Classical Music Memorials

fromWGBH

Soldier's helmet on the shoreline
iStockphoto.com

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.

Classical Music Memorials

Cover for John Adams: Fearful Symmetries; Wound Dresser

Wound Dresser, for orchestra

  • Artist: Various
  • Song: The Wound-Dresser, for baritone & orchestra
  • From: John Adams: Fearful Symmetries; Wound Dresser

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.

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Song
The Wound-Dresser, for baritone & orchestra
Album
John Adams: Fearful Symmetries; Wound Dresser
Artist
Various
Label
Nonesuch
Released
1989

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Cover for Britten: War Requiem

War Requiem

  • Artist: Various
  • Song: War Requiem
  • From: Britten: 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.

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Song
War Requiem
Album
Britten: War Requiem
Artist
Benjamin Britten
Label
Decca
Released
2006

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Cover for Ravel: Piano Works

Le tombeau de Couperin, for piano

  • Artist: Pascal Rogé
  • Song: Le tombeau de Couperin, for piano
  • From: Ravel: Piano Works

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.

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Song
Le tombeau de Couperin, for piano
Album
Ravel: Piano Works
Artist
Pascal Rogé
Label
Decca
Released
1994

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Cover for Vaughan Williams: A Pastoral Symphony / Symphony No.4

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

  • Artist: Bernard Haitink
  • Song: Symphony No. 3
  • From: Vaughan Williams: A Pastoral Symphony / Symphony No.4

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.

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Song
Symphony No. 3
Album
Vaughan Williams: A Pastoral Symphony / Symphony No.4
Artist
Bernard Haitink
Label
Angel
Released
1998

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hindemith

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd

  • Artist: Various
  • Song: When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd
  • From: Hindemith: Requiem "For Those We Love"

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.

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Song
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd
Album
Hindemith: Requiem "For Those We Love"
Artist
Various
Label
Orfeo
Released
2009

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Purchase Featured Music

Hindemith: Requiem "For Those We Love"

Purchase Music

Purchase Featured Music

Album
Hindemith: Requiem "For Those We Love"
Artist
Various
Label
Orfeo
Released
2009

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John Adams: Fearful Symmetries; Wound Dresser

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Album
John Adams: Fearful Symmetries; Wound Dresser
Artist
Various
Label
Nonesuch
Released
1989

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John Adams: Wound Dresser

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Purchase Featured Music

Album
John Adams: Wound Dresser
Artist
Various
Label
Nonesuch
Released
1989

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