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Decoration Day

America's Memorial Day, a tribute to the nation's war dead past and present, was born in the wake of the Civil War between North and South -- historically the costliest in American lives lost, both sides being "American" of course. Originally called Decoration Day, in honor of the custom of decorating graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags, the observance was a small but symbolically important step towards reconciliation, honoring the sacrifices of Blue and Grey alike.

That observance has since grown into a day of remembrance for soldiers of all wars in which the US has fought, hence "Memorial Day." It has also moved from the traditional date of May 30 to the fourth Monday in May, creating the three-day weekend we know so well.

Marches, anthems, and dirges aside, there are few pieces of serious music that hew to the original concept of Decoration Day, with its specific reference to the Civil War. There are some, however, three of which (only one by an American) surely merit hearing more often. The most obvious choice, Decoration Day by Charles Ives, is quintessential Ives and quintessential Americana, an elegiac, small-town-America feel disrupted by competing marching bands ignoring both consonance and dissonance. Each more serious in tone, and each written to the (sometimes overwrought) poems of Walt Whitman, are Paul Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed for chorus, orchestra, and soloists, using lines commemorating the death of President Lincoln and the soldiers he sent to battle, as well as the fallen of World War II and the death of FDR; and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Dirge for Two Veterans.

All fine ways to remember the origins of Memorial Day on its true 'Decoration Day' date of May 30.

The above photo of the 'American Pillar' rose is from the Heritage Rosarium, Brookeville, MD, whose Memorial Day weekend Open House is one of the hidden treasures of the Washington area.


Mark Barry said...

Nice post George. The Heritage Rosarium sounds quite nice. My roses look just like that, not.

george pieler said...

Thanks Mark...NOBODY's roses look like that other than Nick Weber's (Rosarium proprietor,and notorious supplier to the late Henry Mitchell, "Earthman" to generations of Washington Post readers).