Hearing History: The Dead March from Saul

“Lincoln’s Funeral,” Philadelphia / taken by Ridgeway (i.e. Ridgway) Glover (loc)

Ever read an account of a Civil War era funeral and seen the reference to the “Dead March”? That is typically a reference to an instrumental march from George Frederic Handel’s oratorio Saul. Written in 1738, it was part of a published collection of Handel’s music around the turn of the 19th Century which led to its use at British state funerals, including Lord Nelson (1805) and the Duke of Wellington (1852).

The “Dead March” comes from Act III of the oratorio and sets the scene for the funeral rite pieces, portraying the mourning of King Saul and his son, Jonathan. The oratorio (sometimes performed as an opera) is based on the Biblical accounts of the Israel’s first king as he struggled for power, faith, and to overcome fierce jealousy. Saul and his heir die in battle, leaving David to mourn their deaths and become the second king of Israel.

During the American Civil War, the funeral march was heard at some of the most prominent public mourning scenes, including President Lincoln’s funeral, possibly at the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery, and “Stonewall” Jackson’s funeral. It wasn’t just used for scenes of national mourning. Some residents in Richmond remembered frequently hearing the “Dead March” as more and more common soldiers’ remains were sent to ever-growing cemeteries. Soldiers also wrote about hearing the sad tune before military executions, adding to the solemnity of the scene.

Here’s a version of the music, played by Royal Air Force Brass and Wind Bands. (Hearing it with brass and wind instruments is probably closer to how it would have been during the Civil War, instead of performed with strings or an organ.)

“How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” 2 Samuel: 1:27

7 Responses to Hearing History: The Dead March from Saul

  1. Extremely moving. I listened to this early on a Sunday morning, in the darkness before the dawn. Thank you.

  2. Absolutely brilliant! What did “they” hear? See? Enjoy? Laugh at? Mourn? I watched “Gangs of New York” last night and had forgotten the fireworks”en tableaux” and the illumination with all the candles in the windows at Five Points. Give me more! Give me more!!

    1. Thanks for adding this! I also saw some notes that it was played at George Washington’s funeral and Winston Churchill’s funeral, too.

  3. It was also played as a slow March by the military at the funeral of Barbados 4th Prime Minister on July 14th.

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