Lest We Forget: A Brief Memorial Day Essay

I am a product of both war and peace.

My father’s side of the family includes several men through the generations who did their military duty, including my grandfather, a veteran of the Korean War era.  He is a hero for many reasons, although his military service was not heavily involved in combat.  When I lived in his house during college, I was touched by the reverence with which he would raise the flag on the pole in his front yard every morning, and every night he would bring it in.  He and my grandmother would fold it together, just like I learned to do as a boy scout.  Love of this country is not casual for them.

On my mother’s side of the family, most of my ancestors were Mennonites, including several ministers.  They were pacifists, and they lived their religion.  This was a people that had been evicted from several European countries because of their beliefs, until they finally landed in the barren heartland of America.  They set to work, growing crops where nobody else could – making a bit of Heaven in places other settlers saw as Hell.  I can imagine the disappointment and the fervent prayers of my great grandfathers, ministers who preached in both English and German, as the dark days of the second World War dragged on.  How frightening it must have been, living in that uncertain world of constant threats, but holding to the conviction that it was better to die than to kill.

Memorial Day is about memory.  It is certainly about the memory of those who died to give us the freedoms we now trample under our feet.  But it is also about the memory of those who lived to preserve our freedom – those who survived to tell the stories, and to write new ones.  The Greatest Generation was not only composed of the dead – it was the generation of those who picked up the pieces of the war and fashioned them into a shining new America.

How many of our young people understand the sacrifices of the past?  The immediacy of technology has produced a silent cultural nihilism.  We live so much in the now that even what happened this morning is old news.  We are losing track of where we came from, not stopping to realize that those points in the past are vital to understand our current trajectory.  We have lost the skill of sacrifice.  And yet, the ability to live happily in this ignorant state was purchased with the lives of men and women who did their duty when the need emerged.

I am indebted to hundreds of thousands of soldiers for the rights to speak my opinions, to pursue my goals, and to worship my God.  But in my remembrance, I must also remember the wives and parents who stayed home and waited by the radio and the mailbox.  I must also tip my hat to the factory workers who made tanks and uniforms instead of cars and pretty dresses.  I have to remember the American people as they were back then during the world wars – and hope that by some miracle I will someday measure up to their standard of hope and patriotism.

Thanks to the veterans who bought our freedom.  Thanks to the Americans of the past who help me remember what that freedom means.  Most of all, thanks to the Christ who bought all of us with an infinite price to give us an infinite freedom.  In Kipling’s Recessionalwe read, “Lord of the nations, spare us yet / Lest we forget, lest we forget.”  If we forget our veterans, we miss the rich lessons of our nation’s past.  If we forget our God, we jeopardize our nation’s future.  The best honor we can give God and our veterans is to live up to the brilliant potential they have granted us.

Notes on For the Beauty of the Earth

After Martin Prachař had spent many hours working on a beautiful instrumental recording of my men’s choir arrangement of Abide with Me, I asked him if I might arrange one of his favorite hymns.  He said, “as the spring came in fast this year and brought in hope, I have been really feeling like singing For the Beauty of the Earth…”

I began work immediately on an arrangement that I soon discarded.  When I arrange, I want to bring something fresh to the song.  If I cannot improve upon the original, an arrangement is a waste of time.  I felt that the tune of the hymn was already well harmonized, and I didn’t want to tinker with it too much.  I got frustrated and walked away from the project for over six months.

In January 2013, my family and I attended the funeral of a brilliant mathematician and scientist, John Downing.  The closing hymn at the service was For the Beauty of the Earth.  This brought the song back to the front of my mind.

Last week, I was sitting at the piano and working out a little tune, and the lyrics to For the Beauty of the Earth began to fit with it.  I wrote and harmonized the tune, and then I went back to the original hymn tune by Conrad Kocher.  I was able to quote that melody in the bass line of verse 2.

To me, beauty in music is achieved through shimmering dissonance as much as consonant chords.  That aesthetic idea guided the voicing of this piece.  See and hear the results here.

Thanks.

Over the past week, I have received messages from several people who performed Resurrection Hymn this past Sunday for Easter.  I am grateful for your willingness to use my music.  It is humbling to have so many excellent musicians bringing my music to life, including my own Ward Choir.

Resurrection Hymn is available in vocal solo, SAB, SSA, and TBB arrangements.  The SATB version will be available soon.  Again, thank you all for making Resurrection Hymn one of the most performed pieces I’ve written.