Composers Datebook®

Jay Ungar and Roy Harris meet Ken Burns

Composers Datebook - April 14, 2024


Fiddler Jay Ungar wrote a melancholy tune in 1982 and titled it Ashokan Farewell. It reflected, he wrote, the wistful sadness he felt at the conclusion of a week-long, summer-time fiddle and dance program in the Catskill Mountains at Ashokan Field Campus of the State University of New York.

“I was embarrassed by the emotions that welled up whenever I played it,” Ungar recalled. It’s written in the style of a Scottish lament or Irish air, and Ungar says he sometimes introduced it as “a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.”

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns heard a recording of Ungar’s tune and asked if he could use it as the theme for his PBS documentary series, The Civil War. In that context, the sadness in Ashokan Farewell takes on a whole different meaning.

The Civil War has inspired a number of other American composers, among them Roy Harris, whose Symphony No. 6 (Gettysburg) was premiered on this date in 1944 by the Boston Symphony. It was written on commission from the Blue Network, the radio predecessor of the American Broadcasting Company. Each of the symphony’s movements is prefaced by a quotation from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Music Played in Today's Program

Jay Ungar (b. 1946): Ashokan Farewell; Jay Ungar, fiddle; Newman-Oltman Guitar Duo; MusicMasters 67145

Roy Harris (1898-1979): Symphony No. 6 (Gettysburg); Pacific Symphony; Keith Clark, conductor; Varese-Sarabande 47245

On This Day


  • 1933 - American electronic music composer Morton Subotnik, in Los Angeles


  • 1759 - German-born British composer George Frideric Handel, 74, in London. He is buried in Westminster Abbey (see April 20).

  • 1843 - Austrian composer and violinist Josef Lanner, 42, in Oberdöbling

  • 1915 - Russian composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin (Gregorian date: April 27)


  • 1789 - Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 26 (Coronation), at the Royal Saxon Court in Dresden, with the composer as soloist. Mozart performed this concerto again in Frankfurt on October 15, 1790, at the festivities surrounding the coronation of Emperor Leopold II — hence its nickname.

  • 1883 - Delibes: opera Lakmé, in Paris at the Opéra-Comique

  • 1932 - Hindemith: Philharmonic Concerto in Berlin, for the jubilee of the Berlin Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting

  • 1944 - Roy Harris: Symphony No. 6, by the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky conducting

  • 1951 - Cowell: Hymn and Fuguing Tune No. 3, for strings, in Los Angeles;

  • 1967 - Penderecki: oratorio Dies Irae, in Krakow

  • 1967 - Webern: Three Pieces for Orchestra, posthumously, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting

  • 1972 - Paul Chihara: Grass for double-bass and orchestra, at Oberlin College, Ohio

  • 1972 - Sessions: Concertino for small orchestra, in Chicago

  • 1977 - Leon Kirchner: opera Lily (after Saul Bellow's novel, Henderson, the Rain King), in New York City

  • 1996 - Zwilich: Jubilation for orchestra, by the University of Georgia (Athens) orchestra, Yoel Levi conducting

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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