David Pittsinger and Arlington Sons

This past weekend, something happened that doesn’t happen very often – a world premiere for the PSO at Heinz Hall.

The piece, written for orchestra and two voices (bass-baritone and boy soprano) by Scott Eyerly and called Arlington Sons, recalls a true story – an afternoon a few years ago when a father showed his son the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

It turns out that the bass-baritone in this performance, David Pittsinger, and I went to college together (both of us surviving Charles Smith‘s Form and Analysis class at UConn at the same time – though I suspect David probably fared better than I did).  It also turns out that the piece is somewhat auto-biographical: David was the father that afternoon showing his son the tomb and the guards and the ceremony.  He told me over the phone this past weekend that it was when he was singing the role of Emile de Becque in South Pacific at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House that he took his son Richard (the other s0loist in this weekend’s premiere) to Arlington.  It was then that he got the idea of commissioning the piece.

From this interview from December 2010, we find out why:

Washington DC is a special place for me. My father was a guard at The Tomb For the Unknown Soldier, so it was always a special place to take us.

His father (also named Richard) was a member of the Third United States Infantry Regiment and stood guard from 1952 to 1954, ten years or so before David was born and he passed away in December, 1996 a few years before David’s son was born.

The Tomb of the Unknowns is one of the most sacred burial sites in the country.  In 1921, the Congress approved the burial of an unidentified serviceman from WWI and President Warren G. Harding officiated over the internment ceremony on Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) November 11, 1921.  Ten years later the structure that’s now there was completed and members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment have been guarding it all day, every day since July 2, 1937.

The training to be a Sentinel Guard is rigorous and the process of guarding is filled with symbolism.  There are 21 steps the guard walks “on the mat.”  At the completion of this walk, the guard faces the Tomb for 21 seconds.  The guard then turns and takes the 21 steps back to to the other side of the mat.  (21 being the number of a “21 gun salute” the highest national honor.)  The guard’s weapon is never between the guard and the Unknowns.  The guard wears no rank so as not to “out rank” those being guarded.  And so on.

This is what David’s father did and this is what David showed his son Richard.  What David wanted to show his son was the inspiration for the piece.

Arlington Sons took about 18 months for Eyerly to complete it and at present there are three settings; Piano and two voices, Piano and cello and two voices, and Orchestra and two voices.  UPMC, David said, was responsible for sponsoring the piece as an orchestral work.  It would have been impossible for that to happen without their help.  The settings, with the obvious exception of their respective instrumentation, are identical (same melodic material being sung, same number of measures overall and so on).  Through composed, with different sections (including a 21 note passacaglia) depicting conversations between father and son and asides for each on the meaning of honor and patriotism.  The father wants to teach his son who (in the beginning) doesn’t quite grasp the importance of those lessons.  As the piece progresses the son begins to realize their depth as the father ponders the meaning of his own father’s service to the country.

In speaking with David, there were times I had to steer him back to talking about himself as he spent a great deal of time (as any proud father would do) praising the many accomplishments of his son, Richard.  With what he called an “attitude of gratitude” he said he could not be more pleased with the orchestral piece or how the music finally turned out.

It was all “beautifully crafted” he said.

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