Ives’ Decoration Day is appropriate for Memorial Day


I went to Lilly Library at Wabash College on May 31 to borrow some books and CDs. I had been waiting to go because it was not open on the weekends during summer vacation. However, I was surprised that it was closed even though it was a Monday.

I thought something special was happening when as I saw the U.S. flag on the mall was at half staff. There were almost no cars in the parking lots and the campus was quiet.

Later, I went to a supermarket with a professor to buy some food. On the way in his car, he told me that it was Memorial Day. Based on his explanation, I understood that it was the day to honor all the soldiers who died serving in the U.S. military.

I was confused with the word “honor” because the armed forces are prohibited in the Japanese constitution. Although there are the Self-Defense Forces besides the military, many Japanese people who are leftists or elderlies oppose their existence claiming that it is against the constitution.

Furthermore, there is a shrine called Yasukuni Jinja where all of the Japanese soldiers from the Meiji Restoration (1868) to World War II (1945) are enshrined. It is a shrine to mourn all the dead who served the country. However, every time the prime minister officially visits the shrine to especially mourn the World War II dead, China and South Korea fiercely criticize that his action is to praise militarism.

Because of Japan’s complicated responses to the military and war, I have avoided thinking about those. However, I was surprised how Americans spend Memorial Day. First, I was impressed that families gathered at grave sites to have a reunion. They were showing strong patriotism by offering the flags to the grave at the same time mourning their loved ones.

Also, I was shocked that many people gathered to enjoy a party to “celebrate” the day. I could not understand how people could mourn and enjoy the same day. Because of the various ways Americans spent the day, I thought that the U.S. is really the land of freedom.

I would like to introduce a work of classical music related to Memorial Day. It is Charles Ives’ Decoration Day, which is the second movement of A New England Holiday Symphony.

Ives was a U.S. composer (1874-1954) who composed avant-garde music using atonality, microtones, polyrhythm and polytonal. These terms are difficult to grasp, so allow me to skip the explanation.

While he was alive, Ives was a successful insurance executive and actuary. His music was almost not performed at all because of its originality and performance difficulties. However, he is evaluated nowadays as the pioneer of modern U.S. music.

The introduction of Decoration Day starts with the quiet sound of the strings with a timpani sounding like the thunder lightning in a far place. Some woodwinds join to play the pastoral melody but it is somehow plaintive.

Although it is slow, it sounds complex to identify each part because the strings are divided. Usually, there are the five groups of the first violin, the second violin, the viola, the cello and the contrabass in the orchestra. However, in this piece, there are one solo violin and the other five string groups are divided into A & B groups. Therefore, there are eleven string parts instead of the five parts.

The rhythm changes all the time in each verse. Moreover, it sometimes uses the uncommon rhythmic patterns like “7/4.” It is hard for a conductor to control the orchestra because he or she has to change the ways of swinging every time the rhythm changes.

The music is unstable because it does not have a clear tonality. It comes and goes between the major and minor tones. Also, it uses the dissonances a lot to create the vague atmosphere.

Its solemn atmosphere is appropriate to celebrate Memorial Day. The complex parts which entangle express the complex feeling of people who mourn the dead soldiers. Why cannot the country and the people survive at the same time without any sacrifice?

Sometimes, the full orchestra plays loudly as if the emotion heightened, but soon it goes back to the strings’ quietness. Then, the bells start playing. It is clear that it is not the sound of the clock, but to console the dead’s souls. It continues ringing in the same manner even though the orchestra changes its dynamics and tonality.

Then, the trumpet plays a Christian hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Some people might recognize this music was performed by the string players in Titanic when the ship was sinking and the people on the board were panicking. There is a common thing between them and the soldiers; they died in the line of their duties.

Finally, it plays the marching music expanding the melodies of “Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March.” It might be the music that Ives heard when he was young during the holiday. The music is so delightful to celebrate the holiday as if they forget the true meaning of the day.

Then, the marching melody abruptly ends and goes back to the quietness like in the beginning. The grave becomes quiet as people go out to celebrate the festival. However, their contribution will not be forgotten as long as the grave remains and people celebrate the holiday correctly.


Io Maeda is a rising sophomore at Wabash College. He also is an intern for the Journal Review.


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