as good a march as Sousa or Schubert ever wrote, if not better!)

Ives gave an acid account of Decoration Day’s first performance, a 1920 reading of “American manuscript compositions” at Carnegie Hall:

Mr. Eisler, an Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, stood up and started them off with a nice baton in his hand. At the end of each section, one little violinist in the back row was the only one playing, all the others having dropped by the wayside. When they got to letter B, they all started together, and the back-line violinist was again the only survivor reaching C. Section C was started in the same way, and so on till the march at the end came. At the end of that, a bass drum and the fiddler were the two survivors. I doubt if there was a single measure that was more than half played. . . . After the “performance” . . . Mr. Eisler . . . handed me back the score saying, “There is a limit to musicianship.” [Memos 103]

The heroic back row violinist’s name, alas, appears to be lost to time.

In his “postface” about the work appended to the score, Ives wrote:

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. [Memos 101-102]

Selected References

Keeping Score (Michael Tilson-Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony)

Keeping Score, Music Made From Memories (interactive feature)  (Choose the “Playing in the Shadows” segments.)

James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives

The origin of Decoration Day (now Memorial Day)

Listening List

Decoration Day, Charles Ives (1912-1913)
Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March, David Wallis Reeves

On Spotify

On YouTube

Instrumentation: 2-2-Eng hn-2-2; 4-2-3-1; timp, perc (sn dr, b dr, cym), glock/cel, low bells/ch; str (opt. picc, E-flat cl, tpt 3) [James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives]

The score quotes from several pieces, including Adeste Fideles, The Battle Cry of Freedom, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Bethany, Marching Through Georgia, Taps, Tenting on the Old Camp Ground; David Wallis Reeves, Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March, and possibly Dies irae, Lambeth, and Yankee Doodle. [James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives]

Decoration Day received its full premiere in December, 1931, at the Teatro Nacional, Havana, Cuba, performed by the Orquesta Filarmónica de la Habana, conductor, Amadeo Roldán. [James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives] Ives gave this performance high marks. [Memos 103]

Bonus Track: David Wallace Reeves, Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March

Julian Scott, Union Bugler (date unknown)

Julian Scott, Union Bugler (date unknown)


Credits: Quotations may be found at the sources linked in the post. The images in the post may be found here and here.

14 thoughts on “Decoration Day According to Charles Ives

  1. David N

    Curiously, the night before I read this I was talking about Nielsen and referred across to Ives’s melees (Nielsen has four different groups raucously at odds in a movement from his incidental music to Oehlenschlager’s epic Aladdin (1918-19), ‘A beautiful square in Isfahan’. Don’t miss Oramo conducting Nielsen’s extraordinary Sixth (the not-so-Semplice) in the BBCSO concert tonight, which I hope is being relayed live on BBC Radio 3 – other works Sibelius’s Tapiola, Rach’s Fourth Piano Concerto and miniatures by John Foulds.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I love the connection you’ve made from Ives to Nielsen, and, needless to say, I’ve cued up “A beautiful square in Isfahan” for a listen. On your “talking about Nielsen,” the question is to whom were you talking and is this a talk that might have been recorded for all to hear. If so, please send a link! I did find the concert you noted, though not in time to hear it live, and I’ve bookmarked it. Along with Nielsen’s 6th, which I always enjoy, Kozhukhin in Prokofiev’s 4th piano concerto should be a treat.

      1. David N

        It was the last of my six on the Nielsen symphonies, the last fling of the BBCSO association in the transfer from the City Lit to private classes in the church around the corner. Because apparently the BBC doesn’t support indepenedent lectures, they won’t be helping us with player visits, so I won’t be continuing. But something will take its place. Anyway, not recorded, I’m afraid, though the CD of snippets will survive.

        Another weird Ivesian collage, by the way, is the music of three bands in the battle scene from Prokofiev’s incidental music to Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. I guess the original model in both cases would be the three orchestras in the Act 1 finale of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, though those are harmonious whereas in the 20th century we move into dissonance.

