Is it Slippy, Drippy or Nippy?

February 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm (By Tim) (, , )

When my eyes haven’t been tearing from this miserable flu, I’ve been reading Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The title of this post is from the contemporary English parody names for the current months of the French Revolutionary Calendar. I’m not sure which one we’re in right now, but, everything considered, they’ll do. Burke mostly wrote his Reflections in 1790, two years before Year I and all the fun with new months.

Burke has a reputation as a fine writer, especially among those who haven’t read him. Those who do frequently discover everything has the color of a well-considered, adamant speech in Parilament, intent on elegantly demolishing opponents in lengthy detail. No wonder Johnson considered him the most formidable man he knew. But looking at his page, I’d rather hear the speech. The 18th century needn’t have been that long-winded. Addison, for instance, knew how to end a sentence, as well as to make a withering argument the most polite, humane thing you’re ever read.

In any case, considering England during the Regency, and having the musical bent I do, I couldn’t help but remember Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), the “English Mozart.” Samuel Wesley was John Wesley’s nephew, and the son of the Anglican clergyman and hymn-writer Charles Wesley. There were so many clergymen among the remarkable Wesleys, it is not easy to sort them out. The main thing, I suppose, is that John Wesley (1703-1791) was the most remarkable of the bunch, founding Methodism and living the long life he did.

Young Samuel showed great musical talent, composing prodigiously from age 15 until 21, when he got a knock on the head from which he never quite recovered. He did, however, write a small number of very good pieces after that, the Symphony in Bb Major (1802) among them.

Wesley converted to Roman Catholicism in 1784, rather like Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian (aka “John” after his move to England). Unlike Bach’s son, who was far too trendy for Dad’s old, wiggy stuff, Wesley was a proponent of the music of J.S. Bach. Among other efforts, he introduced the young Mendelssohn to it.

Bach’s influence is obvious in the fugal texture of this beautiful and sober 1st movement from the Symphony in Bb. So are other influences from the “Classical” world of Haydn and Mozart, plus a great deal of originality. It is one of the minor tragedies in the history of music that Samuel Wesley found his faculties impaired at such a young age, and we never got what we should from such a talent.

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I’m Against It

February 12, 2013 at 3:12 pm (By Tim) (, , )

I apologize for importuning you lately with my odd musical tastes. This has been done to make trials here of materials for a Music Appreciation blog for the school where I teach. Knowing that politics trumps polyphony, and that several of you have been disturbed over the years by my seeming to be a wussy Northeast liberal, I thought I’d try my hand at something purely political.

As I say, people frequently take offense when they discover I am not strong in party-feeling or love of faction. I tell such persons, if they must know which side I adhere to, they ought consult Addison:

The Spectator.
No. 117. Saturday, July 14, 1711.

… Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt.
—Virg.

There are some Opinions in which a Man should stand Neuter, without engaging his Assent to one side or the other. Such a hovering Faith as this, which refuses to settle upon any Determination, is absolutely necessary to a Mind that is careful to avoid Errors and Prepossessions. When the Arguments press equally on both sides in Matters that are indifferent to us, the safest Method is to give up our selves to neither.

This principle lies close to the foundation of my opinions. Further, Marx gives stronger standards for the practical conduct of life in the modern world that I have adopted as my own:

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Singing In A Blizzard

February 8, 2013 at 11:20 am (By Tim) (, , , )

If you’re in New York, and want to hear some beautiful singing to cheer yourself despite the weather this weekend, you could do worse than go listen to the boys of St. Paul’s Choir School from Cambridge Mass. They will be riding out the blizzard in what we hope will be a less snowy Big Apple. Here is the schedule:

• Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola at 5:30 on Saturday 9th.
• Mass at 12:00 and concert at 1:30 at St. Catherine of Sienna on Sunday 10th.
• A (short) concert at 4:00 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Monday 11th.

My son is a graduate of the School, and I teach recorder there. It’s the only boys’ Catholic choir school in the U.S., and will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. Having been around the School for seven years now, I’m still thrilled every day to hear these boys sing. They’re conducted by John Robinson, the young and very able new Music Director, who came to “our” Cambridge from Canterbury Cathedral in the U.K. three years ago.

