Battle Songs recounts the events/effects of four battles of pre-WWII wars—the battle of Concord (Revolutionary War), the battle of Buena Vista (Mexican-American War), the battle of Shiloh (Civil War), and the second battle of Ypres (World War I).
Concord was my first venture into writing art song. Written for myself to perform, it was not until after many performances that I decided to expand the work into a set of songs. Shiloh, the second song added, is not only a powerfully reflective text, but represents the Civil War battle in which my own great-great-grandfather fought and was wounded. Although organized as a complete and ordered set, each song functions as an independent vignette, unified by a common theme: the remembrance of pre-World War II conflicts. Therefore, each song may exist independently from the set.
I. CONCORD – Concord Hymn Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson’s "Concord Hymn" was sung to the tune Old Hundredth during the 1837 4th of July celebration in Concord, MA. The day’s festivities marked the dedication of the monument commemorating the battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, erected near the North Bridge where the initial battle took place. Today the foremost recognizable stanza is inscribed on the base of Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man Statue. Through Emerson’s words, coupled with the scenic surrounding landscape, visitors are able to reflect on the activity of April 19, 1775.
II. BUENA VISTA – The Bivouac of the Dead Theodore O’Hara
Fought near Monterrey, the battle of Buena Vista was the last major battle in northern Mexico during the Mexican-American War. It was future U.S. President Zachary Taylor’s final battle of the war. Although written to honor Kentuckians slain during the War, Theodore O’Hara’s "The Bivouac of the Dead" is commonly used to remember veterans of the Civil War. Plaques engraved with O’Hara’s text may be seen today in various cemeteries which commemorate some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War: Antietam, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Shiloh, Stone’s River, and Vicksburg. Even the McClellan Gate leading to the Arlington National Cemetery bears an inscription from O’Hara’s poem. O’Hara was born in Danville, Kentucky, on February 11, 1820. On June 6, 1867, O’Hara died and was buried in Columbus, GA. However, in 1873 his remains were moved to Frankfort, KY, to rest near the graves of the soldiers who inspired his famous poem.
III. SHILOH – Shiloh: A Requiem Herman Melville
Melville’s "Shiloh: A Requiem" depicts one of the bloodiest battles in the history of American warfare. Fought near Pittsburg Landing in southern Tennessee, the two-day battle (April 6-7, 1862) left over 23,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. The misery of the battle is vividly represented in James Lee McDonough’s Shiloh—in Hell before Night. “The rain came slowly at first, then gradually fell harder and harder until it beat against the ground in torrents. Continuing through most of the night, the downpour was accompanied by a cold, chilling wind that swept the battlefield. An intense darkness was broken only by flashes of lightning and the fuses of shells in the sky momentarily illuminating scenes of wasted humanity. Every fifteen minutes, all night long, a gun on each of the Union gunboats roared from the Tennessee River, sending two giant 8-inch shells arching toward the Confederate lines, their red fuses lighting up the starless night for a brief instant before they came screaming down, exploding and scattering fragments of iron in all directions…Many of the wounded, Confederate and Union, were spending an agonizing night—the last night some would ever know—in the blackness between the lines of the armies. As the flashes of lightning lit the fields and the rolling timberland, they found themselves alone, except for other wounded and innumerable bodies of the dead.” (1977, 184-185)
IV. IN FLANDERS FIELDS – In Flanders Fields John McCrae
McCrae’s "In Flanders Fields" is recognized as one of the most moving war poems ever written. It remains a symbol of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the spring of 1915. Although he had been a doctor for years and served in the Canadian armed forces, McCrae found the conditions of Ypres almost impossible to bear. As a surgeon, Major McCrae spent 17 days treating injured men—Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans. One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former student Alexis Helmer of Ottawa had been killed by a shell burst on May 2, 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that day in the little cemetery outside McCrae’s dressing station. With the absence of a chaplain, McCrae performed the funeral ceremony. The next day, while sitting on the back of an ambulance, McCrae vented his anguish by composing his historic poem. In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches. Why poppies? According to Rob Ruggenberg in his article "The Making of In Flanders Fields", “wild poppies flower when other plants in their direct neighborhood are dead. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and years, but only when there are no more competing flowers or shrubs in the vicinity (for instance when someone firmly roots up the ground), these seeds will sprout…But in this poem the poppy plays one more role. The poppy is known as a symbol of sleep. The last line We shall not sleep, thou poppies grow / In Flanders fields might point to this fact. Some kinds of poppies are used to derive opium, from which morphine is made. Morphine was often used to put a wounded soldier to sleep. Sometimes medical doctors used it in a higher dose to put the incurable wounded out of their misery.” (http://www.greatwar.nl/frames/default-poppies.html)
I. Concord (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept,
Alike the Conqueror silent sleeps,
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone,
That memory may their deed redeem,
When like our sires our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, or leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and Thee.
II. Buena Vista (Theodore O'Hara)
The muffled drum's sad roll has beat;
No more on life's parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
No rumour of the foe's advance
now swells upon the wind;
No troubled thought at midnight haunts
Of loved ones left behind.
Long had the doubtful conflict raged
O'er all that stricken plain,
For never fiercer fight had waged
The vengeful blood of Spain;
And still the storm of battle blew,
Still swelled the glory tide;
Not long, our stout old Chieftain knew,
Such odds his strength could bide.
Twas in that hour his stern command
Called to a martyr's grave
The flower of his beloved land,
The nation's flag to save.
By rivers of their father's gore
His first-born laurels grew,
And well he deemed the sons would pour
Their lives for glory too.
Rest on, embalmed and sainted dead,
Dear as the blood ye gave,
Where valor proudly sleeps.
III. Shiloh (Herman Melville)
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
The forest-field of Shiloh
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain,
Through the pauses of the night
That followed the Sunday fight
Around the church of Shiloh,
The church, so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foemen mingled there
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
And now they lay low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.
IV. In Flanders Fields (John McCrae)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.