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Classical Corner Featured — 28 October 2011

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An Ives Geography

Where’re ya from?

If you can answer that without thinking, you will understand the deep attachment that Charles Ives felt for his New England roots. It filters through nearly everything he ever wrote, and some of his music depends entirely upon those associations.

If you’re not sure where you’re from, you may also be able to relate to Ives and his work. That’s because the New England Ives portrayed in his scores—and the America he celebrated there as well—was vanishing before his eyes. At its core, his music often suggests a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the passing of an age. What was best about this nation, he told us again and again, was the paradoxical combination of rugged individualism and community spirit that informed every village meeting, every Independence Day parade. He could see those small towns and singular people slipping away as new technologies and urbanization ushered in twentieth-century modernity. Like Mahler, he harbored a fierce nostalgia for the old ways of thought and life. And yet he often expressed that longing in the most wildly experimental music of his time.

Back Story: Charles Ives (1874–1954) was born in Danbury, Connecticut, where his father George was village bandmaster and church organist. George apparently encouraged his son to fool around with bitonality, tone clusters, and the like, while championing vernacular music—Civil War songs, Stephen Foster ballads, old hymn tunes—as well. When Charles entered Yale University in 1894, he carried these experiences with him to the traditional music training he encountered there. At Yale, Ives distinguished himself more as a student athlete and musician than as a scholar; he reportedly graduated with a D+ average. Ives moved to New York City at the turn of the century and worked as an insurance agent. Eventually he started his own firm, Ives & Myrick, and became quite successful in the field, introducing practices foundational to what is now called estate planning. He composed on evenings and weekends until a series of “heart attacks” (probably bouts of nervous exhaustion) gradually led him to set aside creative musical work. After 1918 he wrote very little new music, and after 1926 he stopped composing entirely. Ives seldom sought performances of his works, but by the late 1930s a small group of influential performers and composers, including pianist John Kirkpatrick and (later) conductor Leonard Bernstein, began to proselytize on his behalf. Today his music is much more widely performed. Below, we sample new releases from Hilary Hahn and Michael Tilson Thomas in addition to some old favorites.

And now, on with the geography. Ives’s Three Places in New England makes a number of overt references to specific surroundings. Like much of Ives’s output, it sometimes gives listeners a hard time. So perhaps we can profitably begin there.

“The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common,” first movement of Three Places in New England, is meant to evoke the sculptural monument commemorating the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first company of black soldiers in the Union Army, and their white commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw. You may have seen the movie Glory, which tells their story. The regiment was formed in 1862, and in July 1863, in an assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, fully half the troops were lost, along with their commander.

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, Boston

Ives once wrote, “I think there must be a place in the soul all made of tunes . . . tunes of long ago.” He loved old songs. Yet his technique of quoting them in this piece is anything but straightforward. Like sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who created a sense of space in his sculpture of the regiment by presenting the most distant figures in faint outline, the nearer ones in partial relief, and the closest, including Shaw on horseback, in fuller profile, so Ives presents gestures and tunes in varying levels of audibility and recognizability. You hear some fully-shaped phrases and some fragments that are little more than wisps in the background. The main melody in the first violins is a patchwork based on motives that could be drawn from three or four songs: Stephen Foster’s plantation tunes “Old Black Joe” and “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” or the Civil War songs “Marching Through Georgia” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” Just in case you’ve forgotten, here’s what “The Battle Cry of Freedom” sounds like, courtesy of Douglas Jimerson and the Federal City Brass Band:

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The music unfolds very slowly. Here are its opening moments:

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You might feel that Ives is depicting the troops’ long march south to battle, often stalled by political bickering over how (and whether) to utilize African American soldiers. But I think Ives is more concerned with memories: with his thoughts and feelings about that group’s struggle and their ultimate place in history. To express this, Ives quoted bits and pieces of familiar old American songs, placing them in a modernist setting that emphasized their nostalgic qualities, their “pastness.” It’s like placing antique collectables in your Danish-modern living room. And yet, as Ives sits and ruminates (we can easily imagine him parked on a bench near the monument), these men and their story live again: they are “present” for the composer, and by extension for us.

The first sounds you hear from the orchestra aren’t any of those old songs exactly. What you hear is a falling, then rising minor third. The violins pick up that motive and extend it. This falling-and-rising-third motive is part of “Marching Through Georgia” (“hurrah! hurrah!” etc.). It may be the most familiar part of “Old Black Joe” (“I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low”). And it appears in slightly more complex form in the “Battle Cry of Freedom” and in “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” (“Down in de cornfield, Hear dat mournful sound”). This is how Ives starts to develop it:

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That elemental, somber motive unites these tunes and bits of tune and helps Ives fashion a new melody that is all of them, and none of them. Gradually other things drift in and out: you hear a distant drum beat, a kind of ghostly marching cadence that eventually helps build the movement to its climax. And you’ll hear longer, more recognizable phrases of the songs toward the end, as if through the experience of the music, a memory had come into stronger focus. Finally the “Battle Cry” almost emerges:

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“Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut,” the second movement of Three Places, is a lot more straightforward. General Israel Putnam was a hero of the American Revolutionary War. Ives’s tribute imagines a child wandering off from a July 4 picnic and re-imagining the tumult of Putnam’s 1778–79 winter camp. It features dozens of old American tunes, front and center, no disguises, although they fly past rather quickly. At times, Ives creates the effect of two different bands marching past one another, each playing a different march at a different tempo. It’s great fun even if you’re no longer a nine-year-old.

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The Housatonic River, Connecticut

“The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” third of the Three Places, is Ives at his most impressionistic. In his Memos, bits of writing he did to explain his music to people who showed some interest, Ives talked about how he came to create this piece:

We walked in the meadows along the river, and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colors, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember.

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The poetry is by Robert Underwood Johnson. And yes, that is Ives’s adaptation of a real hymn tune, one known variously as Dorrance, Talmar, or Chester. He also uses it in his Fourth Symphony.

Before we call it a day, we should explore at least two other places in Ives’s special geography. One would be Concord, Massachusetts, home of so many great American thinkers in the nineteenth century. There was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who got Transcendentalism up and running, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May. Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord and became one of Emerson’s students. Counting the two Alcotts as one, each of these figures gets a movement in Ives’s monumental “Concord” Piano Sonata.

Ives himself published a booklet, Essays Before a Sonata, in which he held forth on the philosophical and aesthetic bases of this piece. Clearly Ives had thought long and hard about the essential qualities of these people. It makes for dense reading, but it doesn’t necessarily shed direct light on the music. As he wrote,

We won’t try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with much besides the memory of that home under the elms—the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day—though there may be an attempt to catch something of that common sentiment . . . a conviction in the power of the common soul which . . . may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its transcendentalists.

In other words, what the “Concord” Sonata gives us is a window into the inner life of Charles Ives himself, who fervently wished that he could have known Emerson and Thoreau and the Alcotts, and who feared that few of their kind would surface in the twentieth century. Here is Hawthorne, whom Ives thought of as “so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical—so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic”:

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And here is how he imagined the Alcott household, warmly human yet striving ever upward (to the remembered strains of Beethoven):

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In 1996 composer Henry Brant arranged and orchestrated the whole “Concord” sonata as A Concord Symphony. The San Francisco Symphony, under adventurous music director Michael Tilson Thomas, has just released a superb new recording of it. Here’s how that same passage from “The Alcotts” sounds when played by an orchestra:

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Ives kept a summer home in Connecticut, but he lived and worked in New York City from 1898 on. New York became the nexus of his business, personal, and musical struggles. It is not surprising that he left us some vibrant postcards of that place as well. One of my favorites is Central Park in the Dark, which makes for good Halloween music and reminds us that ragtime was just as likely to lodge in Ives’s ear as a hymn tune.

Finally, from Susan Graham, here’s a tiny Ives song called “Ann Street.” It’s a setting of a poem from the January 12, 1921 New York Herald, honoring the smallest street in Manhattan.

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(Broadway)

Quaint name
Ann Street,
width of same,
ten feet.
Barnums mob Ann Street,
far from obsolete.

Narrow, yes.
Ann Street,
but business,
both feet.

(Nassau crosses Ann Street.)

Sun just hits
Ann Street,
then it quits-
Some greet!
Rather short,
Ann Street…

 

Favorite and New Recordings of Charles Ives’s Music, with an addendum

Ives: Concord Sonata; Songs. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano. Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano. Warner Classics 2564 60297-2. CD, 2004.

Ives: Symphony No. 2; Central Park in the Dark, The Unanswered Question, Hallowe’en, The Gong on the Hook and Ladder, others. New York Philharmonic. Leonard Bernstein, conductor. Deutsche Grammophon 429 220-2. CD, 1990.

Charles Ives: An American Journey. (Songs and orchestral works, including Three Places in New England.) Thomas Hampson, baritone. San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. RCA Red Seal 09026-63703-2. CD, 2002.

Ives/Brant: Concord Symphony. w/ Copland: Organ Symphony. San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor. SFS Media 0038. CD/SACD, 2011.

Ives: Four [Violin] Sonatas. Hilary Hahn, violin. Valentina Lisitsa, piano. Deutsche Grammophon B0016082-02. CD, 2011.

Postscript: I should do more than just mention Hahn’s terrific new recording of the four Ives violin sonatas. They’re not as “geographical” as the works discussed above, but they’re Ivesian nonetheless. Check out this feverish depiction of a revival meeting, from Sonata No. 2:

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Hahn maintains a lively YouTube channel, incidentally, and she recently posted an extended conversation with Ives biographer Jan Swafford. (No official clips from the CD itself are yet available, alas.) Here’s the link:


 
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Lawrence Schenbeck

Lawrence Schenbeck lives in Atlanta Georgia, is into high-end and has a doctorate in music performance and literature. "I have spent most of my grownup years either teaching, conducting, or writing about music. A lot of that writing was directed at other professionals, but some was meant for civilians. I always tried not to sound pompous (that was hard) and not to condescend to my readers. Back in the days when I gave pre-concert lectures for the Atlanta Symphony, I would invariably meet audience members whose knowledge of concert music far exceeded mine in certain respects. Whether you're casually exploring classical music or passionately committed to it, I hope this column will be useful."

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