And here is a sample of the Choir chanting the Introit, Si Iniquitates. They, of course, do a wide variety of other music. If you’re Catholic and appreciate this, please don’t be jealous when I tell you the Choir chants a Latin Introit for the 11:00 Mass at St. Paul’s every appropriate Sunday during the school year.

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1672: Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis servientes.

February 4, 2013 at 11:21 pm (By Tim)

As someone who is perpetually offended the current date doesn’t include the year, “16–,” I thought I’d share something from that grand siècle, albeit from the other side of the Rhine—all the way to Salzburg, Austria, in fact—from one of my favorite composers, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Pronounced the same as, but no relation to, Justin, they each in their own way sprout too much hair. Our Biber was Mozart’s predecessor by 100 years at the Archiepiscopal court of Salzburg.

The musical world changed a lot from the highly symbolic, rhetorical language of Biber, always ready to proclaim a metaphysical truth with wood and catgut and hand-beaten brass, to the smooth blandishments of Mozart’s Enlightenment, slightly embarrassed by devotion to the Rosary and tuning systems that spoke of Original Sin.

The performance here is on wood, catgut and beaten brass—on instruments of Biber’s day. No valves need apply to this trumpet-playing, only the notes Nature put into 8 feet of hand-rolled brass tube. No chin rests or metal-wound strings for the fiddles, either—woven, Catline strings and bows that curve out are the noisemakers. All this helps a musician feel God’s presence in the plain materials that sprang, with some human art, from their native soil of Europe. You needn’t devote yourself to the Vedas and move to the banks of the Ganges to become spiritual. Something like that has always been possible, even in unfashionable places where people in periwigs wrote music for the Archbishop’s trumpeters to play.

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A Coming Anniversary

January 27, 2013 at 11:59 pm (By Tim)

Several things, musical and otherwise, have lately reminded me of the city of Dresden. I know it’s early, but it is getting close enough to the 68th anniversary of the firebombing of that city on 13-15 February, 1945. So, I thought I’d cheer the blog a bit with these observations.

The bombing remains a hugely controversial event. I was reminded of that by mentioning it on the Althouse blog a few years ago, which got me into a flame war of my own. At the time, I commented it was a shame “lovely, Baroque Dresden” had been wrecked in The War (as us Boomers learned to refer to it: The War). I don’t know what led me to write something like that, except pure obliviousness. The words, “lovely, Baroque” set off a nutcase commenter, who, not having been anywhere near the military himself, never met a bomb he didn’t like. Things quickly turned ugly. What did I expect?

The world remains divided between those who think bombing Dresden was a War Crime, essentially because Anglo-Saxon Capitalists did it, and those who think it was totally justified, again, because brave, Anglo-Saxon Warriors did it, serving those awful Huns right for the Blitz. Mix Soviet Marxist-Lenninism and German nationalism in the caldron, and you have a witches’ brew that has poisoned any hint of dispassion on the subject since it happened. Some say 250,000 perished, others, a mere 25,000. For my own part, I am extremely sad the Silbermann organ in the Frauenkirche was destroyed (along with the rest of that edifice). I could go on and on about the burnt symbols of Christian Civilization, and what they mean, yada, yada. Others might be more upset about the poor circus horses, fresh off a performance with flaming costumes on their backs, running terrified through the exploding streets. Burn the damn place down in 45 minutes during a random evening in February, and it does make for gripping stories.

And then there are the more exotic appreciations of the event, such as that of the habitual Althouse commenter who, as an artist, seems to have viewed it with a Brutalist sensibility. The drone of the bombers, the burning Zwinger, the collapsing Frauenkirche, the scream of people trying to escape the flames in “lovely Baroque” fountains while boiling to death, the terrified horses and the exploding circus, why, all this was a Gesamtkunstwerk beyond imagining, and the greatest thing the Anglo-American Air Forces ever did. At least that’s the logical conclusion I drew from his remarks. We all know the internet is full of such people.

