Weil' auf mir [1'48]
Ich grolle nicht [3'33]
Du alte Mutter [2'04]
Where the eagle [1'30]
Ann Street Quaint name – [1'24]
Charles Ives’s work as a pioneering polytonalist is perhaps better remembered today than his song output, but throughout his long composing life his most personal musical expressions are to be found in what may best be called the genre of the ‘art song’. These range from traditional ‘lieder’ (setting such familiar poets as Heinrich Heine and Nikolaus Lenau), through English-language ‘songs of the period’ (Kipling, Keats, Bulwer-Lytton), to pioneering ‘pop songs in the modern idiom’, often to texts of Ives’s own devising. All show a degree of craftsmanship which makes one wonder why many of these songs are not better known.
Ives admitted to a deep mistrust of singers—their insistence on ‘interpreting’ any given score frequently, he felt, betrayed its composer’s intentions: not so with Gerald Finley and Julius Drake. These peformances perfectly encapsulate a lost world, transporting the listener back to a world where a ‘sentimental ballad’ could happily share the stage with a pastiche on the ‘Battle Cry for Freedom’.
This is Gerald Finley’s first solo recital recording.
Ives wrote songs through his entire creative life – from Slow March for the funeral of the family cat (probably 1887) to In the Mornin’ (1930), a setting of the Negro spiritual Give me Jesus!. This aspect of his art brings us closer than any other to his emotional core. In all he composed around two hundred songs – far more than the famous collection of 114 Songs he published privately in 1922. The following brief notes give the dating of each song as recorded in 114 Songs, but these are frequently at variance with the compositional history, which I also outline. A significant number of new songs was composed in 1920–21 for inclusion in the volume; but equally important is the large number which Ives arranged and adapted from works in other genera which had always had a ‘hidden’ song basis.
In fact, many of Ives’s songs began life as ‘songs without words’ – suggested by a specific text, and setting that text, but as purely instrumental pieces for a chamber ensemble, with one instrument taking the voice part. ‘The principal reason for this’, Ives wrote in his autobiographical Memos, ‘was because singers made such a fuss about the intervals, time, etc. … when they were arranged later for voice and piano, they were weakened in many cases, also simplified – which I should not have done. This is no way to write a song – but it’s the way I wrote some – take it or leave it, Eddy!’
The range of style and approach in Ives’s text-setting is startling – from simple, sentimental ballads to complex and strenuous philosophical discourses, sometimes encompassing the most dissonant and virtuosic piano parts, sometimes with the accompaniment pared down to an almost minimalist phrase-repetition. Even those composed in a superficially conventional or ‘polite’ tonal idiom usually contain harmonic, rhythmic or accentual surprises somewhere – because the vocabulary of the late-Romantic Lied (though it was a genre he well understood) was eventually inadequate for the way Ives felt poetry, and for what he was impelled to say about poetry in music.
A Song – For Anything (1892) was classed by Ives as a ‘Sentimental Ballad’; he claimed it was an illustration ‘of how inferior music is inclined to follow inferior words’ and vice versa. Its three verses are in fact three different texts – one a sentimental love poem, one a student apostrophe to Yale, and earliest of all (and best, according to Ives) a religious homily, originally sung in church as a kind of hymn. (Ives placed this text last in 114 Songs; in this recording, it is sung first.) The gentle, ardent When Stars are in the Quiet Skies (1891) has words by Lord Bulwer-Lytton. It was probably arranged in 1893 from a song of two years earlier, to a different text.
Memories: (A) Very Pleasant; (B) Rather Sad (1897) is quite a virtuoso performance. In the first section (marked ‘as fast as it will go’) Ives evokes the excitement of a night at the opera (including whistling), while the second is a concentrated exercise in nostalgia – and in the power of a simple tune (including humming). Berceuse, dated 1900, was in fact adapted about 1903 from a setting of the German text Wiegenlied, famous as ‘Brahms’s Lullaby’. A rapt meditation, its tonal shading might be felt too fine and sensitive for a conventional lullaby. There is nothing conventional about The Cage (1906), inspired by watching a pacing leopard in the menagerie at Central Park. The music that resulted became ‘In the Cage’, the first movement of Ives’s Set for Theatre Orchestra; this song version was made afterwards.
During his years of study at Yale University under Horatio Parker, Ives became acquainted, like any aspiring young American composer of his generation, with the standard Austro–German repertoire, including the Lieder of such song-composers as Brahms, Cornelius, Schumann and Franz. Their example inspired him to a number of German-language songs of his own, which he thought well enough of to print as part of 114 Songs. Of these songs, the beautiful Heine setting Ich grolle nicht, on a poem that Schumann had set in Dichterliebe, was composed by the end of March 1898. Du alte Mutter (1900) sets a German translation of a poem from the Norwegian, which had also been made the basis of a song by Edvard Grieg.
Feldeinsamkeit, though also dated 1900, was actually composed by November 1897. Brahms set this poem, by Hermann Allmers, as his Op 86 No 2, but Ives’s treatment is one of his most ravishing songs. Ives remembered with pride the established composer George W Chadwick’s visit to Horatio Parker’s Yale class: hearing Ives play over this setting, Chadwick said it was as good a song as Parker could write and almost as good as the Brahms, and composed from an ‘almost opposite approach … for the active tranquillity of the outdoor beauty of nature is harder to express than just quietude’. Weil’ auf mir (1902) is a slightly later evocation of the German Lied style, to a poem by Lenau that had been set by Robert Franz. The expansive, resonant Élégie, setting a poem by Louis Gallet that had been set by Massenet, is a parallel evocation of French chanson, dating from 1901.
Walking is dated 1902 (but it may be earlier); the words are by Ives. This is an important song in his development, somewhat experimental in its evocations of church bells and different rhythmic pulses over the regular ‘walking’ metre. The central piano interlude depicts a funeral in the valley while a dance goes on at a roadhouse higher up. The act of walking itself is seen as a symbol of the course of life.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that in the first decade of the twentieth century Ives composed three Rudyard Kipling songs, one of which was Tolerance, a setting from about 1906 of lines from Kipling’s poem The Fires. But Kipling was notoriously difficult about copyright. Ives had first heard the lines quoted in a lecture by President Hadley at Yale, and he incorporated the song into an ensemble piece called A Lecture by President Arthur Twining Hadley. When he came to publish Tolerance in 114 Songs the words were described as a quotation in Hadley’s lecture, without identifying the author. Thoreau (1915), uses quotations from the Transcendentalist philosopher as its text, and is an arrangement of material from the finale of Ives’s ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata, itself a more extended portrait of Thoreau and his contemporaries.
The Things our Fathers Loved (1917), subtitled ‘(and the greatest of these was Liberty)’, is one of Ives’s greatest songs, one of his crucial statements about what his music is about, and typically woven from a veritable tapestry of quotations of tunes, including ‘Dixie’, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, ‘The Battle Cry of Freedom’ and ‘In the sweet Bye and Bye’. The date of composition is significant: Ives thought it was important to remember the values he felt were enshrined in these melodies, as America entered the Great War. Another and more explicit ‘war song’ from 1917 – though entirely un-warlike in character – is Tom Sails Away. Here the hallucinatory textures create a haze of childhood memories, shadowed by the consciousness of war in Europe. The popular song ‘Over there’ is referred to in the music, along with ‘Araby’s daughter’ and Ives’s great favourite, ‘Columbia, the Jewel of the Ocean’. The elegiac close suggests that the kid brother who has enlisted and taken ship for ‘over there’ will not return.
Serenity (1919), to a text by John Greenleaf Whittier, was arranged from a sketch of an ensemble ‘song’ earlier than May 1911 and may well be connected to Ives’s projected Whittier Overture, one of his ‘Men of Literature’ series. He suggested this trance-like piece was best sung as a unison chant, over its repetitive chiming accompaniment figure. The words of Like a Sick Eagle (1920) are the first five lines of John Keats’s sonnet On Seeing the Elgin Marbles. This is an arrangement of an ensemble ‘song without words’ sketched about 1906, though Ives seems to have associated the music with the time when his wife Harmony was hospitalized for termination of pregnancy in April 1909. The ‘weak and dragging’ descending figures, in accompaniment and voice, close on an ambiguous upward glance. The ‘rather short’ Ann Street (1921) paints an image of a hectic little thoroughfare between Broadway and Nassau in downtown Manhattan, and its endemic traffic congestion. Ives read the poem in the New York Herald for 12 January 1921.
Remembrance (1921) was written in 1906 as a ‘song without voice’ for cornet and chamber ensemble called The Pond. Ives once called it an ‘obvious picture’, and it is an elegy for his father – buried at Wooster Cemetery in his home town of Danbury, Connecticut (where the pond in question lies) – whose expressive cornet-playing was always an abiding memory. The cornet has the main melody, and Ives put words to it on the score. In 114 Songs he gave these words to the singer. He also added a superscription – two lines by Wordsworth: ‘The music in my heart I bore / Long after it was heard no more.’
The text of Swimmers (1921), from a poem by Louis Untermeyer, appeared in the July 1915 issue of Yale Review. Untermeyer, who had musical training, met Ives in about 1944 and was enthusiastic about his vehement and virtuosic setting: ‘It got immediately from the very first notes of the piano, the surge of the sea, the welling up of the waves and a great sense of movement. He took just part of the poem. All that I tried to do in words he was doing in sound.’ In contrast to the untamed sea, The New River (1921) paints a dissonant waterscape polluted by the din of modern man. Ives wrote this first in 1906 as a wordless ‘ensemble song’ with the title The Ruined River, then – after a visit in 1911 to one of his favourite rivers, which prompted the angry scrawl ‘Gas machine kills Housatonic!’ – into a piece for chorus and chamber orchestra, and finally into a song.
‘1, 2, 3’ (1921) seems to have originated in a 1906 ‘take-off’ for chamber orchestra, entitled Rube trying to walk 2 and 3!!. ‘Written as a joke, and sounds like one! … at 2.45 A.M.’, Ives wrote on the sketch. This music became the basis of his scherzo Over the Pavements, and in 1921 he adapted it for voice and piano in 114 Songs. In this rhythmic and metric study of two-against-three, the 3/8 time signature is continually subverted by the two-quaver figures in the bass, which tend to walk all over the bar lines. (The song might be regarded as a comic counterpart to Walking.)
West London (1921) is a piercing setting of a Matthew Arnold poem on the effects of poverty. The music stems from Ives’s never-finished Matthew Arnold Overture, another of his series of ‘Men of Literature’ overtures (of which only the Robert Browning Overture was ever completed). In the final bars of the song Ives quotes, off key, the hymn tune ‘There is a Fountain filled with Blood’.
In 1908 Ives and his wife Harmony took a Sunday morning walk along the Housatonic River near Stockbridge. Ives recalled that they ‘heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the river bed, and the colours, the running water, the banks and elm trees were something that one would always remember’. He made a musical sketch, trying to capture this powerful impression of mist and waters, and in 1911 he worked this into a short-score draft. It became the finale, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, of his First Orchestral Set, Three Places in New England. In 1921 Ives recast the music for voice and piano, to words by Robert Underwood Johnson, in order to include it in 114 Songs. The Side Show, though dated 1921, originated in a piece Ives composed for a Yale Fraternity show in 1896, based on the then-popular song by Pat Rooney Snr, ‘Are You the O’Riley?’. It’s a kind of stumbling waltz, since it describes an old horse pulling a merry-go-round.
Yellow Leaves is one of Ives’s last songs, written in 1923; it exquisitely renders an autumn landscape. By contrast The Greatest Man (1921) is a folksy, affectionate setting of a poem Ives read in the New York Evening Sun for 7 June 1921. Like its author, Ives had idolized his father, so the boy’s sentiments struck a ready chord. Where the Eagle (1900) is a brief, visionary song concerned with the mysteries of death. Slugging a Vampire (1902) was originally composed to Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tarrant Moss, but as with Tolerance Kipling’s agreement was not forthcoming. So in 114 Songs Ives left most of the voice-part blank, then wrote his own text so the song could be reprinted in a collection of 19 Songs in 1935.
Charlie Rutlage is undated in 114 Songs – but the text comes from the 1920 edition of Cowboy Songs collected by John A Lomax. It was presumed anonymous at that time, but in the 1938 edition Lomax ascribed it to one D J ‘Kid’ O’Malley. The cowboy heaven is one of Ives’s many variations on musical evocations of the afterlife. But the stylistic range of this song far outstrips the normal requirements of a cowboy ballad, with its fanfares, clusters played with fists, and rhythmicized speech.
Finally, General William Booth Enters into Heaven (1914) is one of Ives’s supreme achievements in the field of song. Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931) made his name as the writer (and pyrotechnical performer) of a modern ballad poetry whose strenuous rodomontade established an ‘American rhythm’ dealing with indigenous and contemporary subjects. He gained widespread acclaim with the publication in 1913 of his first collection, of which General William Booth Enters into Heaven, in memory of the founder of the Salvation Army, was the title poem.
Ives seems to have come across the text in a review of Lindsay’s poetry published in the New York Independent on 12 January 1914, since he sets only the thirty-one lines quoted in that review. The poem’s musical possibilities – and also no doubt the fervour of its Gospel religion – clearly fired him, and he had soon composed a setting (he called it a ‘glory trance’) for voice and piano. This was not published in his collection of 114 Songs, maybe because the possibility of using larger forces was present from the beginning. Ives made some sketches towards a brass band version, and a male chorus form. In 1934 the composer John J Becker, one of Ives’s staunchest admirers, arranged General Booth for bass voice, chorus and chamber orchestra, in which form it has become best known. But it remains a stunning tour de force in the original song version.
Calum MacDonald © 2005