1. Charles Ives – Variations on “America”
Using the theme from the early American anthem, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” Ives composed Variations on “America” in 1891 when he was only 17 years old. As the son of a Civil War era U.S. Army bandleader, Ives was well-versed in the patriotic music of the day, and it is likely that that early influence inspired him to write this work. Originally scored for organ, it remained unpublished for over 50 years, when it was rediscovered and finally published by renowned organist E. Power Biggs. The work remains to this day a satisfying piece of patriotic music from one of America’s finest composers.
2. Aaron Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man
Written in direct response to America’s entry into World War II, Fanfare for the Common Man reflects on America’s growing role on the world stage. Rather than simply writing “a fanfare for soldiers,” as was requested by conductor Eugene Goossens who commissioned the piece, Copland drew inspiration from the then-vice president Henry A. Wallace’s speech, “Century for the Common Man,” where he proclaimed that individual rights and freedoms were essential components of democracy. In writing his Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland commemorated the great sacrifice American men and women made in World War II while celebrating the freedom that makes American ideals worth fighting for.
3. Britten – War Requiem
Britten’s War Requiem is a non-liturgical Requiem mass that uses text from the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead along with nine poems on war by English poet Wilfred Owen. The work for combined choir, organ, and double-orchestra is dedicated to several of Britten’s friends who lost their lives in the course of World War II, and was commissioned for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, which was rebuilt after the original was destroyed in a WWII bombing raid. Although not written by an American composer, Britten’s War Requiem commemorates those who gave their lives fighting in World War II, making it a work suited for Memorial Day listening.
4. John Adams – The Wound Dresser
No conflict has been more deadly to American lives than our own Civil War, a tragedy which has inspired many artists to meditate on the absurdity of war and the futile loss of life it causes; John Adams’ The Wound Dresser is one such piece. Using excerpts from Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name, Adams composed a work for baritone soloist and chamber orchestra telling the story of Whitman’s time working as a Civil War hospital attendant and looking unflinchingly at the brutality of America’s bloodiest conflict. Though Whitman’s poem was written over 150 years ago, his words, along with Adams’ music, continue to resonate in the modern day, making this piece well worth a listen.
5. Hindemith – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love
You might not expect the most significant classical work for Memorial Day to be written by a German composer, but that’s exactly what Hindemith accomplished with When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for those we love.
Hindemith, who emigrated to America in 1940, drew on Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name for the work, which was commissioned by conductor Robert Shaw after the death of president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The original poem was written in mourning of Abraham Lincoln, making Hindemith’s Requiem a powerful memorial to the leaders who represented the pinnacle of American values of liberty and equality.