I also should mention Kurt Vonnegut, another artist, albeit a much better literary one. You ought to read him. He really put this event in front of Americans. But I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to think, as I am not selling any particular normative take on this (or hardly anything else), nor do I want to be a literary critic. Vonnegut did unhinge Dresden from time in the course of Slaughterhouse Five, but that was a device dreamt up after the fact for the story. It was a made-up, literary unhinging. The picture that’s the subject of this post is made-up as well, but it was made-up well before the event, and so qualifies as that rare and deeper thing than literature: genuine prophecy. Prophecy, by definition, disjoints time—strikingly, if it’s good enough. I think this is damn good.

So, here’s the painting, done in a kind of German Expressionist style by Hans Grundig, a Communist hack, who had a long career creating otherwise drab art appropriate to celebrate Stalin’s social handiwork. I believe every person with a creative spark, no matter how pedestrian otherwise, has the possibility of genius. This is Hans Grundig’s one inspired work. To give it its proper Socialist label, it’s really in a New Objectivist style, but who’s picking art-historical nits?

The picture shows the destruction of Dresden from simultaneous multiple perspectives. The bent cross atop the dome of the Frauenkirche and the cupola of the Zwinger Palace are visible among the flames and smashed buildings. Waves of bombers are overhead in the lurid night pierced by searchlights, while the population is literally “buried” in the wrecked city, some with gas masks as useless protection against what proved to be an effective mix of incendiary and high-explosive bombs.

Yes, a striking picture of the events of February, 1945.

Odd thing, it was painted in 1936

Go figure.

Vision

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Overlong Speculation on a Weird Little Piece for Epiphany

January 7, 2013 at 12:18 am (By Tim)

Christmas is done, the tree is down, and I’m still vacuuming up the needles. I’ve finally put together a post that is like taking a moment to look at the old, treasured angel from the top of the tree before putting her back in her box for another year.

Despite the pronounciation of his surname, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, was NOT a mop-haired hearthrob. Instead, in the mid-17th century, he was arguably the best violinist in Europe, a prolific composer, a devout Catholic, and Mozart’s predecessor, by 100 years, at the Archepiscopal court of Salzburg. But Heinrich Ignaz Franz DID have long, bushy hair, or at least an amazingly large wig, if his portrait does him justice.

Image

Biber composed music not just for violin, but in all genres of his time, both sacred and secular. He even wrote an opera or two. He is probably best-known today for his so-called “Mystery Sonatas,” a collection of 15 sonatas for violin and basso continuo, each a musical meditation on a different Mystery of the Rosary. The violin is tuned differently than normal for 14 of the sonatas, giving each a distinct and symbolic sonic character. This is different than merely playing the music in a different key.

Here is another of Biber’s works I’ve found that seems to incorporate acoustic symbolism, although more hidden and implicit than the Mystery Sonatas. At the end of a collection of instrumental ensemble pieces entitled, Sonatæ, Tam Aris, quam Aulis servientes, published in 1676, there are twelve short fanfares for two trumpets. The fourth one here is striking and, I think, meaningful for Epiphany. It’s played here on two “natural” or “Baroque” trumpets, which are essentialy folded brass tubes about 8 feet long, fitted with bells and mouthpieces.

The notes that these instruments can play are given by the overtone or harmonic series, the basic acoustic material of all music. The lower notes are the same as bugle notes. But things get interesting when you get to the top of the bugle range. An entire octave (and more) of something like a major scale, with a few sharps and flats, is possible via the higher harmonics on these clever and subtle instruments. But the harmonics that produce a useable scale lie in a very high range, hence the brilliant, high notes in so many Baroque compositions that include trumpet. 17th and 18th century players had a scale to work with if they screeched high enough. The only problem is, the “scale” has some out-of-tune patches compared to an ordinary tempered scale. These may have been used to make a point, as here, or avoided, if possible and apprppriate.

Baroque-Trumpets

Biber’s piece consists of three repeated sections, each of six bars. The first two sections begin with variants of a “happy” or celebratory  dotted figure, played mostly in thirds, as befits a fanfare. The first of these “happy” few bars consist of an ascending figure, the second has similar music descending. These initial two sections then each conclude with the same slow three bars that I think are symbolic of the Cross: The two parts are intertwined in a 4-3 suspension, representing the crossbeam, and a descent of the lower trumpet to G, ending on an open G-D fifth, symbolic of the upright.

