Five Classical Memorials You Should Know

This article originally ran on May 27, 2010

Thursday, May 27, 2010

As long as there is war, there will be music honoring the fallen and decrying the horrors of battle. Here are five works that respond to a range of eras and events.

1. Britten War Requiem

On November 14, 1940, the city of Coventry, England, was laid to rubble in one of the fiercest German bombing raids of World War II. Among the lost cultural treasures was the 14th century Cathedral of St. Michael. In 1962, when a modern cathedral was built at the site, Britten composed his War Requiem for its consecration. Britten was a committed pacifist and a conscientious objector during World War II. Yet he didn't want the work to seem preachy or moralizing, so he interpolated World War I poems by Wilfred Owen into the standard Requiem Mass liturgical text (Owen was killed in action just one week before the Armistice of 1918).

Owen's poetry captures the horrors of World War I but also carries a universal antiwar message. Britten gave the poems their own accompaniment from a small chamber orchestra that is set apart from the main band. A massive work, set in six large movements, it carries basic human message, simple and uncontrived.

2. Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen

Composed in 1945, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, a work for 23 solo strings, contains Strauss's most sustained outpouring of tragic emotion. The work was written as a statement of mourning for Germany's destruction during the war, in particular the bombing of the Munich Opera House and the Goethehaus. According to Michael Kennedy's biography Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma (1999), one hostile early critic interpreted the composition as mourning Hitler and the Nazi regime. But Strauss had written the words "In Memoriam" over a quotation from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony as a way to symbolize the toll of war on the German culture and aesthetic in general. As he wrote in his diary:

    "The most terrible period of human history (is at) an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom."

3. Hindemith: When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd

Like John Adams, German composer Paul Hindemith found inspiration in the Civil War poems of Whitman. The 1946 cantata When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd is a setting of Whitman's elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln. Hindemith, discovering these words shortly after World War II, found them newly appropriate when President Franklin D. Roosevelt suddenly died. The death of America's war-time leader, virtually at the moment of victory, had strong parallels to Lincoln's assassination. Among the requiem-like work's most striking moments is a ceremonial march depicting the journey of Lincoln's funeral train back to Springfield, IL.

4. Arthur Honegger: Third Symphony Liturgique

The French-Swiss composer Arthur Honegger called his Third Symphony the Liturgique. Some might consider that title a misnomer, as the symphony, completed in 1946, has less to do with the formal trappings of worship than with Honegger's acutely personal response to World War II. Honegger spent the war years in Paris, and his musical impressions, according to London Times music critic Richard Morrison, were "more concise than Shostakovich, more cosmopolitan in style than Vaughan Williams, but clearly reflecting on the same contemporary tensions and tragedies." Some may find this work angry and clamorous, but there’s also a rapturous quality in the movements that draw their titles from the Requiem Mass.

5. Adams: The Wound Dresser

John Adams, one of today’s most respected American composers, finds a natural ally in Walt Whitman, the great American poet. This 1989 symphonic setting of Whitman’s Civil War poem, The Wound Dresser, is ghostly and vividly atmospheric. The poem captures Whitman’s recollections of his service as a care-giver tending to wounded troops in the makeshift Civil War hospitals on a battlefield. It’s grim stuff at times, with a baritone soloist recounting the business of tending to the wounded but also the bond that develops between a caretaker and a dying person. The muted tones, and the solo military trumpet near the end, ultimately gravitates towards a sense of hope and peace.

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