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