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Classical Notes

Hailing the 54th with monumental works

Charles Ives wrote “The ‘St.-Gaudens’ in Boston Common.’’ Charles Ives wrote “The ‘St.-Gaudens’ in Boston Common.’’ (W. Eugene Smith)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 28, 2010

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This weekend marks the anniversary of two events inspiring a great piece of music. On this date in 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry paraded through Boston, was acclaimed with speeches on the Common, and then marched south to join the Civil War. The 54th was one of the first official black units in the Union Army, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white, Boston-bred scion of prominent abolitionists. After the regiment’s valorous assault on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner that July (with the regiment taking heavy casualties, and Shaw being killed), it became the most iconic black unit.

On May 31, 1897 — the day after what was then called Decoration Day — the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s dramatic bas-relief memorial to Shaw and the 54th was unveiled across from the Massachusetts State House. Shaw, on horseback, rides alongside a column of the 54th’s enlisted men, led by two drummers. The composer Charles Ives may not have even personally seen the monument before writing “The ‘St.-Gaudens’ in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment),’’ the first movement of his orchestral “Three Places in New England.’’ He wouldn’t have had to; the sculpture became famous immediately, with images and descriptions filling the press.

Born in 1874, Ives nevertheless felt strong connections to the Civil War. His father, George, was an Army bandleader who was complimented, according to family legend, by none other than Ulysses S. Grant. His father-in-law, Joseph Twichell, had served as a chaplain under General Dan Sickles. (Ives and his wife accompanied Twichell and Sickles to the 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg.) “The ‘St.-Gaudens’ in Boston Common’’ was, according to Ives, first written as a piano piece in 1912, but seems to have attained its final form later, during the First World War. Overlaid with shadowy, ominous orchestration, Ives’s evocation of virtuous determination — his “Black March,’’ as he called it — takes on that unease, the memorial’s more somber overtones drawn out by the subsequent course of human events.

Saint-Gaudens spent over a dozen years on the monument, seeking individuality for each soldier. His memoirs include humorous, if appallingly condescending, stories of the “darkeys’’ he recruited as models. (The horse fared worse, dying from pneumonia brought on by wet plaster used to make casts.)

Ceremonies surrounding the unveiling were largely exercises in noble commendation. Henry Lee Higginson, founder and benefactor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, eulogized Shaw as an exemplar of Brahmin noblesse oblige. The final speaker shifted the tone toward the note of melancholy doggedness that Ives, too, sensed in the monument itself. “[A]ll that this monument stands for will not be realized,’’ Booker T. Washington warned, until “no man in all our land will be tempted to degrade himself by withholding from his black brother any opportunity which he himself would possess.’’ (The unveiling came only a year after the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision sanctioning segregation; the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar more pessimistically noted the dissonance, writing that the ghosts of the Shaw memorial who “died for right/ Have died, the Present teaches, but in vain!’’)

Ives also regarded the memorial as unfinished business. The music emerges rather than begins, drifts off instead of ending; the effect is of a constant, peripheral presence, temporarily occupying our consciousness. Snatches of melodies — Stephen Foster plantation songs, Civil War marches, a hint of the spiritual “Deep River’’ — jut out against a backdrop of shifting clouds of dissonance. Another Ives piece, the “Decoration Day’’ movement from his “Holidays’’ Symphony, is similar: Like the “St.-Gaudens,’’ it starts on slow, irregular polytonal harmonic ground, the indistinct jumble of the past from which we cull sharper memories. But “Decoration Day’’ brings the familiar bugling of “Taps,’’ then an exuberant, celebratory quick-step parade, then an “Amen’’ cadence: a cathartic, comforting holiday ritual. The “St.-Gaudens,’’ by contrast, leaves the listener hanging, the emotions polyvalent and unresolved.

Ives’s 54th heads into battle, but the action is brief and qualified: A climactic, triple-forte C-major chord is shot through with a dissonant B from the horn. The march is heavy-burdened: “When a mass of men march up a hill,’’ Ives wrote on one draft of the music, “there is an unconscious slowing up . . . the drum seems to follow the feet rather [than] the feet the drum.’’ The measured cadence fades back into an almost motionless landscape.

Originally, Ives envisioned the piece as the final movement in an abolitionist triptych honoring Ralph Waldo Emerson (Ives’s hero) and the great anti-slavery orator Wendell Phillip, a culmination. But as another war raged, Ives recast his uphill “Black March’’ to open the journey through “Three Places in New England,’’ a point of departure. Military sacrifice enabled the promise of democracy that Ives worshiped, but the realization of the promise is a never-ending push. As Washington put it, the memorial stands for “effort, not victory complete.’’ The ghosts of the 54th still march.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.