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Classical Music Memorials

Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer, marked by picnics, ballgames and family fun — not to mention the painfully prosaic "Beginning of Driving Season." In its original intent, though, it's a day to remember those who have died in service to the country.

That dual, paradoxical nature of Memorial Day takes on a musical form with these selections, each of which unifies disparate feelings, words or musical elements to become an expression of uncommon power and beauty. In the process, each reminds listeners of both what has been lost and what we value most.

Wound Dresser, for orchestra

Walt Whitman's poetry of the Civil War, born of his work as a volunteer nurse, manages to testify to both the horrifically graphic nature of the war's carnage and to his own limitless compassion. John Adams expertly reflects the dual nature of the poem: the agony of the dying and the poet's heartfelt, almost serene contemplation of mortality.

War Requiem

Possibly the ultimate statement on enormous human loss in an era of global wars, Benjamin Britten's magnum opus was written for the 1962 re-dedication of Coventry Cathedral, newly built to replace the original church damaged in German air raids during WWII. With deafening echoes of that war still reverberating in England, Britten put his own passionate pacifism to work, combining the Latin Requiem text with the agonizing poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed just before the Armistice in 1918. Those ancient and modern elements come together to create a work that's both timeless and directly, unflinchingly relevant to the contemporary world.

Le tombeau de Couperin, for piano

Maurice Ravel's choice of the word "tombeau" (meaning monument or, literally, tomb) has a dual significance here. The work pays homage to Francois Couperin, the masterful 18th-century French keyboard stylist. On another level, however, each of the six pieces in this suite is dedicated to the memory of one of the composer's friends who had perished in WWI. Ravel himself spent the war as an ambulance driver and witnessed plenty of death and dying, yet the music itself lacks any sense of mourning or tragedy. Instead, while there are reflective moments (in the Minuet) and ominous harmonies (in the Forlane), the composer memorialized his loved ones by way of dedication rather than catharsis, in an eloquent and brilliant look back.

Symphony No. 3 for soprano or tenor & orchestra ("Pastoral")

Ralph Vaughan Williams, curiously, likened his Third Symphony to the picturesque landscape paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, but also described it as "war music." Begun in 1916, the symphony at first basks in an uneasy pastoral atmosphere, but gets bumptious in the third movement. The truth is finally revealed in the final movement, when a ghostly, wordless female voice introduces a haunting feeling of something lost -- only an echo of a world now gone.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd

Subtitled "Requiem for Those We Love," Paul Hindemith chose a Walt Whitman text as a poignant elegy to Abraham Lincoln, in order to remember that great president. But it also memorializes Theodore Roosevelt, while also commemorating the end of WWII. The composer had made this country his home, and Whitman's words offered the opportunity to mourn the fallen and celebrate the joys of living.

Copyright 2009 GBH

Richard Knisely
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