        Review of concert now up on theartsdesk. It was another superlative event, like two others in the series. The Danes must be very proud. Oh, and Rach 4, not Prok (the left-handed one, which I’ve only heard once live, played by Dmitri Alexeev). But the former is quite a rarity too, and unlike anything else SR composed.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Rach 4 v Prok 4–now there’s a good example of my lack of mind-eye coordination! In any event, I’ll look forward to a listen. Too bad about no recording of the talk. I would have loved to hear it; indeed I would have loved to hear your talks on all the Nielsen symphonies, all the more so as I’ve now read the TAD review and noted this: “It’s even odder experiencing the seemingly fragmented tricks and manners of the final theme and variations, with its central eerie waltz manner and brass disruption resurfacing in the finale of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, just as the glock plays a similar role in his own symphonic farewell, the Fifteenth (exactly how Shostakovich got to know this score is a job for the music historians).” How did you uncover that? You’re probably aware of this, but the last concert in Oramo’s Nielsen cycle in Stockholm paired Shostakovich’s 15th with Nielsen’s 6th symphony. I would have loved to hear that, though how amazing it would have been to have heard Nielsen’s 6th paired with Shostakovich’s 4th!

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              David: But fascinating, too, I’d think (well, at least for me)! I just checked the RSPO schedule, and Oramo played Nielsen 6 last–which would make sense as it was a Sibelius-Nielsen festival. The pairings throughout the Festival overall were quite interesting I thought. Here’s a link to the list, if you’re curious:

  2. kylegann

    It fascinates me that Ives would refer to a section of Decoration Day as “the poorest part of the piece.” I would never say that about one of my own pieces, because, 1. if I thought that, I would revise that part over and over until it was as good as the rest; and 2. if I had really tried to improve that part and couldn’t bring it up to my satisfaction (which has indeed happened), I wouldn’t admit it, partly because I would assume that the piece therefore came out as it was supposed to, and I shouldn’t judge it. It strikes me as a sign not only of Ives’s ability to be self-deprecating, but also of a sense I get from him that music came into his head from the unconscious as something outside his control, however much he might revise and fiddle with it. He might observe that one part wasn’t as good as another, but he felt rather helpless to do anything about it. The music was in charge, and hadn’t asked his advice. He couldn’t have achieved what he did if his creative psychology hadn’t been way off the charts in several areas.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Kyle: I was struck by that, too (which prompted me to put up that quote). To my ears, of course–now that I’ve found my way into it, which wasn’t a slam dunk at first–Decoration Day is a perfect piece. Every time I listen to it (and to all of this symphony), I’m yet more astonished by Ives’s uncanny ability to evoke a whole world–time, place, the cultural context in all its complexity–in sound alone. I love your statement that, for him, “The music was in charge, and hadn’t asked his advice.” He had a remarkable musical imagination, no question about it.

  3. shoreacres

    I enjoyed this post tremendously, Sue: the art, the music, and the “postface” by Ives himself. Part of the reason, I’m sure, is that I grew up in those years when Memorial Day still was known as Decoration Day, and the very title of your post nudged me toward remembrance.

    So many of the little details were a part of our celebrations: gathering flowers, cleaning the graves, adding new flags and floral decorations, planting replacement peonies. There always was the program in the cemetery, and a bugler. Custom dictated that the oldest veteran should have bugler’s honors, which could lead to some remarkable performances, but the point was reverance, not musical perfection.

    That’s an interesting discussion about Ives’s tendency toward self-deprecation, and his sense that one section might not have developed as he hoped. I suspect it’s not as easy to pull a section from a musical composition and head off in a different direction as it might be to excise a paragraph or chapter. On the other hand, it does put me in mind of a well-known bit of advice from William Zinsser: “When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.” Maybe there’s some truth there for composers, too.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Your own remembrance of Decoration Day is a lovely addition to the post, particularly the wonderful custom to confer bugler’s honors on the oldest veteran. Just as it should be, isn’t it? Ives really does evoke that world and time in all its variety, doesn’t he? Vis-a-vis Zinsser’s advice, while the composers among would have to speak to this, I will say I’ve also been struck, as an “onlooker,” that issues like knowing when to stop seem common, at least in a general sense, to the processes of writing fiction and composing music.

  4. Steve Schwartzman

    In the painting, my eyes were drawn to the mule at the far right. I did a search and on the website of the Met (which owns the painting) I found this:

    “Homer completed this painting, his last major scene of life at the front, six years after the Civil War ended, using studies he had made during the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in April and May 1862. The red cloverleaf above Homer’s name on the overturned barrel in the left foreground was the insignia of the First Division of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac, of which the Sixty-First New York Volunteer Infantry—the unit to which the painter was assigned—was a part. One critic remarked that the bedraggled mule at the right ‘tells the whole story’ of the miserable conditions at Yorktown.”

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Thanks so much for this information, Steve. It’s a wonderful painting, and I’m delighted you delved further to find out more about it.

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