Memorial Day started spontaneously and independently in several towns and cities in 1866 as a way of honoring soldiers who died in the Civil War by placing flowers on their graves -- thus the holiday's old name, Decoration Day.
At first there was not a specific date, but observation was made more uniform starting in 1868; May 30 was chosen, supposedly because it was not the anniversary of a specific battle and because by then flowers would be in bloom throughout the country.
After World War I, the observances were expanded to include the deceased of that fresh conflict, and in the decades since, the holiday has come to honor all fallen servicemen. A century after its start, the observance was changed to the last Monday of May to create a three-day weekend.
In thinking of music appropriate to this national day of mourning -- for behind all the picnics and appliance store sales and the Indy 500, etc., that's what Memorial Day is -- I could find no more fitting piece than this 1946 composition. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) had been banned by the Nazis and had fled to Switzerland in 1938. He moved to the United States in 1940; his interest in our culture, specifically jazz, had not endeared him to the Nazis, who considered it "degenerate music." He knew more about the U.S. than just jazz, however; 27 years before writing this Requiem, he had set three Whitman poems to music, including "Sing On, There in the Swamp" from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.
Robert Shaw, who had recently become established as a masterful choral conductor thanks to his work with Arturo Toscanini, was familiar with that early Hindemith effort and suggested a reworking of it to memorialize President Roosevelt. Hindemith suggested instead setting all of Whitman's poem. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, Whitman's greatest elegy in the wake of the assassination of President Lincoln, could not have been more apt to the circumstance: Like Lincoln, F.D.R. had died just after guiding his country through an enormously bloody war. Like Lincoln, F.D.R. was a politically polarizing figure who, however, was much loved, and whose death inspired powerful outpourings of emotion.
When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd (in Book 22 of Leaves of Grass) is in 16 sections; Hindemith uses all of Whitman's words but tinkers with the structure a bit:
Shaw, midwife of this work and its protector and propagator, penned notes to his choristers on the occasions on which he conducted this work. Three of them are reproduced in the booklet of this CD. I cannot resist quoting him.
"...though it is one of Whitman's 'loaded' poems, Hindemith has enriched enormously Whitman's language -- its intellectual content, its emotional variety, and its introspective subtlety." (1963)
"...its quietness and understatement, its willingness to encounter sorrow and invite solitude, offer at least a note of caution to a society affluent principally in inhumanity, the big lie and flatulence." (1974)
The second quote alludes to the fact that this is not a garish work. Hindemith would not compromise Whitman's vision by tacking on a happy ending. Neither would he offer any relief by making the constant orchestral accompaniment colorful; while there are many felicities of orchestration, many glints of light shining through, he never breaks the mood. Nonetheless, despite the constant grief, this is an uplifting work.
Whitman near the end makes it more than a lament for Lincoln; it becomes a memorial for all who fell defending the Union. Similarly, for Hindemith it honored not just F.D.R. but all who died fighting the Axis powers in WWII, and it is impossible not to think that non-combatants were also in Hindemith's thoughts, not least his former countrymen killed to fulfill Hitler's warped Aryan fantasy. Whitman's poem and Hindemith's setting, like Decoration Day/Memorial Day, started as a memorial to casualties of the Civil War and grew to encompass many more who lost their lives in war.
It remains only to be said that Shaw is the perfect advocate for the work, Telarc's sonics are flawless, and there is no better recording of this undervalued masterpiece to be found. - Steve Holtje
I find political co-option of Memorial Day distasteful and feel that its marking is too often used to express veiled justification for all our wars by equating them. Saying that soldiers in the Vietnam War gave their lives so that we could be free is to say, against all common sense, that tiny little North Vietnam threatened to invade and conquer the United States. Nonetheless, what cannot be overlooked is that, regardless of all other issues, those soldiers did make the ultimate sacrifice and should be honored for that.
This piece was first published on this website several Memorial Days ago.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Last year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released in August 2015 by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure).