Few things capture the idea of unity better than pipers.
The only thing stronger or more resounding than the notes they play are messages they convey. No matter the distance, pipers from all over the world come together at a certain time in each local timezone to form a constant vigil. A vigil that puts into music all of the emotions that cannot be expressed in words.
The shattering heartbreak of loss and the unbridled joy of victory…the pain of old wounds and the relief of finally returning home…and the memories. Memories of triumph in the most desperate of circumstances and memories of those who will never return home live on forever, echoing through the air with each note.
On May 8, 2020, we celebrate 75 years since World War II came to a close in Europe and pipers the world over will be commemorating the event with a tune composed specifically for this special occasion. “Battle’s O’er” and “VE 75 Years” will be played by each piper starting at 3:00p.m. local time. Leading the effort will be pipers stationed at the four tallest peaks in the United Kingdom; however, this is just the beginning. Pipers in Cape Town, the Red Square in Moscow, the Bridge over the River Kwai, as well as concentration camps across Germany and Poland join in the tribute. Thousands of pipers of all races, backgrounds, and levels of expertise from all over the world will round out the group, carrying the tunes along hour after hour.
Traditionally played by pipers at the end of a battle, “Battle’s O’er” or “When the Battle is Over” has a history that is difficult to distinguish from legend. According to Adam Sanderson as posted in the Bobdunsire Forums, it is believed that this was an older tune rearranged by William Robb and paired with words adapted from the poet, Thomas Moore. Regardless of its vague beginnings or conflicting lyrics, the mood of “Battle’s O’er” remains a melancholy one.
To mark this year’s incredible milestone, Pipe Major Roger Baynes of the City of Norwich Pipe Band, wrote “VE 75 Years.” A brand new tune, it captures the loss, respect, and gratitude of those who sacrificed so much. This year and every year after, it will serve as another reminder of all we have to be grateful for and the incredible cost it demanded.
Just before 3:00, at 2:55p.m. buglers/trumpeters/cornet players will precede the pipers with the “Last Post,” a traditional tune whose role had changed greatly since its first publication in the 1790s. As reported in a November 2015 article by the BBC, “The Story of the Last Post,” this piece of music was once played in British military camps as what we would think of as an alarm today. A trumpet or bugle would play a distinctive call to the soldiers signaling the beginning of the day, meals, and so on. The Last Post was played at the end of the day after the last sentry was inspected and the base was declared secure for the night.
During this time period, it was usually the military bandsmen that would play for a soldier’s funeral; however, these men were not required to travel overseas. Therefore, around the 1850s, the regimental bugler began playing the “Last Post” to commemorate the fallen on foreign shores.
The BBC article goes on to explain how over the next half-century, the public became more and more familiar with the practice and it became tradition to play the “Last Post” at war memorial dedications. The tune’s recognition and influence continued to spread as it was played for the commemoration of so many lost during World War I, and it was around this time that civilians also began playing the piece in tribute. This final shift carried the tune from a place solely within the military to a form of remembrance recognized and respected by people of every nation, regardless of which side of the conflict they were on.
Today the “Last Post” has become a symbol of the unified understanding of sacrifice across nations…across cultures…across beliefs. This also makes it the perfect preface to “Battle’s O’er” and “VE 75 Years.” While these heroes heard their final call too soon, their sacrifices will not be forgotten. That call did not signal the security of one military camp, but the homes and livelihoods of people the world over.
It’s true that many of us do not have the patience, lungs, and/or chops to play “Battle’s O’er” or “VE 75 Years” on the bagpipes; however, we are still invited to take part in this solemn celebration. At 3:00p.m. we can all raise a glass to join in the toast to those who sacrificed everything to give us the freedom we enjoy today. The words are simple, but their meaning is transcendent…