Ives: Decoration Day

Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Decoration Day

When the young Charles Ives scoffed at John the village stonemason’s off-key singing in church, his father corrected him: “Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music.” George Ives was an inveterate experimenter who encouraged his son to open his ears to sounds outside the scope of conventional music theory. Ives recalled his memories of his father leading the singing at camp-meeting services that were a feature of the revivalist Christianity prevalent in New England at that time: “Father…would always encourage the people to sing their own way. Most of them knew the words and music (their version) by heart and sang it that way. If they threw the poet or composer around a bit, so much the better for the poetry and the music. There was power and exaltation in these great conclaves of sound from humanity.” The clusters of sound and wayward harmonies and rhythms that fill his music reflect these childhood memories.

Decoration Day is the second of four pieces that together are known as the Holidays Symphony. Ives wrote on one of the sketches, “Symphony, but not called Sym.”, and on another occasion remarked, “These movements may be played as separate pieces. These pieces may be lumped together as a symphony.” The holiday that it portrays commemorates those who died during the Civil War of 1861-65. As with much of Ives’ music, it has its roots in earlier works: in this case an organ piece of his own based on the hymn tune “Adeste Fidelis” (better known nowadays as “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”), and the Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March by David Wallis Reeves. A number of other popular and hymn tunes of the time can also be heard by the attentive ear.

The villagers gather and the parade forms and marches to the graveyard, where the graves are decorated and hymns sung. Then all march back to the village to the strains of the Second Regiment, below which can barely be discerned the sombre thoughts of the soldiers. Finally, “in the silence the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the town, and the sunset behind West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the day.”

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