(An aside about pitch: Music for natural brass instruments is notated as if in C major, irrespective of the actual key of the music. The sounding key depends on the length and therefore the pitch of the trumpet or horn. The pitch of the trumpets used here seems to be C at about A=440 Hz, or more likely, D at A=392 Hz, a more plausable historical pitch. Most trumpets in the 17th and 18th centuries were pitched in the key of D, but pitch standards were generally flatter than today’s, at least in the last half of the 17th century through the 18th century. A trumpet pitched in D at A=392 Hz, close to the lowest pitch used at the time, would be the same as an instrument in C at our modern pitch of A=440 Hz. This should be confusing enough.)

The last section, fast again, begins with a three-note figure, rising to the third degree of the scale. It also incorporates written F#’s for the fourth degree. This note is the lynchpin. On a natural (valveless) brass instrument, the written F is the 11th harmonic, and is noticeably out-of-tune. It is  somewhere between the F and F# of a tempered scale. It is unclear how much it was possible to correct this and other tuning discrepencies on natural trumpets of the past.  There is some scant evidence of small holes (much used today) cut into the tube, that the player could open and close to improve intonation. There is also evidence of clever mouthpiece and bell design, thin and thick sections of brass tubing to be squeezed by the player to correct certain notes, etc. Also, a strong player with good intonation can go a long way personally to play the intstrument tolerably in-tune to a conventional scale. So, the question remains, how much, in fact, did Baroque trumpeters “let it all hang out,” and how much did they, and could they, correct their intonation? Did they even want to?

I think the answer varied a lot, and that may help explain Biber’s ambiguous use of F and F#. In any event, the players here don’t make much of an effort. They’re content to play the notes God intended, which I think is the point. The strange, “neutral” third and momentary out-of-tune fourth are jarring, but they’re manifestations of God’s Creation, construed in Nature by the simple tube of a trumpet. Man’s art is revealed in turning Nature to his ends through an instrument of such noble simplicity.

This “cross-like” musical gesture is a pale, artistic reminder of the actual cross, and the real, grisly, bloody death Jesus suffered. But because its notes are intrinsic, real, out-of-tune, and created by God (if played by Man), it is a reminder that suffering (or at least unpleasantness) is also intrinsic to existence. Unpleasantness here can be an artistic stand-in for suffering. A deeper question is why we find certain musical notes pleasant or unpleasant, and what does that mean about our relationship with other pleasant and unpleasant sensations? This is an obvious nexus of Buddhist and Christian thought, but I’m writing a little musicological bagatelle here, and leave that question to more profound philosophers.

So, the last section of our piece concludes with the ringing, haunting harmonies of the untrammeled overtone series. A perceptive YouTube commenter says it is “simultaneously so brilliant and so somber. Right inside you and yet far away.”  I  think it symbolizes man’s reconciliation with God. There is no obvious dissonance, as in the earlier “Cross” figure, but it is strange and brilliant, made only of the unaltered sounds in God’s Creation—the Holy Spirit made manifest, but by Man’s imperfect means—right inside you and yet so far away.

The Cross was never far from Christmas in traditional Christian art. The Cross is the pre-ordained fate of the Babe in the Manger. A Cross is often tucked into corners of Renaissance and Baroque Nativity scenes, and Bach used the well-known Easter chorale, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” as the concluding piece of his Christmas Oratorio. I’ve read this Biber piece may have been intended for Christmas, and so it was half-celebratory and half-reminiscent of the Cross.

