When Memorial Day comes around on the last weekend in May you probably think about a 3-day weekend, back-yard cookouts, going to the beach or pool, watching World War II movies on television, and brass bands. Did you know that the Memorial Day tradition actually dates back to the American Civil War? It was originally known as Decoration Day because people decorate the graves of war veterans with flowers or flags.
As the Fiddle Examiner, I hereby propose three works for fiddle (or violin) that should be standard on Memorial Day.
Composed by John Williams for the movie of the same name, and performed by violinist Itzhak Perlman, Schindler’s List is one of the most popular, and moving, works of music dedicated to victims of war.
The movie is based on the book, Schindler’s Ark, and tells the tale of Oscar Schindler, an ambitious German opportunist who ultimately saved the lives of over 1,000 Jewish people during World War II just because they were employees of his enamelware factory. Schindler, himself a member of the Nazi party, was initially driven by greed, employing Jews because he didn’t have to pay them much, if at all. However, after witnessing a brutal execution as part of what is known today as the Holocaust, he used his wealth, his influence, and his factory to protect his employees from such a fate.
In fact, one of his employees was a noted violinist. Henry Rosner, would play for a sadistic SS officer named Amon Goeth. Goeth was responsible for the deaths of many, many Jews. He was known to casually shoot at children as if they were game. Aside from his passion for torturing and killing, Goeth also loved music. He hired Rosner to play the violin at his parties. Schindler was a frequent guest at these parties. After hearing Rosner play he added the talented musician, and his family, to his list of factory employees so that they would not be victims of Goeth’s executions. Schindler also bought Rosner’s violin and returned it to him after the war.
It seems only fitting that Steven Spielberg and Itzhak Perlman, both sharing Jewish roots, would participate in the making of such an historical film. Combined with the gripping score, composed by John Williams, the movie has won numerous awards. However, many people are more familiar with Perlman’s performance on the soundtrack than they are with the movie itself.
Itzhak Perlman talks about, and performs, Schindler’s List in this YouTube video:
The Ashokan Farewell
This popular fiddle tune is often mistaken to be an authentic American Civil War piece of music. It was, in fact, composed in 1982 by Jay Ungar. Ungar wrote the tune after feeling sad one summer at the closing of his Fiddle & Dance camp near the Ashokan Reservoir (in the Catskill Mountains of New York). He thought it should be written in the the style of a Scottish lament. He thought correctly! Due to the emotion he felt while composing it, he kept it to himself for many months. Then in 1983, when his band, Fiddle Fever, was recording the album, Waltz of the Wind, he decided to include his very personal creation.
A year later, Ken Burns heard the album and was also emotionally moved by the Ashokan Farewell. In fact, he was so moved that he hired Ungar and his band to play it in his upcoming Civil War documentary. Although the band performs much of the 19th century music heard throughout the PBS series, the Ashokan Farewell is the only contemporary piece on the soundtrack.
Jay Ungar talks about how he wrote the Ashokan Farewell on his web site:
This fiddle tune is perfect for Memorial Day. Soldier’s Joy is the one of the most popular old-time fiddler tunes ever! The actual tune has roots as a reel played by Scottish and Irish fiddlers as far back as the 1700s. The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote words for it in 1785.
The melody has been passed on from fiddler to fiddler, and eventually made its way to the United States where it’s popularity continued to grow. The title “Soldier’s Joy” as we know it today is believed to refer to a rather potent concoction used by Civil War soldiers consisting of whiskey, beer, and morphine.
It is known to have been published in Boston as early as 1885. Although commonly played as a fiddle tune, and as a country dance tune, it can be adapted to almost any instrument. It is a little known fact, that Senator Albert Gore (Senior), was also a fiddler and played the tune with his band in the 1930s.
You can hear a recording of Al Gore, Sr. playing Soldier’s Joy on the Library of Congress web site: