Lately I’ve been listening to Charles Ives’ Holidays Symphony, a compelling four-movement evocation of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, July 4th, and Thanksgiving Day. Ives was a true music revolutionary. Some consider him America’s greatest composer.
Ives’ movements often begin contemplatively and build, sometimes fitfully, to crazy-quilt climaxes of multiple American musical themes. The Holidays Symphony’s 4th of July movement, for example, juxtaposes fragments of Colombia, The Gem of the Ocean; The Battle Hymn of the Republic; Yankee Doodle; Reveille; and a jagged motif by Ives himself. You feel that you’ve time travelled to some late 19th –early 20th century overloaded soundscape of musical Americana that’s on the verge of an Ivesian breakdown. That’s usually when Ives pulls the plug, leaving you in a parting wake of musical contemplation—an exit rather than a resolution.
Nobody on the planet is a better advocate for Ives than Michael Tilson Thomas, who demystifies and adds excitement to The Holidays Symphony in a terrific DVD in his Keeping Score series. After he dissects the symphony movement by movement (accompanied by vivid multimedia examples), he treats you a winning performance under his own baton with the San Francisco Symphony. Visit the Holidays Symphony’s Keeping Score website here.
So how about an Ivesian symphony dedicated to genuinely obscure state holidays—i.e., holidays celebrated largely by state employees?
That occurred to me on Bunker Hill Day (June 17th), one of three springtime holidays “celebrated” by state workers in Massachusetts. The other two are Patriots Day and Evacuation Day. (The latter commemorates the day in March 1776 when the Brits abandoned Boston.) Massachusetts may lead the nation in such state observances, but other states, in their own poignant celebrations, have much to offer the musical enterprise at hand.
Favorites include Cesar Chavez Day in California, Arbor Day in Nebraska, and Pioneer Day, a.k.a. The Day of Deliverance, in Utah. Alaskans celebrate Seward Day and Alaska Day and Hawaiians undulate on days that honor Kamehameha the Great and Prince Kūhiō. Finally, there are holidays heavy on southern charm like Lee and Jackson (that’s Stonewall, not Andrew) Day in Virginia and Confederate Memorial Day in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.
With a so much inspiration and so little time remaining on another one of my state days off --a Personal
Day--here are my preliminary . . .
Sketches for an Ivesian State Holidays Symphony
First Movement: Lee and Jackson Day—Virginia, January 2. A choral quartet version of the elegiac southern hymn, Washing in the Possum’s Bounty gives way to a spritely string orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. (evoking the exuberance of Confederate aspirations). Staccato upwellings of Dixie intrude, yielding a strident hybrid consummation. After the bottom drops out, a lone fiddle takes us downstream with a spectral rendition of Robbie Robertson’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
Second Movement: Evacuation Day—Massachusetts, March 17. For openers, any lush Elgarian theme will do for veneration of all things British. Upon restatement, the theme incurs escalating pepperings from impolite fifes and drums. Next, a full orchestral wash of London Bridges falls victim to merciless sonic deconstruction. The movement’s coda—the specially commissioned Evacuation Tango—accompanies footage of state workers rising en masse from their desks and abandoning their offices.
Third Movement: King Kamehameha Day—Hawaii, June 11. Sonic titillation from a lapping surf morphs into a traditional Hawaiian chant with thumping shark-skin drums offering a plea to the forest god Kane for Kamehameha the Great’s (1738-1819) shadow “to never grow less.” A spinning Bakelite radio dial surfing across snippets of big band swing settles in on Laurel and Hardy’s rendition of Honolulu Baby (Where’d you get those eyes?). In recessional, slack key guitar master Ledward Kaapana bids us a terminal aloha with Lei' Awapuhi (Yellow Ginger Lei).
Final Movement: You decide! My short list is a toss-up between Utah’s Pioneer Day (July 24) and Rhode Island’s Victory Day (August 15), which celebrates the United States’ defeat of Japan and the end of WWII. For Pioneer Day, you might glean inspiration from the apocryphal From Jeptha’s Bosom: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Wonder Years. If you favor V-Day--Rhode Island is the only state that celebrates it, probably because of the heavy involvement of its naval bases in the Pacific War--why not finish up with Randy Newman’s exuberant Political Science [They All Hate Us Anyhow, So Let’s Drop the Big One Now?]
An Ivesian Puzzlement
Finally, Wig & Pen wonders how Ives would have viewed this proliferation of state holidays and their “get out of jail” cards for state and (other) employees. Music, after all, was Ives’ avocation. In the work-a-day world, he commuted from Danbury, Connecticut to Manhattan as an insurance executive. He ultimately owned his own firm, Ives & Myrick (1907-1930), where he developed estate-related insurance products for well-to-do clients.
In the early days of the last century, many viewed the insurance business as radical. By the standards of the day, then, Ives pushed the envelope both in business and in music. Given his pioneering disposition, would Charlie Ives have welcomed state holidays and encouraged his employees to take the day off? That Is The Unanswered Question.
Subscribe to Wig & Pen.