I may be getting far afield with the next bit of speculation, but there are 159 notes total in the piece. The number 318—significant from Genesis 14:14 as the number of Abram’s servants in pursuit of his captive brother—was interpreted By St. Clement of Alexandria, among others, as a foreshadowing of the Cross (T, tau, an upright with crossbar, standing for 300) and of Jesus (ΙΗ, the first two letter of his name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, standing for 18). 159 is half of 318, and it could be that, because this piece is only half about the Cross, and half about the Nativity of our Lord, such a number was chosen. My son says this sounds like a conspiracy theory. When I was a student, a pianist friend used to call these kinds of musicological notions “wiggy.”  But if you’ve ever delved into the numerological coding in J.S. Bach, for example—a torture commonly inflicted on musicology students—you will appreciate how such wiggy ideas were common currency in the days of those musical gentlemen with too much hair, fake or real as it may have been.

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Beethoven at the End: the Missa Solemnis

June 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm (By Tim) (, , )

Despite having a lot on my mind that I think might be blog-worthy, I have hardly posted anything here or via my other, very sporadic blogging efforts. There are two reasons for this: First, I am crazy-busy. I am working two jobs, and my boys, despite their teenage years, have been taking more of my time than I thought possible.

The other reason is, of course,  a state of depression about social media. I’ll go into that another time. But, while trying to cure my blues with music, which I have been doing since the Eisenhower Adminstration, I ran across the following, which I’ve also posted to Facebook:

Herbert Blomstedt gives a wonderful talk at the link below about Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. The associated performance is superb and well worth the cost of a single viewing or even a subscription to the Berlin Philharmonic’s excellent streaming service, Digital Concert Hall.

Beethoven’s highly unusual setting of the Ordinary of the Mass is among his last works, and the one he regarded as his greatest. It is not a Mass suitable for church. It is far too outsized to be part of any actual Liturgy. It represents, instead, Beethoven’s own personal expression of faith and inner spirituality. And, despite its late-Beethovenian self-involvement, it is a work that in deep ways hearkens back to the 16th century and the techniques of the great Franco-Flemish and Italian polyphonic composers. There is hardly any thematic development in the way late Classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven himself had perfected and extended, and which anyone who knows this style would expect. Beethoven’s treatment of his thematic material in the Missa Solemnis has more in common with Josquin than Haydn, or certainly the Beethoven of the Nine Symphonies. Beethoven takes a step away from his own world and his own ego and makes a deep bow toward composers such as Palestrina, who in the Renaissance had laid the foundations upon which Beethoven was attempting to erect his masterpiece.

At the same time, this music is “difficult” and, in that sense, forward-looking. Beethoven’s harmonic language, his large orchestra and chorus, and the technical demands on all the musicians, especially the singers, are harbingers of the later 19th century. Beethoven seems to have intended this work to last, and for it to stand, like his late quartets, somehow outside of time.

Blomstedt makes the point that every note here is “charged with meaning.” This is an extremely important notion that Blomstedt repeats and extends it to the entire realm of “classical” music. The difference between the art music of our Western Civilization (if I may use such a term without irony) and other music we hear every day, is that each note of classical, or “art” music (the word I prefer) is, or ought to be, charged with meaning. And there are very few pieces of music so charged with layers of meaning as the Missa Solemnis. It is long and difficult, but there is little else in Beethoven, save his last string quartets, that attempts such transcendence. Whether he achieves it is a hard question, to which everyone who hears this piece will know there is no easy answer.

The entire concert, including the trailer and Blomstedt’s interview, is at the following link:

http://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/concert/2585

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May 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm (By Tim)

Here’s a post I did a year ago. My thoughts haven’t changed.

Ambiance

It’s Memorial Day, which used to be called “Decoration Day,” a holiday begun after the Civil War to honor the dead. It was originally meant both for the sake of the fallen and to promote reconciliation. The month of May was the obvious season, as flowers to decorate graves would be in greater profusion than at the the anniversary of the end of the War in early April. The exact date of May 30 was established in the North, because no battle had been fought on that day. It was settled that Veterans’ graves were to be decorated and civic memorials for the fallen soldiers held.

“Memorial Day” gradually became the more common name as the United States fought more wars, and it became almost universal after World War II. The name wasn’t officially changed, though, until 1967.

Aside from both the official purpose of the day and its popular…

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A Hint of Trane

October 27, 2011 at 6:58 pm (By Tim)

John Coltrane’s  A Love Supreme:

Possibly Coltrane’s greatest work. Devotional and thankful to God.

In surprising ways.

You can buy the whole thing on Amazon, which, although it will cost you a little money, is nothing compared to what you might get out of it.

If  the link doesn’t work, just double click on it and play it straight from YouTube.

I have little hope this will stay up long on YouTube, but while it does, enjoy.

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Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory

May 30, 2011 at 11:10 am (By Tim)

It’s Memorial Day, which used to be called “Decoration Day,” a holiday begun after the Civil War to honor the dead. It was originally meant both for the sake of the fallen and to promote reconciliation. The month of May was the obvious season, as flowers to decorate graves would be in greater profusion than at the the anniversary of the end of the War in early April. The exact date of May 30 was established in the North, because no battle had been fought on that day. It was settled that Veterans’ graves were to be decorated and civic memorials for the fallen soldiers held.

“Memorial Day” gradually became the more common name as the United States fought more wars, and it became almost universal after World War II. The name wasn’t officially changed, though, until 1967.

Aside from both the official purpose of the day and its popular celebration as the kickoff to summer, I’m afraid I have one peculiar thing relating to it floating around in my head. It’s a heartrending piece of music written about Decoration Day by Charles Ives (1874-1954). Ives’ compositions were almost always inspired by, and included quotes from American music of his time. Among his favorites were the sounds of brass bands. This was quite natural, as his father was town bandmaster of Danbury, Connecticut. “Decoration Day” has as its centerpiece the sounds of such a band. But it is enveloped by music representing both the everyday and the “cosmic” context of the lives of ordinary New Englanders. For Ives, as a musician, the most important mark of that shared existence was the village band. One of Ives’ notable techniques is to include in his works the sounds of bands, either alone, as here, or juxtaposed, as in “Central Park in the Dark,” another striking and evocative orchestral piece I recommend, if you don’t know it, as a possible starting place with Ives’ music.

“Decoration Day” paints a picture of a New England small town when Ives was a boy in the latter years of the 19th century. It is filled, as is most of Ives’ music, with quotes and snippets of popular songs, hymns, and Civil War tunes. Igor Stravinsky, describing Ives’ procedure, called  it “inclusiveness.” Much of Ives’ so-included commonplace music is unfamiliar today. It is a fascinating exercise, though, to try to make out tunes that might be familiar, or to look through collections of old Protestant hymns to see what Ives might have used. A passing familiarity with Ives’ musical backdrop can be a tremendous help to better know the art in this music. Ives himself wrote the story, or “program,” of this piece thus:

In the early morning the gardens and woods around the village are the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day’s Memorial. During the forenoon as the people join each other on the Green there is felt, at times, a fervency and intensity—a shadow perhaps of the fanatical harshness—reflecting old Abolitionist days. It is a day as Thoreau suggests, when there is a pervading consciousness of “Nature’s kinship with the lower order—man.” After the Town Hall is filled with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies, the parade is slowly formed on Main Street. First come the three Marshals on plough horses (going sideways), then the Warden and Burgesses in carriages, the Village Cornet Band, the G.A.R., two by two, the Militia (Company G), while the volunteer Fire Brigade, drawing a decorated hose-cart, with its jangling bells, brings up the rear—the inevitable swarm of small boys following. The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets. The roll of the muffled drums and “Adestes Fideles” answer for the dirge. A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg. After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds out through the pines and hickories, while a last hymn is sung. The ranks are formed again, and “we all march to town” to a Yankee stimulant—Reeves’ inspiring “Second Regiment Quickstep”—though, to many a soldier, the sombre thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band. The march stops—and in the silence, the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the Town, and the sunset behind the West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the Day .

I can never listen to this music, especially as I live near a cemetery filled with Grand Army of the Republic badges next to weathered marble headstones, without a lump in my throat. And today, in at least some of these New England cemeteries, the tired old stones and rusted iron badges will have bright flags to keep them company. They remind us that the last full measure of devotion they represent ought not to have been offered in vain.  And so, as another tribute to that devotion, we have this piece of uniquely American “classical” music that not only anticipates much in the European avant-garde of the later 20th century, but serves as a  reminder of that first, calamitous, total American war.

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