Ives’ Decoration Day from the Holidays Symphony

Notes by TŌN percussionist William Kaufman

The Composer
Ives is best remembered for his touching depictions of life in the northeast United States. He was born and raised in Connecticut, and worked at a life insurance agency in New York City. His father was a reputable bandmaster during the Civil War, which is apparent with a close listening to Ives’ work. Ives’ music is recognizable by the way in which he incorporated variations on patriotic melodies that serve as a grounding force amid a clustering cacophony of crossing rhythms and melodic dissonances. His genius is unique and unreplicable.

The Story
Decoration Day is the second movement in his work A Symphony: New England Holidays, which served as a collection of childhood memories from growing up in post-Civil War New England. Decoration Day takes listeners along for the observation of the holiday now known as Memorial Day. In the Postface to Decoration Day, Ives writes about celebrating the holiday with the townspeople as he remembers it from his childhood. The people gather together in the village with flowers and fill the Town Hall “with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies.” Then the parade is formed with military personnel, horses, and the fire brigade. There is a slow and somber march to the cemetery, where the graves are decorated. The march back to town is more lively, “though, to many a soldier, the somber thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band”. After the final march, Ives recalls, there is a noticeable silence that concludes the piece.

A Personal Connection
I have a personal connection with Charles Ives’ music because I was raised in a small town very near to his hometown of Danbury. I recall our Memorial Day ceremonies, and Ives’ description of the people congregating in the town center with flowers and flags is a familiar image for me. I actually marched in the Memorial Day parade playing snare drum as a young music student and a member of the school band. It is a pleasure to present this brilliant and deeply heartfelt work of Charles Ives with The Orchestra Now this season.