Saturday’s Special Ceremony For a Special Bugle Call

On most days, a passerby at Arlington National Cemetery might hear the singular call of taps echoing from one corner of the cemetery or another, among the rows of white gravestones.

But just after noon on Saturday, something remarkable happened: The stillness gave way to the plaintive calls of hundreds of distinct brass voices, the familiar notes rising from every acre of the sprawling grounds.

About 200 buglers and trumpeters gathered to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the composing of Taps – that somber sound played daily to mark the end of the day at military bases around the world and the melancholy sounds that has become part of military funerals.

The call is 24 notes long, a simple line of music that lasts only a matter of seconds. But taps, dubbed the national song of remembrance, has become one of the most recognized and evocative melodies in American culture.

Taps as we know it was created on a sweltering July night in 1862, at Harrison’s Landing, Va., where Union Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield and his brigade were in camp after the brutal Seven Days Battles.

In the wake of violence that claimed the lives of more than 600 of his soldiers, Butterfield decided to honor his men by revising the traditional infantry call to “extinguish lights,” used to signal the end of the day. Butterfield felt the music, borrowed from the French, was too formal and ornate for its purpose.

So he lengthened some notes and shortened others — simple revisions that stripped the music of its pomp and fanfare. Butterfield’s brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, sounded the new call for the first time that night.

A short time later, taps was used at a funeral for a cannoneer. The captain presiding over the funeral decided to substitute the call for the traditional firing of three volleys, fearful that the enemy would hear the muskets and think the battle had resumed.

Instead, he had his bugler sound the call and it caught on.

By 10 a.m. Saturday, onlookers filled the sunny center of Arlington’s Old Amphitheater, high on a hill overlooking the monuments and landmarks of Washington. Buglers circled the perimeter, men and women of all ages, instruments in hand. They were clad in formal attire from different chapters of history — modern and historical military uniforms, Boy Scout uniforms, police uniforms.

Together, they became one voice during the first mass sounding of taps, and then a chorus of harmonized instruments during the second. The notes soared, strong enough to drown even the sound of a low-flying jet overhead.

The calls came rolling over the hills in gentle rounds, each one slightly different, reflecting the subtle variations of instruments and their owners.

For several minutes, the place was overwhelmed by the sound. Then the last, faint notes dissolved in the soft afternoon breeze, and quiet fell again.

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