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Charles Ives: "Decoration Day"

April 2, 2016

Decoration Day

Charles E. Ives

Born: October 20, 1874, Danbury, Connecticut

Died: May 19, 1954, New York, New York

Original Instrumentation: Orchestra

Duration: 9 minutes

Composed: 1912

Arranged: Jonathan Elkus, 1962

 

Charles Ives’ Decoration Day, a dreamy haze of almost-forgotten memories and half-remembered tunes, depicts recollections American Civil War through the eyes of a Connecticut youth at the end of the nineteenth century. The work, originally published as the second movement of Ives’ New England Holidays Symphony for orchestra, is a musical representation of the composer’s childhood memories of that eponymous holiday.Each movement depicted a celebration from the four seasons, moving from Washington's Birthday (Winter), to Decoration Day (Spring), The Fourth of July (Summer), and ending with Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day (Autumn).

 

Ives’ later personal notes on New England Holidays included this statement regarding playing each piece as an individual movement:

 

These four pieces, movements of a Holiday Symphony, take about an hour, and although they were first called together a symphony, at the same time they are separate pieces and can be thought of and played as such--(and also, and as naturally, be thought of and played as a whole). These four pieces together were called a symphony, and later just a set of pieces, because I was getting somewhat tired of hearing the lily boys ["Lily boys" are one of Ives' many disparaging terms for conventional, conservative musicians and critics.] say, "This is a symphony!--Mercy!--Where is the first theme of 12 measures in C major?--Where are the next 48 measures of nice (right kind of) development leading nicely into the second theme in G?" (second donkey contrasting with Ass #1)--the nice German recipe, etc.--give it a ride, Arthur!-to hell with it!--Symphony = "with sounds" = my Symphony!

 

His postface to Decoration Day reads:

 

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. [Grand Army of the Republic], 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 "Adestes 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. 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.

 

Additional Resources:

 - UMWO Ives Posts

 - Ives Biography, from the Charles Ives Society

 - PBS "Keeping Score," with Michael Tilson Thomas: "Ives' Holiday Symphony"

 - "Charles Ives' America" Album and Resources from "The President's Own" United States Marine Band

 

Charles Ives, Decoration Day, arr. Jonathan Elkus

"The President's Own" United States Marine Band, Col. Timothy W. Foley, conductor

 

Charles Ives, New England Holidays Symphony, I. Washington's Birthday

San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

 

Charles Ives, New England Holidays Symphony, II. Decoration Day

San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

 

Charles Ives, New England Holidays Symphony, III. The Fourth of July

San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

 

Charles Ives, New England Holidays Symphony, IV. Thanksgiving and Forefather's Day

San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

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